The Great Delivery Challenge

We always crack jokes regarding the saying ”You don’t need to teach a retriever to retrieve, it’s innate”. Congratulations to all that don’t need to teach their Retriever to retrieve! Sure, most Spaniels and Retrievers have parts of the retrieve hard wired, but far from all the parts come just pre-installed in all individuals.

Coming back and delivering the object seems to be the top challenge for our students and their dogs. Coming all the way back to the handler that is. Not running a few extra laps, not dropping the object a yard or so away, and for that matter, not taking the object and running off with it…

As luck would have it, we get to practice with our own dogs too, not just with our students…

This interview with Elsa is from September 2016, and covers the time when Seeker was 15 weeks to roughly a year.

Elsa has spent the last year training herself with her male Golden, Seeker. And how…

Elsa, what were Seeker’s retrieving skills like when you got him at 15 weeks?
Haha, oh, what should I say about that? He was happy to pick up. Everything. But he didn’t bring anything to us. He had a very keen interest in objects, but zero interest in bringing things to us. He also wasn’t very interested in food. There was no way he was giving anything up for kibble.

When did you realize that this was something you were going to have to deal with?
Just a couple of days after bringing him home. By our second training session, I had realized that the only way to get anything back from him was to use his raw patties as treats. And we had to keep a hold of the toy the entire time; otherwise he wouldn’t bring it back.

Den här skeptiska minen hade han varje gång någon kom i närheten av honom när han hade ett föremål i munnen.
This highly sceptical look came across his face every time anyone approached him when he had something in his mouth.

What were your thoughts like at this point?
Oops, we have some work to do. And then: He’s not going to get to rehearse this! And then we began working on doing it correctly, in many different ways.

What did you do?
I started out with the Switching game. The first time it took forever to get him to switch to the other toy. I have it on video, it took 30 seconds but it felt like five minutes. But I got him going well with that game. We played with quite boring toys – for him that meant two socks with a tennis ball in each sock – and under those circumstances he could make the switch.

We also worked on playing with reversed luring in order to develop a strong thank you cue. He was really good at that straight away.

In parallel, we worked on a hand target and then pretty quickly tried to combine the two.

But for the longest time, he would take off in the other direction as soon as I let go of the toy. After about a month, he could deliver objects indoors. And after about another month, under very controlled circumstances, he could do it outdoors. At puppy class we had partial success. I could give him the toy and back away from him, show him the hand target and he would then move into the hand, sometimes by mistake. Naturally he was on leash the entire time. We did a great many repetitions like this…

It then took a long time to get a reliable delivery. Actually, it took more than a year…

What did the trick?
The most difficult part has been the fact that what had been working one day, would fail the next. But I’ve stuck to a few things that I believe has given Seeker a great many experiences of doing the right thing – a bit like brain washing him…

We began our training sessions with the merry-go-round; I then put the object between us and recalled him. After that, he got to start running out to get the object, at really short distances. That was really difficult according to Seeker.

For a long time, we could do three repetitions with me holding his bowl. We then took a break, because four repetitions were clearly too much for his little puppy brain.

In the beginning he could deliver tennis balls because he found those quite boring. But fluffy sheepskin toys were far too difficult. Sometimes we could play the switching game with sheepskin toys, but if he blew a fuse, not even that would work even when he was really good at the Switching game. He would become so frustrated, just checking out and starting to eat grass instead.

After about a year, our deliveries began to become reliable outdoors if we were alone. We could do difficult stuff with blind retrieves and long memories. But as soon as I brought my husband Jonas or the other dogs with me, nothing worked. Jonas would stand at a great distance first, as a distraction, while I rehearsed the merry-go.round and recalled Seeker across the object. After a couple of weeks, Jonas could throw the object.

How did you proceed?
I kept working and tried making it a bit more challenging after a while. I also found ways to stop him when he lost it and took off with the object. We worked on a great recall without objects so that nowadays I can stop him, should he relapse, by recalling him. I used a harness and a long line for a while, but he kept getting tangled up in it. Maybe I should have tried that earlier on in the process.

After a while my other dogs could be around us. Every time I’ve added a difficulty, I’ve warmed up with easy exercises where I was sure he would succeed – as a reminder of what we’re doing. We would do exercises like the carousel, hand target and recalls across the object. And sometimes I would help him out with a recall cue and perhaps relax my criteria regarding his exact hold and how he delivered it to my hand – the most important thing is that he came to me.

Another challenge is that Seeker isn’t really that interested in food. Sometimes getting to retrieve a boring object and being rewarded by playing with me with something fun worked. But sometimes it didn’t.

I did come up with a few things that helped. Him getting to run and blow off some steam before training, for example. It didn’t always do the trick, but often enough.

While we were working on the retrieve we built long memories and blinds with food bowls. He’s really good at long memories.

Have you ever felt defeated?
Oh yes. Mostly because he’s so hard to read. It would work perfectly three times, but the fourth time he would take off with the object. Or because one way of doing things worked fantastically one day, but not at all the next.

I often thought it is a good thing that he’s so cute… And that other things have worked out so well. He has a good recall, a good stop whistle, he’s easy to bring to work and he is the cuddliest dog ever, and so on.

Something that would have been good for me to do would have been to watch the videos earlier. I have been filming our training a lot. When everything felt just hopeless, I should have watched them. Because the videos clearly show that we were constantly moving in the right direction – even if it often felt like we had taken a step backwards, we were taking two steps forward in the big picture. Particularly watching freeze frames is highly motivating – chosen frames were everything looks the way it should!

Photo: Maxine Furnandiz /
Photo: Maxine Furnandiz /

Give a few examples of stuff you’ve tried out and that worked out most of the time:

  • Don’t just focus on the delivery, but work on actually listening to me
  • Don’t make it too easy.
  • Don’t make it too difficult.
  • Keep your training sessions short.
  • Holding his food bowl with pieces of raw patties, letting him see it, when sending him to retrieve the object.
  • Him seeing the toy before being sent out to retrieve. I then gradually faded these aids.
  • Make sure to vary and try out many different kinds of rewards, and many different reward procedures. I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t tried with this dog…
  • I didn’t care if his grip was only so-so, I didn’t want to make a fuss about it. That was something we could work on indoors and at home. Top priority was for him to come all the way to me.

What created your success?

  • I’m terribly stubborn…
  • I kind of brainwashed him by repeating certain exercises over and over again.
  • Splitting the training into many different steps. And accepting that I have to proceed with care.
  • Not being afraid to try things out.
  • Making an effort to make sure that he couldn’t self reward.
  • Working for a really great recall without an object.
  • In parallel, working on other things without objects (the stop whistle, casting between bowls, etc.)

Where are you now?
Our deliveries work well now, even in a group with many other dogs. Last time we took a class it worked for 1 hour and 55 minutes. After that he was so tired, and had to take a lap. Tiredness will get him sometimes, but I can recall him from that nowadays.

So, what’s next?
We’ll keep doing what we’re doing. I often reward him by letting him continue working now – in other words, he gets to retrieve more objects.

Right now we’re working on taking the first object. He would prefer picking up two balls at once – it’s possible, with that big mouth – or switching objects. This is how I deal with that:

First I rehearse the thought of delivering things by playing the carousel. I then put down a whole pile of balls and then one ball for him to retrieve about two yards from the pile. I then gradually move that ball closer and closer to the pile.

 Your three best pieces of advice for those who can relate to this challenge?

  1. Find good rewards (experiment!)
  2. Prevent the dog from self rewarding
  3. Keep your training sessions short

And – don’t give up! 🙂

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