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Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part Two

You know it takes work and practice to train a Service Dog to retrieve. You’ve managed to get your Service Dog to mouth at the dumbbell, but now you’re stuck. No matter what you try, your Service Dog keeps spitting the dumbbell out immediately. In this “Train a Service Dog to Retrieve” installment, learn how to continue to train your partner’s formal retrieve and how to easily and positively obtain the ever-so-elusive “hold” behavior.

If you haven’t covered part one of how to train a Service Dog to retrieve, check it out before continuing with part two. In part two, we’re going to cover the “hold it” part of the formal Service Dog retrieve. If your Assistance Dog or Service Dog in Training already holds a dumbbell or retrieving dummy well, feel free to skip to part three.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: The 3 Ds
There are only 3 aspects to teaching and proofing any behavior: duration, distance and distraction. Called the “3 Ds,” those components form the basis for increasing your dog’s understanding and performance of any given behavior, command or cue in any situation.You can ONLY increase one at a time. If you’re working on increasing duration, reduce distraction and distance. If you’re working on adding distance or on performing a behavior from a distance, cut down on duration and distraction. If your Service Dog suddenly starts failing at something she was reliably performing before, examine the 3 Ds — you’ve likely increased duration, distance or distraction too quickly OR you’re trying to increase two at once. If you’re more of a visual/auditory learner, check out this video for an excellent explanation and demo:

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Prerequisites

Before beginning Part Two of the “Train a Service Dog to Retrieve” series, your partner needs a thorough understanding of the concepts in Part One. She should immediately look for a treat when she hears the click and she should quickly and confidently grab the dumbbell or retrieving dummy in her mouth when it’s presented to her, even if she spits it out immediately. She should also be comfortable moving a couple of feet in either direction to grab the dumbbell.

Teach Service Dog to Retrieve

SD Axel grabs a retrieving dummy.

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)

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Introduce  the “Out” Cue

It seems counterintuitive, but we’re going to start to train the “hold” by training the release. Once your Service Dog understands the release cue and the fact that an item should only be released to your hand, it’s far easier to introduce the concept that she needs to wait for the release cue before letting go of something.

  1. Begin with a couple rounds of clicking and treating for grabbing the dumbbell. After 3 to 5 quick reps, move to the next step. Remember, at this stage of the game, the dumbbell always stays in your hand.
  2. Introduce the “out” cue. Offer the dumbbell to your partner. She’ll reach for it and grab it. Click the grab and immediately say, “Out,” as she spits it back out. Treat. Do this several times in a row until you notice your Service Dog is beginning to pause, even if its just for a microsecond, before spitting the dumbbell back out. She’s starting to listen for that new word, the “out” cue.
  3. Click for the pause between the grab and the instant she starts to spit the dumbbell back out. Continue saying “out” as she lets go. You’ll notice the pause building microsecond by microsecond. Jackpot (give several treats) especially noticeable or lengthy pauses. Keep in mind the click itself marks the behavior you want to encourage, so click the PAUSE, not the “out.” Click the pause, say “out,” and then deliver the treat that goes with the click.
  4. Move on once you can count “one Mississippi” between the instant your Service Dog’s teeth close on the dumbbell and she goes to spit it out.
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve

Slide your hand off the dumbbell and position directly under your Service Dog’s mouth. (SDiT Journey)

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Release to Hand

For this stage, it’s important to keep sessions short, upbeat and positive. This section is extremely frustrating for both the dog and handler. The goal for the “Release to Hand” step is for your partner to begin to understand that she only gets a reward if the dumbbell ends up in your hand.

  1. Offer the dumbbell to your Service Dog. The instant her teeth close on it, let go and move your hand directly under her chin so the dumbbell falls into your palm when she lets go. Click and treat and say, “Out.” If she spits the dumbbell out before you manage to say “Out,” move your hand and let it fall to the floor. DO NOT CLICK AND TREAT IF THAT HAPPENS. Simply shrug, pick the dumbbell up and offer it to her again.
  2. Repeat the above 5-6 times in a row.
  3. Start the same routine, but instead of saying out, just wait. When your dog spits the dumbbell out, shrug, say nothing, pick it up, and offer it again. This time, cue “out” and allow the dumbbell to fall in your hand. Jackpot your partner.
  4. Continue practicing. Every 3rd to 5th time, randomly, don’t cue the “out” and let your dog spit it out. Shrug, pick the dumbbell up and offer it again. Jackpot the next grab and release on the “out” cue.
  5. Look for the first time your Service Dog noticeably, purposefully holds onto the dumbbell for longer than she had been during one of the “no cue” reps. Instantly cue the “out,” and jackpot. Give two jackpots.
  6. Continue practicing, always ensuring your partner succeeds far more than she fails. You need to include purposeful failures to demonstrate to her what doesn’t work, but the more you successfully reinforce the waiting for “out” behavior, the more likely you are to get it.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: The Guided Hold

REMINDER: Be gentle during this phase. Remember, we’re teaching a motivational retrieve, not a forced retrieve.

