Before starting her full-time writing business, Sarah worked with a top pet food company as a consultant to veterinarians conducting weekly classes on canine and feline nutrition for the doctors and staff.
Latest posts by Sarah Hansen (see all)
- Training a Labrador to Walk to Heel - March 30, 2017
- How to Stop a Dog from Excessive, Nuisance Barking - January 25, 2017
- How to Teach Your Labrador to Fetch and Retrieve - December 3, 2016
Nothing is more synonymous with the Labrador Retriever than the image of a gallant sporting dog bringing back a trophy for their master. After all “retriever” is a part of the name, so shouldn’t it come naturally to the dog?
Labs are usually hardwired to go to an object (fetch) and bring things back to their owners (retrieve). However, dogs are individuals first before they are a breed. They may decide to do things completely contrary to their ancestors.
This is why it’s better to trust in training over genetics to awaken your dog’s retrieving heritage.
Contents & Quick Navigation
Genetics of Retrieving
Most Labrador owners understand that their dog was bred to fetch and retrieve more easily than the average canine.
Labs are sporting breeds used since the early 1800s to flush birds out from hiding. They would then retrieve the bird once it was shot.
Hunters still use Labrador Retrievers in the same way today. However, many more suburban owners just enjoy the breed’s natural retrieval skills for more relaxed games of fetch or Frisbee.
Unfortunately, the retrieval instinct isn’t always dished out in equal quantities to each Labrador puppy at birth. Some owners find that their Labs are slower learners when it comes to a fun game of fetch.
Why Teach the Retrieve?
Teaching your Lab to fetch and retrieve toys is a great way to build a bond while getting out some of your pup’s pent-up energy.
Not every owner can go for a jog with their canine partner by their side. Yet, even in this busy society, most people can throw a ball and let the dog run back and forth to get some exercise.
The retrieval game is also one of the best interactive activities you can do with your dog to build communication and a deepen your bond.
This is NOT The Trained Retrieve
Before we get into the training portion of the article, I wanted to clarify that our purpose is to help you train your Lab to have a fun game of fetch.
There is also a trained retrieval method that is used in various dog sports and obedience competitions. In this retrieve, your dog gives you an object in a very specific way.
Once your Lab enjoys the fun retrieval process, you can certainly fine-tune it to comply with regulation retrievals, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Squashing the Natural Retrieve in Puppies
What if your Labrador doesn’t like to retrieve? While there are several reasons for this, one experience may have happened during their formative years.
Imagine that you’re playing with your young Labrador puppy. You throw the toy and they naturally race it down and bring it back to you!
Overjoyed at how smart they are, you continue to throw the toy over and over again. The puppy chases it with less and less enthusiasm each time. Finally, they just look at you when you throw the toy.
Many puppies naturally do some or all of the steps in the retrieve. However, the owners overdo the game so much, they grow bored.
If your puppy naturally retrieves the toy for you, make sure to not engage them in the game until they are sick of it.
Puppies have limited stamina and focus. You can easily ask them to retrieve too many times. Then, they can start to associate the game with work and not play, and may be less inclined to continue as adults.
You always want to end any game or training session with your dog wanting more. This may mean you only ask a young puppy to retrieve a few times per week for one or two tosses until they get older.
If you’re lucky enough to have your puppy naturally bring the toy to you, the last thing you want is for them to get burned out and create a negative association with the game.
Focus on Positive Training Methods
Dog training has come a long way. Trainers in the past used methods like ear pinches and forcing objects into their dog’s mouths to bring about the forced retrieve.
I don’t subscribe to these methods. While they may get results, I believe it’s at the cost of breaking down the bond between dogs and owners.
We’ve learned so much more about dog behavior and how they learn. Most dogs work very happily for rewards. Therefore, this article will focus on only positive training tactics.
Event Marker Training
You’ve probably heard of clicker training. It’s a positive reinforcement concept that uses a click to mark the moment the dog is doing what you want.
It’s like taking a snapshot of the correct behavior and then following it up with a treat. It tells the dog, “When you hear the event marker (click), that’s the behavior I’m rewarding.”
I’m a big fan of using this method. You can’t always reward your pup at the exact second when the dog is doing the desired behavior. Therefore, a sound helps you teach them to mark the event that you are rewarding.
Your dog learns that when they hear this sound, they know they did something right and a reward is coming. I personally don’t always have a clicker, so I use my voice and say “Yes!” as a marker.
