The Reluctant Retriever
While most Labradors are enthusiastic retrievers, fetching from puppyhood, occasionally a dog comes along that doesn’t naturally take to retrieving. While this can be disappointing, there is no reason you cannot teach your Lab to retrieve. You can use the same methods outlined below to encourage your Lab to retrieve to hand, rather than grab the thrown item and play catch me if you can.
While it is not necessary that your dog retrieves, it can be handy as a way to burn some of your pet’s energy off when you don’t have space or time for a run. If you intend to hunt with your Lab, retrieving is a must unless you intend to fetch the birds yourself.
Choose a quiet space within your home and put your Lab on leash. If possible use a slightly longer leash than normal. Take the item to be fetched and soak it in some chicken broth or rub a dab of something tasty such as peanut butter or fat onto the item. You want to make it as attractive as possible for your dog to encourage him to pick it up in his mouth. Labradors have an excellent sense of smell so making it smell enticing is a great way to encourage him.
Show him the item. He may try to take it from you immediately. If he does, that’s great let him take it and then have him give it back to you. Next, throw it a few feet away from you. It should be within his reach while on lead. This is where a longer than normal leash can come in handy. His natural curiosity and the attractiveness of the item should make him go and pick it up. If it doesn’t, you will need to work to make the item even more attractive to him, most likely using smells and foods he really likes. If he goes to pick it up, offer lots of praise and call him back to you.
If he carries the item back to you, he’s got the basics down and you just need to do some repetition, adding in a command like “fetch it” when you throw it. If he drops it and then comes back to you, the item isn’t attractive enough for him and you’ll need to make it more delightful. If he takes it but doesn’t come back, use the leash to gently but firmly encourage him back to your side.
Use lots of repetition, praise and attention for doing it right. Make it into a fun game for him. Once he’s reliably bringing the item back to you, you can lose the leash. For the latter start somewhere enclosed like a room with the doors shut before moving out to the yard so that you can impart the importance of bringing it back to you while you can still easily catch him.
If you are simply using fetch as a fun game and for exercise, you are unlikely to throw anything your pet doesn’t like. However, in a hunting situation some dogs will be reluctant to pick up a bird for a variety of reasons. Others will be eager to pick up the bird but far less eager to give it back. In these cases, you may need to teach a forced retrieve so that your dog knows he needs to retrieve it whether he likes it or not and whether he wishes to keep it for himself or not. This can be accomplished with some simple training tricks. For the pet owner though, fetch is likely to always be a game to be enjoyed with your dog and there is no need to take the training further.