  1. Position your partner beside you in a sit. If you’re right-handed, she needs to be on your left side; if you’re left-handed, sit her on your right. If you sit your Service Dog in front of you, it won’t be as easy to gently apply the upward stroking and keep your partner calmly sitting, but it can be done.
  2. Offer your Service Dog the retrieving dummy with your dominant hand. As her teeth close around it, let go and slide your hand under her chin.
  3. Gently stroke upwards from your dog’s neck to the end of her chin with your dominant hand. After a second or two, stop stroking, position your hand to catch the dumbbell, click to mark the hold, cue the “out,” and treat.
    Train a Service Dog to Retrieve

    SDiT Journey demonstrates proper positioning for the guided hold exercise. He’s to the left side of the right-handed trainer, with his body settled lightly against her left leg so she can physically, but gently, help him hold his position, and her right hand is gently stroking upwards under his chin.

  4. From the initial 1-2 seconds, increase the duration a second at time, only adding time when your partner calmly holds the dumbbell for the current duration without struggling, moving or trying to spit it out. Continue the soft, gentle stroking under your partner’s chin for now. Slow, gentle, patient and steady wins the “hold” race.
  5. Practice until you reach 30 seconds of comfortable, calm “hold” while you’re gently stroking under your Service Dog’s chin.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: The Hold

  1. Start the same way you do for the guided hold. Offer your Service Dog the dumbbell, gently stroke under chin once or twice, and then take your hand away. After a couple of seconds, click, cue the out, treat, and calmly pet your partner. If your dog releases the dumbbell before you cue the out, simply shrug, pick it up and offer it again.
  2. Repeat the above 2 to 3 times, and then stop stroking under your Service Dog’s chin after you hand her the dumbbell. Simply hand it to her, take your hand away, wait 3 to 5 seconds, click, cue the out, treat.
  3. Build time gradually, a second or two at a time, until your partner is able to hold the dumbbell for at least 30 seconds until cued to “out” to your hand with no guidance at all.

At this stage, if your partner fails, it is 100% your fault, every time, without fail. There’s either too much distraction or you’ve added too much duration at once. Go back to a point you know your Service Dog can succeed and work forward from there again. Keep things upbeat and set your partner up for success far more than you let her fail. As always, if your partner spits the dumbbell out before being cued, simply shrug, remain silent, pick it up and offer it again. Keep sessions short, sweet and to the point to ensure your dog’s interest in formal retrieve training remains high.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Desensitizing Touch

By now, your Service Dog is used to hearing “out” and dropping the dumbbell into your waiting hand. Many Assistance Dogs begin to associate touch with the “out,” though, and stop waiting on the verbal “out” cue. For many disabled handlers, that’s an issue because they may not be ready to take an object the first time they touch it or touch their partner. Use the following steps to counteract this tendency, and remember to ONLY deliver a reward for a dumbbell that ends up in your hand after a verbal “out” cue is given.

  1. Position your working dog in front of you or beside you.
  2. Hand your dog the dumbbell, drop your hand and wait for a couple of seconds.
  3. Reach up and very gently touch the edge of the dumbbell or retrieving dummy. If your dog spits it out, let it fall to the floor. Shrug, pick it up, and silently offer it again. Reinforce the verbal “out” cue a couple times, then repeat the light touch again without the cue. If your dog holds, immediately click, out and reward.
  4. Hand your dog the dumbbell and gently stroke your dog’s head or top of her muzzle. Click, out and treat for continued holds, and ignore drops entirely.
    Train a Service Dog to Retrieve

    Never reward a dropped dumbbell without a verbal “out” cue, even if you’re reaching for it, touching it, or touching your partner. (SDiT Journey)

  5. Work until your partner reliably waits for the verbal “out” cue even if you curl your fingers around the dumbbell, pet/stroke her head, ears or muzzle, or touch the dumbbell or your Assistance Dog in any way.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Proofing the Hold

Once your Service Dog will happily take the dumbbell from your hand and hold it for at least 30 seconds at a time until cued to “out,” you know she understands the concepts of “take it” and “hold it.” At this point, you can start to “proof” (introduce variations and distractions for the purpose of solidifying your dog’s understanding) the hold.

Green Eggs and Ham Proofing Game

Introduce variations in position first. Ask her to take it and hold it while she’s standing, sitting in front of you, positioned on the other side of you or laying down. Next, ask her to hold the dumbbell in other circumstances. Perhaps she’s standing on the ledge of the stairs and you’re positioned 2 or 3 stairs down. Maybe she’s sitting in the front seat of the car or is standing in her kennel. Be creative and help your Service Dog begin to generalize the “hold” behavior to anywhere she may (or may not!) need to use it.

