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Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part Three

Once your partner will take a dumbbell out of your hand and hold it under a variety of circumstances, it’s time to teach him to pick it up off the ground and to introduce new objects. By the end of Part Three, your partner will be able to complete a formal Service Dog or obedience retrieve!

If you haven’t covered part one and part two of how to train a Service Dog to retrieve, check it out before continuing with part three.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Generalization
While working through the part three steps, keep in mind that dogs are unable to generalize behaviors. For example, just because a Service Dog in Training understands “down” in the kitchen doesn’t mean he’s able to perform the behavior in a new environment, like the living room or a store or outdoors, immediately. A behavior must be re-taught from the beginning in each new location or with each variation and re-proofed specifically for or in each variation or environment.

For the Service Dog retrieve, every time you introduce a new object, you need to start at the very, very beginning with nose targeting and then progress through the “take it” and “hold” steps detailed in part one and part two. After 3-5 new objects, your partner will start to quickly apply retrieve criteria (take or pick up what I present or point out to you and hold it until given a verbal cue to release) to any object required. While your partner is learning to relate formal retrieve criteria to new items and in new situations, be patient and help him learn to generalize.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Prerequisites
Before beginning part three of the “How to Train a Service Dog to Retrieve” series, your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training (SDiT) needs a thorough understanding of the concepts in part one and part two. He should immediately grab the dumbbell when it’s presented to him, be comfortable moving several feet in any direction to take the dumbbell out of your hand, and he should hold it in a variety of circumstances until given the verbal cue to release the dumbbell. He should not drop the dumbbell when its touched, while heeling, or while “staying” in any position or at a distance.

You should understand the concept of “Green Eggs and Ham” proofing, as well as the 3 Ds of dog training. Both are detailed in part two, 3 Ds at the top, and Green Eggs and Ham towards the bottom.

For a more in-depth (but truly excellent) review of the 3 Ds of dog training (duration, distance, distraction), check out this video:

Common Retrieval Seeding Kit (RSK) Items

  • Glass bottle
  • Metal food bowl
  • Spoon
  • Pen
  • Heavy card stock paper
  • Cardboard squares
  • Strips of fleece or cloth
  • Medicine bottle
  • Phone
  • Large dumbbell
  • Water bottle
  • Small book
  • Spare keys on a ring
  • Key fob
  • Leash
  • Vest
  • 12″ section of PCV/Metal Pipe
  • Wallet
  • Old Credit/ID Card
  • Empty cans

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Things You’ll Need

  • Dumbbell or Retrieving Dummy (Check out J&J for dumbbells, K9 Lifeline Design for fleece retrieving dummies)
  • Clicker
  • High-value treats (diced chicken, cheese, hot dogs)
  • Retrieval Seeding Kit (See Below)
  • Chair or steps to sit on

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Retrieval Seeding Kit
To teach a formal Service Dog or obedience retrieve, you need a retrieval seeding kit (RSK). Quite simply, a RSK is a collection of objects, items or things you need your partner to learn to retrieve. Items are also included in the RSK to teach dogs learning to retrieve to take and hold any object, no matter how weird, oddly textured, or unfamiliar. You can include absolutely anything your dog is physically capable of safely picking up, regardless of “like” or “dislike” in your retrieval seeding kit. See the sidebar for common items to include.

The best way to store your retrieval seeding kit items so they don’t get lost, scattered or strung out all over the place is in a basket, duffel bag, tote or empty kitty litter container with a handle. The name “seeding kit” comes from the retrieval seeding puzzles Service Dogs undergoing advanced training are asked to complete — 10 to 20 items of a variety of sizes, shapes, textures, materials and palatability are laid out and the dog is asked to formally retrieve each one by one.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Assisted Pick-Up
You may need to modify the exact steps if you’re unable to stand, bend over, sit on the floor or kneel comfortably for long periods of time or if your partner is smaller than the average Service Dog. The point is to progressively get the dumbbell closer to the ground while still hanging onto it, so whatever you need to do in order to make that happen will work just fine.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve

SDiT Journey with dumbbell

If at any point during the retrieve assisted pick-up stage your dog stops taking the dumbbell or retrieving dummy on cue, go back to the last height your dog was reliably performing and continue practicing at that point before progressing again. Take things slow and steady.

