Retrieve: To Control the Predator Simply Control the Prey

I’ve had some questions lately about how I train a dog to retrieve. Here is an overview of how a dog sees it and how I get in his brain.

I don’t use obedience, don’t need it. I simply nurture their natural instinct to chase and catch prey. My method is based on the natural order of things. When it comes to predators, they are controlled by the prey. Let me say that again. The prey is controlling and managing the hunt. Not the dog and certainly not the owner.  As an example, if the birds are spooky and run or fly off when you enter the field (late season pheasants sound familiar?), they have controlled the hunt.  The prey is ultimately in control of the dogs success. It makes sense then, that when it comes to retrieving, if I can control the prey (the object being retrieved), I control the predator.

Some dogs naturally love retrieving and will bring it back as many times as you will throw it. Others do it well once they’re shown how it works. Remember, the thing you throw ( a bird, a bumper, a dummy), from your dogs point of view, is prey. You’ll find that most dogs will run out to the object you throw. That’s instinctively chasing prey. For those that don’t naturally bring it back, I need to show them how the game works. Bringing it back (sharing the prey) is not a natural response. I need to create a reward for sharing. Here’s what I do. I tie a string to the object then throw it out, hanging on to the end of the string. When they go to it, I will say fetch and pull the object back to me. Once I get it in my hand, I praise the dog and offer it back to him. As soon as he understand how this works, I will take off the string. Now I throw the object out and say fetch. When the dog leaves for the retrieve, I walk away in the opposite direction. No pressure, no competition for the object, no self centered interest. He now realizes I’m not going to take his prize and in fact, he needs to find a way to keep me engaged. He learns that if he chooses to share it with me, I will make it fly away so he can chase, and catch it again (predator/prey). It does not take long before the dog brings it to me and asks me to throw it again.

Something else I find very effective is to work on the other side of the trust equation. I have a helper hold the dog while I throw the object out. Now, with the dog restrained, I walk out to the object, pick it up, stand still and say fetch. The helper releases the dog who then comes to ME for the retrieve. When he arrives, I share it with him just as he shared it with me earlier. For those dogs with a history of obedience training, this can be a mind bending experience.

Everything I do is based on building and maintaining trust. Whenever possible, I want a dog using his free will and choosing to include me in his success.


About the author
Brad Higgins, professional dog trainer and creator of the unique Higgins Method of dog/handler training.

One Comment on "Retrieve: To Control the Predator Simply Control the Prey"

  1. Great article, Brad. You have also said in the past that retrieving to hand is not natural for dogs. Since they are actually sharing their prey with you when they retrieve, the natural way for them to do this is to lay the object at your feet. I really notice this with my youngster Shiloh who we had on the magic brush pile last week. In the magic brush pile, the dog sees the bird fly up, the gun go off, the bird falls, and the gunner retrieves the bird and shares it with the dog by throwing at the dogs feet. The dogs learns to be steady through this whole process. After being on the magic brush pile, Shiloh, who is a retrieving fool, now always places the retrieved dummy at my feet. I used to have to wrestle it from his mouth. Good boy, Shiloh!

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