I’ve wanted Barnum to know how to play fetch all along. I knew it would be a good way for us to play and give him exercise when I couldn’t take him for walks (especially in the winter). Fortunately, he had natural fetching instincts, and I’ve been able to shape a pretty reliable, enthusiastic fetch so we can play for a decent length of time with him still being “in the game.”
I have mentioned in previous posts that we are doing a lot of retrieve training. The trained retrieve is not at all the same thing as fetch. Fetch is a game, intended for fun and/or exercise, where the dog is welcome to squeak, pounce upon, shake, drop, and otherwise mutcher the ball or toy on his way back to you. In our case, my criterion for the return of the ball was also just that it needed to land at my feet, not in my hand, on cue, as is the case for the trained retrieve.
In a trained retrieve, the dog should be focused, pick up the object without batting it with his nose or paws, carry it quietly in his mouth (without rolling or chomping the item), and hold it until cued to place it in your hand.
However, two days ago Barnum made a connection between the two that is extremely useful for me. With fetch, I was satisfied with the ball just landing at my feet because I used the Chuckit! stick to pick it up. However, sometimes we use big, rubber squeaky balls that don’t work with the Chuckit! In the winter, the large, buoyant rubber balls will slide on top of snow, whereas a Chuckit! tennis ball would just plummet into the snow, possibly never to be seen again until spring. The solution I was thinking of was to train Barnum to bring the ball to me on the ramp, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to reach the ball to throw it again. (Because if there’s snow, usually the only place I can go is the ramp and the shoveled paths at either end).
We’ve been doing lots of Levels retrieve training, focusing on different aspects of it — sometimes a sustained hold, sometimes the give (waiting to release it into my hand till I say “Thank You,” or making sure to raise the item up high enough, or putting it in whichever hand I’m indicating), and now I’ve started teaching him to take an object from me and bring it to an assistant and vice-versa. I’m now also waiting for him to pick up the retrieve object if I drop it (accidentally or on purpose) without any further cues for me. I want him to learn that the behavior is not over until I have the thing in my hand and it’s not going anywhere.
He has started sometimes to “throw behavior at me” — when we are not training — by seeing things on the floor, picking them up, and bringing them to me, which I am rewarding. For me, it’s more important right now to encourage his “being in the game” and finding retrieving rewarding than it is to worry about whether the behavior is cued or not. Sometimes this gets rather funny, as if I put something down and he gives it to me, and I put it down again, then he gives it to me again. Eventually I realize I should put the item somewhere else if I don’t want to keep playing this game!
So, we were playing fetch on Friday with a big rubber ball, and around the third time he was coming back, he dropped the toy a couple of feet away, and I was wiped out and didn’t want to have to get it. So I just waited and held out my hand like I do for a retrieve, not really expecting much, but just to see what would happen. I didn’t use any retrieve cues. I was hoping maybe he’d bring it closer.
He saw that the game was not continuing (and he also had not received a treat), so he went back, picked up the ball, and came over and put it in my hand in my lap! I was thrilled. We did several more throws, and each time he put it right in my lap, just as if that was the way we always have done it. Clearly he made the connection between placing things in my hand for the retrieve and doing the same for fetch.
Dog trainers are fond of saying that dogs aren’t good at generalizing, but it varies a lot from dog to dog, and situationally. This is one case where Barnum generalized in a way I hadn’t expected, and it’s such a gift! It will make playing fetch in winter much more doable. I’m grateful to the Levels and proud of my boy.
– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (Fetch? meh.) and Barnum, SDiT