  1. Hold the dumbbell or retrieving dummy in your hand and ask your dog to “Take It.” After a couple seconds of holding, “out” your dog. Repeat a couple of times.
  2. Drop your hand, while still standing, until the dumbbell is as low as you can comfortably get it while still hanging on. Ask your dog to “Take It.” After a couple of seconds of holding, “out” your partner. Repeat a couple of times.
  3. Kneel. Present the dumbbell to your dog at knee height and ask your dog to “Take It.” After a couple of seconds of holding, “out” your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training. Repeat a couple of times, then drop your hand mid-way down your calf. Repeat again.
  4. Sit on the ground. Present the dumbbell to your dog at roughly (sitting) knee height and ask him to “Take It.” After a couple of seconds of holding, “out” your partner. Next, drop your hand close to the ground, but not touching it. Repeat again.
  5. While sitting on the ground, lay the fingers of your dumbbell hand on the ground while still hanging on to the dumbbell or retrieving dummy. See the pictures below if you need clarification. Repeat the normal retrieve sequence a couple of times.
  6. While sitting on the ground, place the far edge of the dumbbell on the ground and hang onto it with just a couple fingers. Ask your dog to “Take It.” After a couple of seconds of holding, “out” your pooch.
  7. Place the dumbbell on the ground and place a single finger on the side you normally hang onto. Repeat the normal retrieve sequence. Jackpot (give several treats in a row) successful repetitions.
  8. While sitting on the ground, place the dumbbell on the ground. Keep your hand close, but don’t touch it. Ask your dog to “Take It” and after a couple of seconds of holding, “out” your dog. Jackpot successful repetitions.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Shaping the Pick-Up

Train Service Dog to Retrieve

Place or drop the dumbbell at your feet.


  1. If you’re not familiar with teaching targeting or with “shaping” a dog to perform a behavior, check out the instructions for training a Service Dog to target.
  2. Sit in a chair or on a set of stairs close to the bottom with your dog standing or sitting within touching distance in front of you. Place the dumbbell on the ground and take your hand away. Remain silent; don’t give your dog a command or a cue. Simply wait. Glance meaningfully towards the dumbbell every now and again if need be.
  3. Click and treat the instant your dog looks at or lowers his head towards the dumbbell or retrieving dummy.
  4. Continue shaping your dog to pick the dumbbell up the exact same way you did in part one of retrieve training. Click and treat for movement towards, nose nudges and mouth contact with the dumbbell. Remember to stay quiet. Don’t give commands or cues or “help” your Service Dog or SDiT out. You need him to puzzle his way through this section so he’s certain he knows the right answer in the next stage.
  5. Instantly click, “out” and jackpot your critter the first time your dog picks the dumbbell up off the ground, unassisted, and raises his head to look at you.
  6. Practice until you can place the dumbbell on the ground or toss it a short distance away while sitting in a chair or on steps and your dog immediately goes to it, picks it up and raises his head to wait for the “out.”
  7. Repeat the above steps while standing. If you will need your partner to retrieve things (like a phone or medication) while you’re laying on the ground or in another position, now is the time to introduce those variables. Repeat the above steps with each new position.
Train Service Dog to Retrieve

SD Nike with a retrieving bumper

Training a Service Dog to Retrieve: Proofing the Retrieve Pick Up

  1. While standing, drop or toss the dumbbell or retrieving dummy a short distance away. Tell your partner to “Take It.” Jackpot compliance after outing your dog.
  2. Repeat the entire retrieve sequence (dropped dumbbell, “Take It,” holding under a variety of circumstances, and the verbal “out”) several times. Once your dog performs reliably 8 out of 10 times without assistance, hesitation or “do overs,” move on.
  3. Re-introduce Green Eggs and Ham proofing and the 3 Ds. Begin practicing the entire formal retrieve sequence with the dumbbell in any situation or with any variable you can dream up. Just remember to be mindful of the 3 Ds — you can only change one 3 D variable (duration, distance, distraction) at a time.
  4. Revel in the fact that your dog is now completing a formal retrieve from beginning to end, and that you achieved it via fun, motivational methods.

Training a Service Dog Retrieve: Introducing New Objects
If you’re training the retrieve for AKC or UKC obedience, the bulk of your work is finished. You’ll need to combine the retrieve with a formal recall and front/finish, and increase distance and distraction on the retrieve itself. If you’re training a formal Service Dog retrieve, all of your foundational work is finished. Now, you’ll need to introduce the items your partner will need to pick up for you or retrieve for you on a regular basis.

