Train Your Dog Year Challenge: Month #1

Because I am who I am, I have decided to choose the hardest challenge first for my personal Train Your Dog Year bonanza. I could have gone with something simple yet cute, like teaching Shiva to hold a stuffed animal in her paws, or conceivably something practical, like how to relax when someone is knocking at the door. Both would have been good choices. It could be Olympic fever – urging me to go for the gold – given that instead of basing my decision on logic, I’ve decided it is time to get serious. Mega Man style.

Be afraid, Shiva. Be very afraid.

Be afraid, Shiva. Be very afraid.

Any guesses? What is the one behaviour most dogs perform naturally that Shiva has never, ever, in her life, been able to do with any form of consistency? Sure, if I stand on my head and quote Patricia McConnell while humming the opening theme to The Littlest Hobo, she might occasionally pretend like she knows what I am asking. But even then it’s a toss-up. I am certain it’s an accident. The Cat probably puts her up to it just so he doesn’t have to listen to my cajoling any more.

If you haven’t come up with it yet, the behaviour to which I am referring, and the aim of January’s challenge is the basic retrieve. You heard me right. The action most dogs are born to execute, the reason some dogs are alive, is the same action Shiva has no aptitude for whatsoever.

I have tried teaching her this an infinite amount of times before. I have tried using a clicker, I have tried luring, I have tried running around like a crazy person. No matter how many videos I watch or how many books I read, none of the advice as worked. I still cannot get her to reliably return an object. No doubt the problem is me. My impatience is the stuff of legends, especially when it is something I want really badly. My childhood dog didn’t retrieve either. She loved chasing a ball, but she preferred to toss it up in the air and catch it all by herself while her hapless humans looked on. Shiva, on the other hand, prefers keep away, or chomping on the dang ball. Bringing it back so I can throw it again is such a foreign concept to her I may as well be asking her to translate Russian.

Or look at me when I am taking a photo. This will be Challenge #2, stay tuned.

Or look at me when I am taking a photo. This will be Challenge #2, stay tuned.

The biggest issue is, Shiva and I have already mastered most of the tricks in all of the dog books we own. She crawls, she rolls over, she closes doors, she dances, and she even jumps through my arms. All of the easy behaviours, we’ve had in our repertoire long ago. All of the ones that don’t involve her holding something in her mouth, that is. If we are going to be champions, even in our own eyes, we have to nail the retrieve. It is the only way forward. The retrieve is the only thing standing between us and  dog trick glory.

Of course, if I am ever going to have a dog who plays fetch, my lifelong dream, I am going to have to grit my teeth and fight for it. No more diddling around. It will be frustrating. I am going to give up at least a dozen more times. But I have to remember that it’s worth it. Shiva one day bringing me a beer is worth all the tangled hair, all the tears, and all the sleepless nights in the world.

Luckily, I am not alone. I have the genius of Zak George to help me and I have your support. At least, I hope I do. I can do this, right?

Does your dog retrieve? Is it something you taught or does he or she do it out of pure joy? Do you have any helpful hints?

26 thoughts on “Train Your Dog Year Challenge: Month #1

  1. You can do it!

    One thing that really helped us with teaching Küster to retrieve was using two tennis balls. He was bad about the keep away game, too. So, I have another ball at the ready and I have him drop the first one (reasonably close at first, but not right at my feet) and as soon as he drops the first one, I throw the second. By the time he’s back, I have the first one in hand and we repeat it. Eventually, we got the point where he’d come close and drop it at my feet.


  2. Ha ha I always thought a retrieve was a thing of legend. Mity looks as me as if to say ‘you threw it away, you go get it’ in my 13 years of living with him he has retrieved a ball back to me once!!

    BD will retrieve to a fashion, but that is because he loves to play ball however he too loves to run towards me, and stop at the last few minutes and either chomp on it or drop it just out of reach so I have to walk to him and pick it up. The trainer that I did not get on with said this was a ‘dominance issue’ and part of the reason for his fear aggression. Although I think a lot of what she said was utter rubbish, the part about him walking us kinda made sense and so I decided that he would bring the ball back to me. This has lead to hours of me stood in a field, usually in the rain telling him ‘I can’t reach it’ while he stands meters away and barks at me for being so lazy!

    O your going to have so much fun!!! ;0)


  3. “What is the one behaviour most dogs perform naturally that Shiva has never, ever, in her life, been able to do with any form of consistency?”

    Most dogs? Honey is the 6th dog in my life and the first to retrieve. Are you sure most dogs perform it naturally? 🙂

    But you asked, so here’s how you teach a perfect retrieve.

    Get your clicker, treats, a tug toy, and two balls. Go outside. Toss the ball. Run away as quickly as possible to encourage Shiva to run after you. After she drops the ball before chasing you, go inside and visit PetFinder to look for a dog with retrieving in his genes. Adopt dog. Bring him home. And start again from step 1.

