The Trained Retrieve

Or, “What’s the Point of That?”

Barnum and I are working on Level 4 Retrieve in the original (older) version of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. (Actually, we are somewhere between Level 4 and Level 5 on this.)

Every day, at least once a day (sometimes two or three times a day), we train with our dumbbells. We have three: a hard plastic white one, an unpainted wood one, and an aluminum one. I rotate them so he gets used to different materials, textures, and sizes of objects in his mouth. (We got them from J&J Dog Supply.)

[Note to MCSers: All of the dumbbells were very tolerable, after just a brief wipe down. Metal is inert and not a problem unless you’re sensitive to aluminum. The plastic is a very hard plastic that barely gives off any smell. And the wood is untreated poplar, which is a hard wood with very little odor; it is usually the wood best tolerated by people with MCS.]

Here is a video from ten days ago. (We have made a lot of progress since then, actually.) There’s no dialogue at all, until the very end, when we finish and I praise him and tell him “release,” so I didn’t caption or transcribe it. A brief description of the “action” of the video is below it.

[The video shows me holding out a white, plastic dumbbell to Barnum, him grabbing it in his mouth, me clicking and tossing a treat, over and over again! The nuances are that I sometimes hold off on the click a second or two longer, that I occasionally hold it higher or lower, and that he grabs the bit of the db in the correct position every time.]

When members of my household see us working this skill, instead of marveling with excitement at our consistency or the amazing improvement in Barnum’s enthusiasm, they say, “What are you doing? What’s the point of that?”

Fellow dog training fanatics addicts enthusiasts, do you ever feel like you live on the planet Clicookislobberania? I mean, how can it not be obvious that my holding this totally useless object while my dog puts his mouth on it, again and again, will naturally lead to him opening doors, carrying grocery bags to the car or house, retrieving pens I drop, bringing me my slippers, letting himself out to pee, opening cupboards and drawers, helping me dress and undress, pulling the covers off of me, answering the phone, and bringing me water from the refrigerator?

Well? How pointless is all that, huh? Does that clear everything up for you? How about a little support, dammit!

Sorry. I get overexcited. I know you just want to understand. I’m sure you don’t realize you’re wearing an utterly perplexed and dubious facial expression when you ask what the hell the purpose is of this seemingly tedious pursuit of . . . whuh?

No, to me it is far from tedious; it is thrilling. I work it so often because I want this skill so bad. You see, what we are working on is the foundation for The Trained Retrieve, the Holy Grail of the service dog foundation skill.

In fact, this is not one skill, at all. It is actually a combination of three separate behaviors: the take, the hold, and the give.

Why am I working so hard to get this right with Barnum? Because I glossed over it with my previous service dogs, and as a result, some skills were never up to par. Where things fell apart was maintaining a “hold.” Both Jersey and Gadget could retrieve. For example, if I dropped a scrunchy on the floor, or I sent them to get me the cordless phone, they could pick the item up (“take”), bring it to me (moving while they “hold” the object) and then put it in my hand (“give”).

However, neither of them was able to reliably hold the object quietly in their mouth while walking next to my chair, or while standing still next to me while I freed up my hands to take it. No, if I didn’t take the object when they brought it, they’d either drop it in my lap, or drop it on the floor and pick it back up (repeatedly), or shift it around in their mouths before giving up and dropping it on the ground again.

[Warning: The following paragraph is dense with clicker training terminology. Proceed at your own risk of being bored, confused, learning something new, or some combination thereof.]

I always thought of this problem as not having the “hold” on cue properly, but recently Shirley Chong gave me a different perspective by saying that the “give” was not under stimulus control. Both are true. My previous service dogs did not maintain their “hold” behavior until released, so that was not under stimulus control. But they also dropped the object (“give”) before I asked for it — in other words, before it was cued, so that was not truly on cue, either.

[Okay, those of you not interested in dog training or operant conditioning can refocus now.]

In fact, this seemingly boring repetitive exercise doesn’t just teach three behaviors. It addresses several essential aspects of all three.

First, it teaches Barnum how to take an object and hold it in the proper position (so that the bar rests behind his canines and in front of his molars), making him less likely to damage something by crunching it. Because I hold onto the db and take longer and longer to click, he learns to hold it until he’s cued to release it (give). This part of the training, above all, will give me with that heretofore elusive duration “hold.”

Eventually, when I start to let go of the object, he will learn that if he keeps quietly holding it in his mouth, he gets a click/treat, but if he drops it on the floor, he gets nothing. And, yes, at some point I will put the object on the floor (and eventually farther and farther away from me), and Barnum will learn how to take it (grab it correctly) from the floor. An object like a pen or bottle would be taken in the same way as the dumbbells, behind his canines. An object that is flat, thin, hard to grasp, or that requires care, would be “picked” with his lips (a pair of glasses), or front teeth (a dime or pulling my socks off my feet). When grabbing a pull cord to open a heavy door, he needs to get it in his molars so he can pull hard enough.

While the retrieve (go there, get that thing, bring it to me) seems like a simple skill — and for some dogs, especially dogs who naturally like to fetch — it is. Barnum does, in fact, know how to do this. However, this is not the same as building a trained retrieve, with each part equally strong and under stimulus control, providing multiple applications beyond retrieving. It is that part of the process that requires so much time, patience, and attention to detail.

How does it get applied “in real life”?

When Barnum knows these skills, I can tell him to take and hold a door pull, and pair that with “back-up,” and voila! We have door opening.