When introducing new objects, start with dumbbell-like objects first, then “easier” items like pens, cardboard squares/books and cloth/fleece/key fobs, then progress to “trouble” items like metal bowls, keys and phones. Follow the below steps for each new item you introduce. After you’ve gone through the process with 3-5 objects, you’ll notice your dog progressing through the early steps far more quickly or bypassing huge chunks of them altogether. Let your dog set the pace, but if he starts skipping through the steps, go with the flow. It’s ok; he’s just demonstrating he understands the retrieve game.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve

SDiT Journey with iPhone

  1. Start every session with one or two formal retrieves with the dumbbell. Make them quick, easy and fun.
  2. Show your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training the new retrieve item. Let him sniff it and explore it a bit, always ensuring to click and treat for nose nudges or contact with the item. Your goal, as always with the retrieve, is mouth contact.
  3. Shape your dog through targeting the object to taking the object. Follow the steps in part one of retrieve training. Remember not to give any commands (like “Take It”). You don’t want to create a situation where your dog “disobeys” your command simply because he’s not comfortable with a new item. Move on once your dog comfortably takes the item when it’s presented.
  4. Begin using the “out” cue. Build your partner’s hold with the new item, always ensuring to reward success and ignore failures. Use the part two steps of retrieve training.
  5. Only begin using “take it” once your partner is familiar enough with and comfortable enough with the object to take it reliably and hold it in a variety of circumstances, and you’re comfortable that he won’t bail out or ignore the command. By only using the command when you’re certain he’ll succeed, you build success into the command. If he never has a chance to fail for any reason after being given the command, he’ll be far more likely to respond in an unfamiliar situation.
  6. Work through the “pick up” steps with the new item. With each new item you introduce, the “pick up” stage will go more and more quickly.
  7. Proof the new item using Green Eggs and Ham and the 3 Ds.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Retrieval Seeding
The final steps of retrieval training involve retrieval seeding puzzles. Lay out two or three familiar objects, one of which should be the dumbbell or retrieving dummy you’ve done all of your dog’s retrieve training with, in a roughly triangular pattern. Leave enough space between them your dog can easily step between items, but not so much it looks like they’re unrelated. Group them tightly enough to leave no doubt you meant an item to be exactly where it is, but not so tightly your dog will disturb them stepping between items or picking objects up.

Approach the retrieval seeding puzzle with your dog by your side. Once there, simply say, “Take It,” and point towards the puzzle. Don’t insist that your dog retrieve any certain object first or that he complete the puzzle in a specific order. Allow him to select and pick up the object he wants, bring it to you, hold it and then “out” on command. Give him a treat after the “out,” and then repeat, “Take It.” Repeat with the last item.

Add one or two objects to the puzzle at a time, always ensuring you’ve properly introduced each item and your Service Dog or Service Dog in training is completely comfortable with it before placing the object in the puzzle. Work until your dog easily and confidently completes retrieval seeding puzzles of 10-15 or more items. At that point, begin Green Eggs and Ham proofing and working on the 3 Ds.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Tips
Keep practice sessions short, upbeat and positive. Don’t let sessions run so long that either of you end up frustrated. Several super-short (60 to 90 seconds) sessions multiple times a day work far better for retrieve training than one or even two several-minute long sessions. Multiple “micro-training” sessions a day lead to significantly faster progress, too. Intermix a few pieces of your Service Dog’s all-time favorite reward into your normal training treat blend to keep interest and motivation high.

Allow your Service Dog as much time as necessary when introducing new objects. Understand that your partner will have preferences, favorites and “do not likes.” Some items take more patience and time than others, but with time and reinforcement, your partner will be able to formally retrieve anything you’d like him to. For particularly difficult items, use extremely high value, smelly treats he doesn’t get any other time.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Warnings
Don’t rush your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training while training the retrieve. For a solid, reliable retrieve you need a great foundation. If you rush, your dog’s retrieve will never be reliable or steady under pressure.

Don’t repeat “Take It” over and over if your dog is refusing an item. If your dog is refusing to retrieve, take or hold an item at this point, he’s not being “disobedient.” He’s just not comfortable with that item yet. Work back through targeting and taking the item. If you find yourself having to ask more than once for your dog to “Take” an object, your dog isn’t ready for formal takes, holds and outs with that item yet.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: The Series
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part One (Covers proper tools/equipment, dumbbell introduction, and how to get your Service Dog to grab the dumbbell)
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve, Part Two (Covers “hold” and proofing the hold)
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part Three (The one you’re reading — covers picking items up, introducing new objects and retrieval seeding puzzles)
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part Four (Covers object-specific retrieval, specifically retrieving a beverage on cue)

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Comments

  • Leslie August 21, 2013

    Thank you for helping me give my service dog. (hearing dog) a refresher course.

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