    And that’s how you teach a retrieve. 🙂

    I’m very interested to see how you do. Maybe Shiva the wonder dog will learn this. Or maybe it will be as difficult as teaching an introvert to attend a busy conference with cocktail parties every night and planned breakfasts every morning.

    And really, I’m not laughing at you. I’m cowed by your ambition. 🙂


    • This is why I need to hire you as my life coach, you are so wise. No doubt you are right in this aspect as well. I can definitely relate to your example and I don’t want to make Shiva uncomfortable with pushy training.

      But… The cute photos we could take with her holding her leash in her mouth, the beer-retrieving, are hard dreams to give up.

      Maybe I will make a vow. If it doesn’t happen this time and I give it my all, I will give her a pass. And then adopt a second dog who actually enjoys retrieving.


  4. Moses and Alma retrieve to an extent, but they have very specific terms and can get bored quickly. The trick with them is to keep it interesting and wind down while they still have energy/are having fun, so they always think fetch is a blast. Or to do it in water. They both love retrieving sticks from water. I guess that’s to be expected with Newfs though. Haha


    • That is a good point. Always end with them wanting more. It can be applied to all aspects of training. My PH can get Shiva to fetch some things some of the time, such as a stick in the park or a chuck-it ball – love those things – but I have much less success. I am certain it has something to do with my energy level and poor throwing skills. *sigh*

      Love watching Newfs in the water!


  5. Some dogs just don’t seem to be into retrieving! Our Australian shepherd had zero interest in returning any thrown object to you. She’d look at us with disdain, as if to say, “YOU threw it; you go get it.” Pyrrha will retrieve maybe two times, and then she’s done. But Eden has the heart of a retriever; she could fetch all day long. It’s a nice quality for a dog to have, because you can stand in one place and let them wear themselves out with running and fetching! Hope Shiva learns the joys of retrieving!


    • Exactly! Back in those first few years, it would have been so nice if Shiva liked to fetch. I could have entertained her all day long with a ball while I did other things. Instead, when she plays she demand’s her human’s full attention, no half-hearted tugging will do, you have to be as all in as she is. If you aren’t, she’ll find her fun elsewhere, such as in cat-chasing, fence-jumping, or house-eating.

      Anyway, it is interesting how different all of your dogs are in this respect. I guess if this attempt doesn’t work out, I shouldn’t blame myself too much.


  6. Awesome!! Once you figure out how to do this, I get to learn from you. Bella does not get the fetch concept. Bella barely gets the “ball” concept. She will chase one for a few throws but, like Shiva, she prefers the keep-away aspect of chasing the ball. That is until she loses interest entirely and runs right past said ball to sniff the tree beyond. I cannot wait to learn from you and Shiva. 🙂


    • I love how you say “once” instead of “if”, because it is definitely an if. 😛 The reason I chose it for the first challenge is that I figure it might take the whole year and future challenges will give me a break in my frustration. I just need to be better at timing, and have more patience, and basically a whole new personality.

      Bella, on the other hand, is just too smart to see fetch as anything more than as a silly way to entertain her humans.

      I just want Shiva to hold something in her mouth so I can get cute photos. Is that too much to ask??

      Don’t answer that. 😉


  7. I hope you get this! We are lucky – Kenzie is already retrieving . . .thank goodness, because it’s a good way to wear out a crazy puppy 🙂 Good luck Kristine!


  8. What a fantastic idea! And you inspire me.
    However, I still need to work on the basics with Kelly and Ike, because I am such a bad trainer I let them get away with bad behavior. So, where to start? Not staring at me and begging while I eat my dinner? Or not running around like crazy and exuberantly “greeting” guests at the door?


    • Then we can be each other’s inspiration as Shiva does both of those things! Though instead of greeting, I would call her approach “accosting.” One is much less well-intentioned than the other. You just need to move into a house like ours that has a separate entry way/mud room for the front door. It makes pizza delivery much less stressful!


  9. I will be following your efforts with happy thoughts for you.

    I have known a lot of retriever type dogs who didn’t retrieve and a lot of Maltese and Chihuahuas who were ready to take duck hunting. If you succeed you might want to open your own training school.


    • Gosh, wouldn’t that be a sight! But you are right. Breed probably has less to do with it than the dog’s own personality. My parents’ dog, a JRT, is a fetching fiend and he just does it naturally since puppyhood. It really isn’t fair. It is only one of the reasons I have threatened to swipe him.


  10. I wish I had some tips for you. Retrieving is a more complex behavior than most believe it to be. I taught Elli when she was still a puppy – I had to find more than your basic tennis ball to do it. To this day, I’ve only ever repeatedly fetched with her with a plain ball ONCE (recently, interestingly enough). Otherwise, I carry her Cuz ball.

