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Why I Don't Backchain a Retrieve

Backchaining is one of the best ways to learn a behavior. When you backchain, you start with the end behavior and gradually add one more piece before it. That way you're always moving into the next behavior that is even more well-known, and well-reinforced!

With a retrieve, the last part of the formal chain involves the dog sitting in front of us, holding their dumbbell with a firm and still grip, and waiting calmly until we touch the item and verbally cue the release.


The most common way to teach this formal retrieve is to start with that sit and hold in front of us. Building from biting the dumbbell you hold (and releasing it on our verbal marker!), to holding it slightly longer and longer over time. And then starting with the dog taking the item in a stand and letting them move into that nice sit and front while holding it!


But I don't do it that way even though I love backchaining!


The hold is the hardest part of the retrieve. And it's pretty darn boring too. Then the second hardest part of that hold is being able to go from a stand to a sit without dropping or mouthing it!


I wait to teach those pieces until the end.

After I've already built up a strong reinforcement history with their dumbbell and have a dog who just can't wait to get it!


When people hear this, they often think I'm building the retrieve out of play. They imagine a dog grabbing an item and doing all sorts of behaviors they don't want attached to it such as pouncing on it, flinging it in the air, chewing, etc!


It doesn't have to be that way.

I can build a formal retrieve while still focusing on moving with it as one of my early goals.


Technically you could look at this route as a backchained behavior of putting the item in my hand. (Or in many cases, I actually start with "cleanup"; put the thing in the thing!) But since there are a lot of earlier foundation steps that lead up to that goal, I don't find it helpful to think of it that way.


Step 3: Lift Off

Ok, let's jump right into looking at how I might teach a dog to retrieve! Since I don't want this post to go on and on forever, let's assume you have already taught the dog to target the item in your hand (step 1), and have progressed to the dog biting the object no matter where you hold it (step 2).


At this point, I want to take that item to the floor and work on it giving me a "tiny hop," as Shirley Chong would say! I'm looking for the dog to lower their head, bite the item, and lift it just the tiniest bit from the floor!


And of course, I'm watching to prevent behaviors I don't like such as pawing or biting the ends. I can leave my hand right there on the end to try and encourage a nice bite, or even put the dumbbell in a box so the dog can't easily paw it!


This is an example of teeny tiny dumbbell hops as Ginny bites the item on the ground!

And because I can't resist an opportunity to brag on my cat, here is Freya kitty making her pencil levitate!


At the end of this stage, I'm looking for the dumbbell to levitate several inches. Some dogs will lift their full head and they get bonus points! If they lift it about 4 full inches that's enough for this stage!


Step 4: Move! Aim!

This is where the fun begins. Once the dog is lifting the item, I'll start working on a target to aim for and to encourage movement towards.


My ultimate goal is my hand. Shoving it in my hand becomes my informal delivery with a "formal retrieve."


At first, I'll have my hand right there to simply catch the item. I'll make it my job to catch it, the dog is just getting used to my hand being there.


This is an example of Chilli learning to pick up and turn! They aren't really aiming yet, but he's doing a great job of being rewarded for those pickups and getting used to the hand being there!

For many teams, I'll start alternating reps without a dumbbell to practice the dog coming towards me to do a chin rest or hand touch. This reinforces my hand as a target to aim for.


In this example I'm working on Ginny doing a chin rest to my hand in between working with the dumbbell:

Clean up!

And for some dogs, this movement is super tough. They might even backup once they have the dumbbell in their mouth! (Surprisingly common!)


For these dogs, I'll often use a target other than my hand. A bucket, or even a platform, can work as very clear, big targets.


This is my go-to route for my "difficult" dogs!


For this technique, I'll start by teaching the dog to target the bucket, or platform. Nose touch the bucket and get a cookie! Do it from a cookie toss! Then I'll add the dumbbell into the picture.


My initial criteria is still the same. Make the dumbbell levitate near the bucket, I'll mark that action, and THEN I put the cookie in the bucket (or on the platform). The reward placement happening in the thing is huge in helping them to start moving with the item!!!


For dogs who back up, I'll put the dumbbell in a position where they can still backup and start to have the dumbbell land in the target!


This old video shows trying to use a box to get Cougar to think aiming thoughts and not just back up thoughts! At the time of this video I wasn't doing the targeting the bucket=cookie reps in between the dumbbell reps, but add that into your session!

And this video looks at getting more forward steps to the bucket with Ginny. She is almost at the point where I can start to get rid of the bucket and put my hand there! You'll see all those reps of targeting the bucket from a cookie toss to really reinforce aiming.

My goal with all of this is to teach the dog to love their dumbbell. How to move with their dumbbell. And how to aim with it too!


The end result is having a very clear delivery to my hand that I will use their entire career. Anytime I don't want to care about the precision of a hold and front, I'll cue an informal delivery!

Training a retrieve is one of my favorite exercises to teach. I'd love to take a look at what you're doing and problem solve with you! It's rare I'll teach two dogs the exact same way!


This upcoming session at FDSA I'm teaching TWO classes that have retrieves in it!

TEAM2 will have all these beginning stages as well as starting a hold. Plus a whole bunch more of other foundational skills for obedience.


TEAM to Open also has these retrieve skills, as well as all the formality you need to be added to it once you have both a retrieve in motion and a stationary hold!


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