We start all our training while playing (and in the book all practical chapters start with a section of how to start all learning by playing)
My foundation exercise (and favorite exercise) is “Come to me to play” – the aim of the exercise is simply to teach the dog how awesome it is to play with me so that it always will come to me when it’s got something in it’s mouth.
I get the dog playing with a soft, nice toy (for example a soft rope or a sheep skin with elastic handle). I put in a lot of energy here and do not continue to the next step before having a dog that plays intensely, grips the toy with it’s whole mouth and takes the toy as soon as I present it. I remember to always pull the toy away from the dog (not shove it into it’s mouth) and to make the toy a bit interesting by letting it move around irregularly while I talk with an excited or dramatic voice. I also encourage the dog to hold on to the toy firmly. If it holds too loosely, I steal the toy from it while teasing it before letting the dog grip the toy again and continue to play. After a while the dog will learn that it needs to hold the funny toy firmly so that it doesn’t disappear.
When the dog plays nicely (i.e. holds firmly with no mouthing on the toy and pulls the toy backwards, away from me, without shaking it) I start backing away from the dog while continuing to play with it (both of us are holding on to the toy). When that works well I release the toy briefly while backing away to see if the dog follows me. If it does, I continue to play with it. (If it walks the other way I continue to work on playing and backing up while I hold on to the toy and just releasing the toy so briefly that I have time to grab it again before the dog runs away.) Then I develop this by backing away more (longer distances), putting the toy on the ground for the dog to retrieve and bring to me to get my playing again and so on. All of a sudden I’ve got perfect deliveries to hand, almost without the dog understanding what’s going on. We’re just having fun, meanwhile the dog learns lots of good behaviors. Can it get any better?
When I present this game to a group of people I always get the question if you really should play tug with a retriever, won’t it destroy the game then? My answer is always No. It doesn’t because it can differentiate between a duck and a toy. We rather use the game to teach the dog to hold firmly without mouthing, and teach it that that’s the way to hold an object. When that works on toys that we play wildly with, I calm the playing a bit and let the dog follow me nice and calmly before starting to play again. The I try letting the dog carry other objects and switch them for a treat when the dog brings them to me. In the same way I let the dog carry the game, calmly and carefully (given that the dog grips and carries the game, otherwise I first have to create an interest in the game)
This way the dog learns to carry many different objects, to get different rewards for carrying them properly and to switch between different moods: The high energy playing, and the calmer, more focused carrying. Once again we kill two birds with one stone: We teach the dog delivery to hand and we teach it to switch between high activity and low activity – something that will be useful later on in the training. So get out there and start playing with your dogs!