The “may or may not” is part of the “Green Eggs and Ham” training philosophy — will she do it in a box, will she do it with a fox? Will she do it in a house? Will she do it with a mouse? Will she do it on a train? Will she do it in the rain? The Green Eggs and Ham method of proofing dictates asking your dog for behaviors in wild, crazy, off-the-wall situations so you can test her understanding and performance in circumstances far beyond what she’s likely to encounter. Have fun with Green Eggs and Ham, take lots of pictures, and share them with us on Facebook!

Proofing the Service Dog Retrieve: Movement and Positions

Introduce movement next. Begin asking your partner to change positions while holding the dumbbell — shifting from a sit to a down, a sit to a stand, or a stand to a down works nicely at first. Only ask for one position change in the beginning and reward your partner profusely for success. Build up to 3 to 5 position changes in a row before asking for the out, but be gradual about it! As always, if your Assistance Dog starts spitting the dumbbell out before the cue, you’re asking for too much too quickly. Revert back to a point she’s able to succeed, and move forward more gradually.

Once your partner is able to change positions fluidly while holding the retrieving dummy, start asking your dog to carry the dumbbell while heeling. Start with a single step and build gradually to 30 seconds of heeling. Always reward your partner for success and ignore her completely should she drop the dumbbell. Silently pick it up, offer it again and work on a shorter distance you’re confident she’ll succeed with.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve

Introducing a larger or different dumbbell is an excellent way to proof the hold. (Dresa, APBT)

Proofing the Service Dog Retrieve: The 3Ds 

Finally, begin to fiddle with the 3 Ds. Keep in mind that you’ve already worked on duration by building your Service Dog’s “hold” to 30+ seconds at a time. The next step is to begin increasing distance. Start by handing your partner the dumbbell and taking a step back. Pause for a beat, return to your dog, click, out, treat. Increase the distance a single step at a time until your dog will happily and comfortably hold the dumbbell while you walk 10 steps away, turn, and come back to release her.

At that point, you can start to increase the distraction. Perhaps work at a park, or begin incorporating “hold” into your public access outings. Ask your partner to “hold” a dumbbell while you’re preparing her meal or while you’re working on basic obedience with another dog. Be creative with your distractions, but always keep the 3 Ds in mind. Stay close to your dog and don’t ask for long-duration “holds” when first introducing distractions. Be generous with your rewards and ensure your partner succeeds far, far, far more than she fails. If she starts dropping the dumbbell, reduce the distraction level until she’s able to reliably succeed and then gradually begin to increase the difficulty again. The easiest way to reduce distraction levels is to simply move further away from the stimulus, and then gradually move closer again.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Final “Hold” Steps

By now, your Service Dog should be able to take, hold and carry a dumbbell or retrieving dummy in almost any situation and under almost any circumstance. Congratulations! You’re finished with the hard parts of teaching a formal Service Dog retrieve. From here, it’s smooth sailing.

Teach Service Dog to Retrieve

SD Axel demonstrates his “hold” in a new position and at a distance.

Continue proofing your hold in any way you can dream up. Start combining aspects of the 3 Ds — walk 5 steps away and ask for gradually increased “hold” durations — 5 seconds, then 10, then 15, then 30 seconds. Always return to your partner and reward a job well done. Remember to ALWAYS cue the “out” verbally and only click and treat if the dumbbell is released to your hand after the verbal cue and not with a simple touch or even a grab. Start combining carrying and distractions while building ever-increasing distances. You’re limited only by your creativity during the final hold proofing and the more “Green Eggs and Ham” practice you put into it at this stage, the more smoothly the next steps will go.

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.

Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Warnings

The “hold” process CANNOT be hurried or rushed. If you try to move faster than your partner is willing or able, you’ll only end up frustrated and stressing out your Service Dog. Take your time and grant your hard-working pooch as much time as she needs to be comfortable with each phase of the formal retrieve training process. If either of you begins to get frustrated or irritable, ask your Service Dog for a couple of fun, easy behaviors she knows well like hand-targeting, sit or shake, click and treat each and then end the session.

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 (The post you’re reading – covers “hold” and proofing the hold)
Train a Service Dog to Retrieve: Part Three (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)



  • ragtimelil July 27, 2014

    Very well organized instructions. I did the old force retrieve years ago and didn’t like it much. My dogs now retrieve for fun but they throw things back at me for me to throw. I’m training my bc to be a hearing dog and thought I’d teach him to retrieve the phone to my hand! He’s really loving the training. Thanks!


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