I’m not going to teach event marker training in this article. There are many other sources that show how to condition your dog to associate the desired behavior with the marker sound.
I would suggest you learn this communication method with your dog first in order to make any training concept easier.
Breaking Down The Fetch and Retrieve
While it may look like one fluid motion, the fetch-and-retrieve scenario is actually a series of smaller steps that your dog must connect together.
If your Lab doesn’t naturally retrieve, it’s best to teach each segment before connecting them. If your pup does a partial retrieve, you can skip the steps they know and move your focus to the part where the action breaks down.
While we are going to explain the steps in order for simplicity’s sake, you can certainly work on these actions in whatever arrangement works best for your dog.
Before starting this training, figure out their favorite toy. This toy has now been designated as their fetch toy. They don’t get to play with it except when you’re teaching them to fetch. When you aren’t training, they don’t have access to it.
Sit Politely To Start The Game
Many dogs get very excited about their toy. The last thing you want is a huge Lab leaping for your hand with mouth gapping. Losing a finger makes the game a lot less appealing!
To teach this first step, your dog must already know the sit command. They also need to enjoy running after the toy. This will become their reward.
Please note, if you’ve already taught your dog the word “sit” means “to stay until released,” be sure to use your release word when you throw the toy to avoid confusion.
- When you bring the toy out, tell your dog to “sit.” The second that furry butt hits the ground, say “Yes!” or click to mark the action and immediately throw the toy.
- If they break the sit before you throw the toy, tuck it away behind your back. Patiently wait until the dog sits again, and then immediately reward them with the toy throw.
Your goal is to teach your pup that sitting politely means you throw the toy, and jumping like a crazed canine means it goes away.
Chase the Toy
Dogs have an ingrained drive to chase things that are running away from them. It’s how their wild cousins feed themselves. Wolves that don’t chase prey starve very quickly in the wild.
Many dogs will chase things, but won’t pick them up. For now, just reward them for chasing.
- Get a toy that they really love and play with them to get them excited about it. You can even let the dog almost grab it and then pulling it away at the last second. This builds their prey drive.
- You want the dog a bit frustrated that they can’t get the toy. They will then be more likely to get it once they have the chance.
- Then, toss the toy a short distance away. When your dog runs after it, say “Get it” and when they get to it, click or say “Yes!” and reward the with a treat.
- Ideally, your dog will run all the way to the toy. If they don’t, simply click and treat when they look at the toy. In later training sessions, make them take a few steps toward the toy before you mark the behavior with a click and treat.
- Keep progressing until they go to the toy reliably each time.
Remember, marker training is all about timing! Don’t click and treat when your dog turns away from the toy. Make sure they are going to it when you mark their action.
Pick Up the Toy
Most puppies naturally pick up things in their mouths. However, sometimes dogs are trained not to grab objects in the home and punished for putting their mouth on things.
Instead of giving puppies toys and picking up things they aren’t supposed to chew on, people instead correct puppies for using their mouth and, unknowingly, mess up a budding retriever.
If your dog has a reluctance to pick up objects, this may have happened to them.
If your Lab naturally picks up objects. Great! Simply mark the behavior with a click or “Yes!” and give them a treat in exchange for the toy.
If they don’t want to pick up the toy, here’s how you can overcome this problem.
- Simply set the toy on the ground. Whatever interest they show, however small, reward it. If your dog goes to it and puts their mouth on it, mark and treat. Even if your pup just gives it a sniff, mark and treat.
- Once your dog understands the game and learns interest with the toy equals a treat, raise the criteria.
- If before they walked up and sniffed it to get a reward, now wait for them to put their mouth on it.
- If they were already putting their mouth on it, now wait for them to pick it up.
- If they simply can’t grasp that the toy goes into their mouth when it’s on the ground, see if they will play with you when you’re holding it. Click and treat for any mouthing on the toy, then try it on the ground again once they understand that mouthing the toy means treats.
The great thing about marker training is that once your dog comprehends the concept, they will begin to offer up new behaviors when their previous actions no longer work.
Remember, this doesn’t happen overnight. You will probably have to do several training sessions.
Once your dog is routinely picking up the toy in their mouth, you can then add your command of “Fetch,” “Get it” or whatever other phrase you want to use to associate the toy being in their mouth.
Hold The Toy
Once your dog is able to pick up the toy, you can teach them to hold it in their mouth.
