Friday, May 28, 2021

Otto at 9 Months and our Retrieving Journey


Otto doesn't really have a retrieve. Or so I have said repeatedly over the past 5 months. 

What I meant was, Otto doesn't play "fetch" like my border collies. My experience, up to this point, has been with dogs that either play fetch (anytime, anywhere, as long as someone will throw the toy--Lok, Jun, and Ira) or don't play fetch (Elo--unless it was with a baseball that he found himself at the park, or occasionally in the basement when he felt like it). My attempts to build a fetch game with Elo utterly failed. He would turn his head as if he did not see either me or the toy I was attempting to engage him with and ignore me until I gave up. 

As a disc dogger, I have always felt I was pretty proficient in training the various aspects of a game of fetch, and my dogs who have played fetch automatically from the moment they came home had aspects of the game that they needed training on: releasing the toy on cue, carrying the toy until given a verbal drop cue, switching to another toy.  What they haven't needed work on was being interested in toys to begin with, picking up the toy, or bringing it back to me.

"Otto doesn't really have a retrieve," I told multiple people, with some level of embarrassment. And I could feel their judgment, probably all in my head, but I could feel it nonetheless. After all, he's a retriever. A poodle. He's supposed to retrieve more or less automatically.  He's supposed to want to run after the thrown ball, pick it up, and bring it back to me. And I'm a dog trainer. I'm supposed to be able to get my dog to retrieve. And his parents and siblings are retrieving fools.

At 12 weeks, he would run after a toy, and bring it back to me to chew in my lap. He would tug, sometimes, but not with a ton of enthusiasm and not with just any toy. I set about "working on his play skills" with the games that are supposed to work. Games of two-toy, cheering him on when he tugs, or brings the toy back, letting him win. It was a bust. By 15 weeks, he wasn't playing at all. He turned up his nose at almost any toy. He refused to pick up a ball. Occasionally he would paly fetch with a piece of trash or some "forbidden" item. Mostly when I could get him to play with a tug toy, he would just roll on his back and bat at the toy like a cat. Amusing, but not really what I was hoping for in my sport dog.

I told myself his mouth was hurting, and I mostly believed it. He was teething. And he had a base narrow canine hitting the roof of his mouth. I told other people his mouth was hurting, and they raised an eyebrow. And I truly wondered if I was just making excuses for him. And then, the day after he lost the offensive canine, at around 6 months old, he started to pick up balls for fun, and I started to feel a little vindicated.

Since then, and since his adult teeth have come in and resolved themselves (with the help of a minor oral surgery) his interest in toys has grown. He tugs now, he enjoys balls and frisbees, and he has started to simply carry things around in his mouth like his other siblings do. 

But I have continued to lament that he doesn't have a retrieve. He doesn't play fetch. And it's not that he NEEDS to play fetch. But if he enjoyed it, it would make his obedience and potential hunting career a lot more fun for him. I scoured hunting resources for how to teach a dog to enjoy fetching and came up empty.

And then, a couple weeks ago, I remembered that I am a disc dogger. I have these skills.

I had given up on using the techniques I know to build his play skills because his interest in toys was simply not high enough for them to work. He is also a sensitive dog and "cheerleading" him is perceived as pressure and he will shut down. BUT now he has enough interest in toys that maaaaybe I can teach him some different ways to play, and that they are fun! 

First off, I brought back two-toy, and it was an instant success. He tends to value possession and he likes to take his toy and go lay down with it. But if I have an identical toy and play with it on my own, he seems to think that the toy I have might be more interesting than the one he has, and he wants it. So that has been somewhat successful. He's shown sustained interest in playing disc with a second identical disc to lure him back to me.

The second game I've used is called "tiny tugs." Rather than a long drawn-out game of tug, and letting him win, I give a tiny tug on the toy, let go, and back up. He follows me, and I repeat. This has been teaching him to drive to me with the toy for the fun to continue, and since there's no long, drawn-out fight for the toy, he doesn't feel he's "won" it and feel the need to take it and go off by himself.

 Thirdly, it occurred to me that chasing (preferably being the chasee, but being the chaser is a close second) is SUPER high value for him. I took him out with a single disc the other day, and when he'd pick it up, I RUN, sometimes just in a straight line back and sometimes all around the yard. When I stopped running, he'd come to me with the disc and release it for another throw. This is the closest he's gotten to a real game of fetch! I've also been doing the same when working his trained bumper retrieves and it's increased the enthusiasm of his return.

Finally, picking up a "dead" (i.e. still/motionless) toy (or bird, which is also literally dead) has been a struggle. But stealing things is also SUPER high value for him. So I've started playing a game of "race me to the bumper." If I get there first, I get it. If he gets there first, he gets it, and so far I have to "let" him win, but still, it seems to be showing promise. He is starting to drive to the bumper with a lot more enthusiasm! 

 I don't know if he will become a dog who places a high value on a game of "fetch," but he's certainly come a long way in literally two weeks. If he had persisted in not valuing toys, despite resolution of his mouth pain, I don't know where we would end up. But luckily his interest in toys has grown naturally, and hopefully I can continue to shape it into a cooperative partnership that he will find more fun than laying down with his toy. 

As far as the rest, Otto continues to blow me away! 


  • Otto is sending to a dumbbell at 10-15', picking up, and returning to me with a quiet mouth. He can sit with the dumbbell in his mouth. We haven't introduced a front with it.
  • He has both down-from-stand, and sit-from down on signals only at 10-15' and I've started introducing doing both, one, after the other.
  • He has a great moving down with the "follow the food" game, and I've been able to build up to a fast walking speed. He is also doing really well with his moving sit, but we've had that for awhile.
  • His heeling is super cute and precise. Endurance is our main struggle with that. I've found that he enjoys trotting after me while I run backwards, so we will use that to help build up some endurance for the head-up position he needs for heeling.
  • He's a sent article whiz, with 100% accuracy on mixed articles (no retrieve yet) in all kinds of environments.
  • We've started baby directed jumping with cones. 
  • He marks and sends to a stanchion at 10-15'
  • He marks and sends to a food target at 20 yards
  • His sit at a distance is getting there at about 6'
  • His front is really coming along, even from extreme angles, and he understands side-passing and pivoting in front position
All in all, he has tiny pieces of almost everything he needs for his obedience career.  He's also in an agility foundations class and he just amazes me every week. We're doing wrapping cones with front and rear crosses, sends through hoops to foot targets, turning on narrow boards, and all kind of other stuff. He just seems to get it, and it's so fun!

Finally, we took a hunting seminar this month. As I note above, he "doesn't have a retrieve" so what we did in class didn't look a whole lot like bird dog work. BUT, it was awesome exposure! He got to hear a lot of gunfire and was unphased. He worked on focus in a hugely distracting environment. He got to pick up both long-dead and freshly killed ducks and run with them in his mouth. He got to practice looking at a mark thrown by another person. It was a great start and we both learned so much!

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