Getting Your Puppy to Come Backby Amy Dahl, Ph.D.
Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband, John, of The 10-Minute Retriever - How to Make an Obedient and Enthusiastic Sporting Dog in 10 Minutes a Day.
Last issue we discussed building retrieving desire, the single most important objective of puppy work. In this column we give another important tip on maximizing a pup’s focus and motivation, and discuss an issue which comes up with almost all good puppies: how to get the pup to come back to you.
When you throw marks for your puppy, it is very important that you restrain the pup. Restraining a puppy as retrieves are thrown does a lot to build desire and eagerness. If you throw while the pup is loose "at large" it will not focus or mark nearly so well. At the other extreme, trying to teach a young pup to be steady will harm its confidence or make it quit retrieving altogether. A young pup may be easily restrained with a hand in front of its chest.
Very young puppies usually come straight back.
As your puppy gets bigger, switch to holding it back by the collar until the dog training dummy is nearly on the ground. You may need to use your other hand on your puppy’s rear to hold it still in the "sit" position. If this fails to stop your pup from jumping so wildly that it does not mark the falls, you may need to do some early steadying work. The wildly flailing pup has convinced itself that it needs to flail in order to get away from you to make the retrieve. You don’t want to punish it, only to teach it that flailing is counterproductive. Usually if you quietly tell it to "sit" and refuse to release it until it does, your puppy will learn in a few repetitions that sitting still gets it what it wants. If this fails, we recommend standing on the end of your pup’s check cord, with maybe two feet of slack (make sure it will not foul your puppy’s feet), telling it to "sit" as you throw, and making it come back to your side and sit before you release it. Go back to collar restraint as soon as your pup is watching its marks.
"How can I get my puppy to come back to me on retrieves?" is probably the most often-asked question in retriever work. While usually the asker is looking for a short simple answer, in fact getting puppies to come back is an ongoing challenge that lasts up to the age of six months and beyond. Most good retriever puppies want to hang on to the retrieve object, especially if it is a bird, and sooner or later get the idea of not bringing it back to you. A pup may head the other way with the dummy in its mouth, dance around out of reach, or lie down with a possessive paw over the dummy (and possibly chew on it). Don’t get angry; this is a good sign, and perfectly normal. It will, however, require patience and ingenuity to work through the not-coming-back stage.
"Sooner or later most puppies think of keeping the dummy."
For little puppies who want to run away, hallway retrieves work well. If you throw the retrieve object down a hallway, there is nowhere to go but back to you. Sometimes it is necessary to sit to one side of the hallway, making it look as though your pup has an opportunity to run past you into the living room, in order to get the puppy to come your way. Of course, you can reach out at the last minute and capture the pup. If your puppy holds on to the dog training dummy, pet and praise it for a moment before taking the dummy from its mouth, in the hope that it won’t equate returning with having its prize snatched away.
Most puppies should not be trained forcibly to return before they are about six months old — the cost to their confidence and initiative, and that all-important desire, is too great. Instead, just engineer a way to get your puppy back. There are a variety of approaches to try. Sometimes kneeling down, arms wide apart, is enough to attract a puppy. Praising your pup in an excited tone of voice, clapping your hands, and backing away (or even turning and looking over your shoulder as you move away) will often get a young "chewer" to pick up the dummy and run to you. It helps to establish, in separate sessions, that when you call your pup in an excited tone of voice, it can get praise, attention, and/or treats by coming to you.