At first, only increase the time they have to hold it by mere seconds. You don’t want to go too fast and ask them to hold it too long. They will spit it out before you have time to mark and reward them for holding it.
- To do this, you have to gradually increase the time you mark and treat. Slowly raise the criteria between the time your dog picks it up and the time they get rewarded.
- Also, be very careful of the time you mark behavior. Remember, the click or “Yes” markers take a picture in your dog’s mind of the behavior you are rewarding.
- The dog must still be holding the toy. Don’t mark when they are in the process of spitting it out or you’re training them to drop it, not hold it.
Your goal is to slowly increase the time until your dog waits for you to mark them either verbally or with a clicker before spitting out the toy and getting a treat. Try to at least have them hold it for three to five seconds before adding the next step.
Bring The Toy
Now that your pup understands that you want them to hold the toy, it’s time for them to bring it to you.
- Begin backing away from your dog when they are holding the toy.
- You can also try calling them, but sometimes this will make them drop the toy. Your goal is to get your dog to just take that first step in your direction with the toy in their mouth.
- As soon as you see that step, mark and treat. Once your dog is doing this consistently, you can ask for two steps, then three and so forth.
- Gradually increase your distance until your Lab understands that a treat reward happens only when the toy comes back to you.
Drop The Toy
A common problem with some dogs is that they don’t want to give up their prize. You have to show them that when they release the toy, they get a treat and the game continues.
- When your dog brings the toy to you, put a treat under their nose and wait. When they open their mouth for the treat, mark the behavior and exchange the toy for the treat.
- If your dog won’t agree to the exchange, you may not have a good enough treat! Try experimenting with different tasty goodies and find a treat with a more even trade value in your dog’s mind.
- You can also try throwing the treat on the ground to give them a different focal point. Regardless of what works best, mark the second your Lab releases the toy with your voice or a clicker.
- Once your pup has given up the toy, throw it again. You want to teach them that surrendering the prize keeps the game going.
- When your dog is doing this regularly, add the “Drop it” command and reward for the same behavior. This builds an association in your dog’s mind between the command and the action.
- Eventually, as your dog learns what you want, you can phase out treats and have them simply work for the joy of chasing the toy.
Putting It Together
If you’ve kept training positive, your dog will enjoy these short sessions and begin to put the pieces together.
- Start the full scenario by asking for a polite sit.
- Throw the toy only a few feet away, release your dog, tell them to go get it and bring it to you and drop it.
- If your dog stops at a step and waits for their treat, just be patient and hold out. See if they move to the next step and connect the dots. Don’t treat too quickly. Give them time to problem solve.
- If your Labrador is still unable to put everything together, move back to where they are getting stuck and train on this part again.
Remember to go at your pup’s pacing. While it may seem like common sense to us that the same steps happen whether the toy is five feet away or ten, your dog may not make the same connection.
Once your Lab understands how to fetch and retrieve just a few feet away, gradually lengthen your throw. Try to mix up short and long retrievals so your dog learns that whatever the distance, the same principles apply.
Once they’ve mastered this concept, you can then introduce the game in new locations with different toys – always starting with short-distance retrievals. If they become confused, move back to where they where confident and build from this foundation.
Remember, repetition of the right behaviors and positive reinforcement are the necessary ingredients for building a solid retrieve.
Eventually, you can phase out the treats and just have your dog work for the joy of the game.
Help! My Labrador Doesn’t Fetch: How to Fix Problems
Here are a few common issues encountered with the fetch and retrieve, and some ideas on how to remedy them. Each dog is an individual, so you may need to enlist a trainer for tougher cases.
If Your Lab “Quits”
If you notice your dog just checks out, there are a few possible reasons.
- You may be raising your criteria too quickly. This is the most common problem. Most dog owners try to go too fast and confuse their student.
- You may be pushing your pup. You need to keep your training times short and sweet. It’s better to do four five-minute training sessions throughout the day than one long 20-minute session.
- You may not have found their motivation. Try another toy or treat to see what gives them that extra spark.
If Your Lab Plays Keep Away
Many owners mistakenly train their dogs to run away by chasing them. This is a natural game for puppies to engage in together, and it’s easy for your dog to revert to this when interacting with you.
Of course, ideally you never want to teach your Lab that it’s fun for you to chase them. However, if they have already discovered this joy, you can remedy it by showing them that coming to you is even more fun than running away.
- Encourage your dog to come toward you by running backwards or running away from them.