    I liked Denise Fenzi’s videos on teaching a retrieve to an otherwise disinterested border collie. I think she still has them up on her youtube. The big thing I have found to be most helpful is, in fact, shaping the retrieve. And that takes patience, haha. So maybe you’re actually completely doomed. haha.


    • This is why you are a much better trainer than I will ever be, you get started early and you don’t quit when it gets hard.

      I will definitely check out Denise’s videos, thanks for the recommendation. I have tried shaping in the past and before I gave up – lost patience – we did have the beginnings of success. The biggest problem I encountered was how to reward. Since Shiva’s biggest and easiest motivator is food, she wants to keep dropping the object in order to eat. I know my timing with the clicker is a big part of this. Maybe I need to work on that first before anything else.


  11. Good luck!! Wyatt lives to retrieve, always has… really really easy to teach him that when he was young. Helps he comes from hunting lines and I knew what I was doing, but still he loves nothing more in life, unless it’s fetching a bird.
    Luna fetches to a degree but if it involves too much repetition or difficulty (say down a hill and back up) she won’t play long. She has technically been trained to retrieve anything I ask but she doesn’t love it. She did however ace the last dove hunting situation I gave her which is entirely retrieving based so that shocked me.

    But enough about my dogs.. One thing I wanted to mention was a really outside the box idea. I know someone who was fostering a dog who had like zero toy drive… since toy and treat drive plays a roll in much of what she wants to accomplish she needed to tackle this issue. She went all hard core and removed all toys from the house. She brought out a tennis ball and or a tug toy and he would get loving only if/while he had it in his mouth. Eventually he learned to play with toys and enjoy holding them etc. Maybe you could try that approach. She only gets loving if she is holding one? Or is the bring back part the hardest?
    Maybe she requires a toy that is more interesting like a rabbit fur/fleece tug? could you use a long line to encourage her to come back with it? She may just be like Luna and be too smart and just not care lol.

    Keep us posted, I will have to look into that challenge and see what it’s about. Heaven knows Luna could use more training 😉


    • That’s great! A good friend of mine has a Viszla and she is a huge retriever so either Luna is the exception to the rule or it goes to show one that even hunting breeds may not be naturally so inclined.

      Never enough about your dogs, I say! I could read about them all day!

      Your idea was a good one but I am not sure it would help in this instance. Shiva will retrieve a tug toy if we are playing and I toss it. Tug is her favourite game, other than cat chasing, and she has learned that bringing it back makes the game continue. Simple fetching with no tugging is another matter. Also, what I really want to teach her is how to hold an object in her mouth, such as for an adorable photograph, and eventually I’d love to teach her how to retrieve an object I haven’t thrown or given her, like a leash or her dish. It is probably a pipe dream!


      • yeah Luna just likes to break the rules of the breed standard it seems. She will play but it’s on her terms and if she feels you are doing it as a means to really wear her out she is not game. I used to use it quite a bit when she was a puppy to wear her out, i think that probably tarnished the idea to her. Who knows though, she is a complicated one.

        So technically it sounds like Shiva will retrieve, just a tug toy lol. But that is a start. Have you tried the clicker methods to encourage holding of that toy since she likes it better? Maybe pick a special one she only sees for that exercise so it’s extra special? You could try the terms “force free retrieve” on you tube for some hunting related videos for more holding ideas.

        The retrieving and object not thrown or with your hand on it is one of the trickiest gaps you face with a dog and trained retrieve. The more you mix up the objects the easier it gets to link the word to the action for said objects. I can point in the direction with Luna and she will generally pick anything up in that location. I always wanted to teach her to find and bring the remote, would have been really handy. She does pick up her toys for her meals as she is highly motivated by her raw meals.

        I am joining in the challenge, need to come up with something for this month.


        • Indeed. When I read about dogs like Luna I am sometimes grateful my dog is not a brainiac. Shiva isn’t complicated. Exasperating, but fairly straightforward.

          Thanks for the advice! I have tried this with a clicker and had limited success. I really think my timing has a lot to do with it. Maybe I will google clicker-timing practice exercises and see what I find.

          That’s great you and Luna have that down! I look forward to seeing what you come up with!


  12. Ruby enjoys fetching balls (though she is a fearful and klutzy catcher, a lot like her human was in elementary school P.E…) and loves to bring it back to me, in fact she will shove it into my hand, but not let go. I keep explaining to her that a ball makes a lousy tug-toy but she is not convinced, so our focus lately is on the ‘drop it’ command. I can’t use treats because as soon as I have food she loses interest in the toy. Sometimes, if I sit on the floor, she’ll get on a roll and start dropping the ball in my lap, but not with any consistency. I look very forward to following your goal with Shiva as I’d like to teach Ruby to hold things in her mouth, too.


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