If I want him to bring me water from the refrigerator, he has to take the door pull and hold it while pulling back to open the fridge door. Then he has to take and hold the water bottle in the proper position in his mouth so he doesn’t puncture the bottle or drop it. He has to maintain that firm but gentle hold while he goes around the fridge door and noses it shut, and then brings me the water. At that point, I will ask him to give it to me, but perhaps only after doing “paws up” on the bed.

Do you get it now? This is the gateway drug skill to most of the service tasks Barnum will need to know! Now you see why dog training is so exciting and addictive, right? Right? Alright, wake up. The post’s over. [Sigh.]

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I learned to retrieve using my favorite toy, my Dino!), and Barnum, SDiT (If I chomp the bar thing in her hand, I get beef heart!)


8 Responses to “The Trained Retrieve”

  1. 1 Karyn July 15, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Smile! You actually enlightened me about Met’s faulty hold. Thane’s is much better but I will admit on occasion we have to go back and re-work it because I let him get sloppy.
    I was enlightened by Shirley Chong’s concept and frankly that makes much more sense to me regarding my boys.
    We stalled at the stage you are on with Thane. It was like he just could not get it at various levels and raise his head back up. That’s actually when I added the cue *eyes to the sky* which comes in handy in many different situations now.
    I hope you guys don’t stall. I know how awesome it is to send Thane up on the bed for the remotes I forgot to get when I got up or to open and close the fridge when I just can not or to grab an item of laundry that fell out of my reach and yes pull my socks and pjs off when I need to change clothes or head to a shower. I am in eager anticipation of Barnum’s first retrieve

  2. 2 brilliantmindbrokenbody July 15, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Hudson’s retrieve is probably his second most useful task (after stabilizing me) – and that’s not counting his retrieve as being part of opening things and whatnot, just the retrieve itself. I drop things all the time, and having a quick and easy retrieve is really important for me. I do have to keep working with him to keep him from deciding to shove things into my hands instead of waiting for me to take it and tell him to give it, but he’s gotten better about it. When we were at team training, he crunched several things (a pill bottle or two, a water bottle or two) and we had to work a lot on ‘hold that but don’t crush it’.

    Like most dogs, he’s not fond of picking up metal things, but he doesn’t get his food until he picks up his bowl and gives it to me, so he’s mostly gotten over it. He occasionally insists he can’t pick up heavier objects like a full waterbottle, so that’s another thing we work on. I start with it half full and slowly add more water until it’s full – those are relatively long training sessions, because we’re not done until he’s picking up the full bottle! He’s much less likely to refuse a task now than he was when I first got him (and I think he was trying to figure out the boundaries of what I would actually MAKE him do).

    I share your excitement, Sharon! Retrieve is so, SO useful and important!


  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler July 15, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Well, yeah, you always have to put in the work somewhere — on the front end or the back. This time around I’m doing a LOT at the front so hopefully we will have less of crunching bottles and suchlike.

    Barnum is unusual in that he has always enjoyed picking up (and chewing or running with or hiding) objects of any material, including metal. I remember when I was trying to teach him to drop things and trade up for higher value stuff, I really had a hard time because whatever he was holding WAS the highest value thing — higher value than a food treat or another “thing.” I tried to find what I thought would be the least appealing — an all-metal fork — and gave it to him so I could trade up for something more exciting (paper towel, crumpled paper, food). He didn’t want to give the fork up!

    Right now, his hold is best with the wood db and the metal db. He actually prefers them both to the plastic one, I think because the plastic has the fattest bit. The metal has the smallest bit in circumference/diameter, so he likes that the best!

  4. 4 Karyn July 16, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    For Thane the item of refusal or just partial retrieve- hey mom this is too heavy has been my shoes. We have gotten behind that now though after he brought one clear across the living room because his ball was stuck inside it (high tops) From then on, I knew he could deal with it! LOL

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler July 16, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    LOL. I love it when they just give away the game like that. Oops! Caught ya!

  6. 6 brilliantmindbrokenbody July 17, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    I’m confident that the school put in a lot of work on the front-end, but I think Hudson’s thing is him testing me. (Him crunching things was a combination of playing with them and testing me, according to the trainer, and it cleared up within a couple of days, though we destroyed something like 2 water bottles and 3 pillbottles on the way) I know, for example, that he can manage to pick up one of the heavy forearm crutches far enough for me to pick it up, much as he hates to. So stuff like water bottles and the like are things he can definitely pick up, he just doesn’t like to. I need to get him working more on carrying stuff. It’s enough of a nuisance to make him do it that it has taken more spoons for him to take it than for me to carry it, so I haven’t made much use of this skill. Thinking about it, though, that’s a lousy reason to let him be on that, because once I win, he should carry stuff around with a lot less effort on my end to make it happen! Right. I’m steeling myself to work on this. Especially since I want him bringing me bottles of water or gatorade from the fridge, which he can’t do if he won’t carry a bottle!

    I’ll admit, I lol’d a bit at the image of Barnum refusing to give up whatever he had in exchange for something better. I guess he’s a bird-in-the-paw kind of boy!

  7. 7 brilliantmindbrokenbody July 17, 2011 at 9:25 pm


    Shoes are actually one of Hudson’s preferred long retrieval items, I think. It’s the only one he’ll do consistently at a long range. Matter of fact, if I ask him to get something at a long range, he frequently tries to start by giving me shoes!

  8. 8 Mary Hunter July 19, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    Good post! I liked the video–it looks like you guys are making good progress. I love Sue Ailsby’s levels program, it is a very nice progression of skills.

    And thanks for linking to my blog–I wish many clicker trainers had a better understanding of stimulus control.



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