- Use the marker training method to mark and treat every time your dog comes to you. Most dogs will return for a yummy treat or another toy.
- Some owners even have to resort to lying down and acting silly to get their dog to come over and investigate.
- If nothing else fails, patience will win out. Just sit and wait until your dog decides to bring the toy back. If they leave it somewhere, go back, pick it up and try the training session again later.
- Above all, never chase your dog with the toy. That just reinforces how fun it is to make you run after them.
You have to discover your individual dog’s tastes. When they do come, make it such a fun party with toys, treats and verbal praise that they decide running away from you with the treat is not nearly as fun as coming back for the party.
If Your Lab Claims The Toy
Some dogs like to claim the toy by running off and lying down to chew it. They don’t understand the repetitive nature of the game.
- You can remedy this by having a second toy hidden on you. When your dog goes off with their first toy, call their name and hold up another toy.
- Your Lab will probably not bring the first toy back as they run for the second one. Of course if they do, have a huge party and treat them, then throw the second toy. If they don’t, that’s o.k. The goal here is to just get them accustomed to coming back to you for another throw.
- Once your dog runs to you and sits politely for the second toy, throw it in the opposite direction and go retrieve the first toy if they left it.
Your dog learns that running back to you after the chase gives them another chase. Eventually, you can phase out the two-toy approach and just try to entice them to come back when they still have the first toy in their mouth.
Most dogs will figure out that bringing the toy back means more chasing fun!
If Your Lab Completely Ignores You
Some dogs will run away with their prize and won’t pay any attention to you. It’s like the toy completely turns off their ears.
You can fix this by tying a rope to the toy. Remember not to throw it very far. When your pup grabs the toy and tries to race off with it, gently bring them back to you by pulling the rope.
When they come back, offer the treat. When they drop their prize, give the treat and immediately throw their toy again. This will help them learn that coming back with the toy gives them a treat and another chase.
If Your Lab Drops the Toy Before They Get To You
This is a probable sign you need to shorten your throwing distance until they figure it out.
- Try to throw the toy closer until the dog comes all the way to you.
- You can also back up a bit as your dog approaches to encourage them to walk a few more steps. Mark and treat each time they walk an extra step with the toy.
Again, only mark the behavior that you want to teach and ask for baby-step progressions. Going too fast can set back your training.
If Your Lab Doesn’t Chase the Toy
Your pup may look at you like you’re crazy for tossing that toy away. If they aren’t motivated at all to even look in the toy’s direction, you may need to find another way to entice them.
- First, try other toys. Maybe your pup is just a bit of a snob when it comes to a toy worthy of employing energy.
- If your dog doesn’t have much toy drive, you may need to use treats and toss them away from you at first.
- When your dog goes for the treat, mark the behavior and treat them again when they come to you.
- Once your pup has this treat “retrieval” mastered, add the “Get it” command when you throw the treat.
- When your Lab understands the command corresponds to the action, you can replace the treat with the toy and use the same “Get it” command.
- They should now show interest in the toy. You can now mark and reward, while upping the challenge a little each session.
Mark and treat for any interest until your Lab realizes that they must chase down the toy just like the treat.
If Your Lab Runs Past You
Most dogs won’t do this if they are coming back to a high-value treat. However, if they insist on this game, you can fix this by having them come back to you in a hallway or between two buildings where you can block them.
If you’re working with a young puppy, you can sit down by their bed. Many puppies like to take their toy back to their soft bed, and will naturally return there. Just position yourself where you know they plan to go before you throw.
If Your Lab Drops the Toy At Your Feet
Once your Lab understand the basic retrieval concept, you can do a little fine-tuning of the delivery. If you would rather have the dog drop the toy into your hand, simply ignore them when they drop it at your feet.
- Click and reward when they hold the toy in their mouth for even a second longer, or when they pick it up after dropping it.
- As they learn not to drop it until they hear your release command, you can then progress to asking them to wait for you to reach for it before dropping it into your hand.
Remember, withhold the treat and don’t throw the toy until they make a movement, however minimal, closer to the desired behavior.
If the thought of having your Labrador Retriever fail to retrieve makes you cringe, never fear! Training through this problem is actually a great way to deepen your bond together by working toward a common goal as a team.
At its heart, training is just learning how to communicate. Like any relationship, you can never do it too much!
Soon, you’ll be able to show the world that your Labrador Retriever can perform their namesake at a competency level that will do their heritage proud!