I am a great believer in encouraging natural retrieving with all dogs from a very early age. What is more fun for dog and owner than to play 'Fetch'? By teaching a dog not only to retrieve but also to enjoy it, this reward can be used in so many instances to create good behavior and even modify unwanted behavior. A knotted handkerchief or rag, old smelly socks (they are particularly popular), a small ball, a rubber 'toy', anything which pup will want to pick up can be used at first. Playing with a safe object that is interesting will make the pup realize that this is not only fun but pleases you also and be the start of a rewarding relationship. Some dogs are more interested in carrying than others, but many owners do nothing to encourage their very young pups to carry, more intent on ensuring that the pup picks up nothing as this could be unsafe or cause damage. I prefer to encourage pups to pick up and carry but always bring the object up to me and give it readily. Anything dangerous can then easily and safely be dealt with, should the need arise. Socks are the most popular object, but why panic when pup has got one, its only a sock! Encourage pup up with it take it slowly and gently and then give it back to him for a few seconds before taking it again. Get the pup confident I coming to you with its prizes.
Puppies like to chew, so roll a treat, or a hide chew. Even a hard knucklebone can be used to encourage a pup to run and pick up. Initially the pup may not return with it but if it will pick up and parade around carrying the object for even a short time, you can praise and show how clever the pup is in your eyes. Do not chase and create problems where the pup will keep away from you or encourage you to chase it. Even little tugs of war with a small object can encourage the pup to hold and carry, but be careful not to do this too much as the dog may refuse to let go when you need it to. In this case just gently squeeze behind the object with the thumb on one side of the mouth and the index finger on the other, pushing your fingers very gently on the cheeks and between the teeth. Take the object with your free hand giving the command "Drop". With tug of war I like to start the game but I also like to finish it, never letting the pup run off with the prize. If it does, I encourage it back and then after holding the pup and praising it for coming and holding it for a few seconds, I take it from its mouth and put the object away.
To encourage a good retrieve right up to your body I have often found that the best place to get a puppy returning to, especially if it is carrying a 'prized possession' is its bed or place of security. With young pups I will often sit in their bed or on their beanbag and play with retrieves there. The pup is much more likely to bring back a retrieve to this place than anywhere else. A hallway or narrow space between say a fence and the house is also good as the pup cannot run past you. At this stage always make the retrieves very short four or five yards and build up gradually as the pup gains confidence in you. By playing, encouraging and guiding a young pup to retrieve naturally from a very early age it is surprising how much the pup sees this work as fun and a reward to such an extent that food treats are rarely required. This retrieving can then form a focus in the pup's training, helping to develop obedience, control and particularly eye contact. Make sure pup becomes confident when it is close to your body and wants to come right up to it. Never grab for the dog or the retrieving 'toy'. Touch the dog as it goes past, guide it into your lap or your legs as you kneel down. Don't take the retrieve object but gently and slowly stroke and pet, under the chest and chin especially and down the back. When pup is comfortable being close to your body holding the object in its mouth you can then take the retrieve and again praise. There is no need to rush and no need to take the retrieve immediately as the dog returns. Stay calm, unhurried, be gentle and quiet.
Where pups are reluctant to retrieve or even just carry, look for the opportunities that will present themselves whenever they may occur. Just holding a chew stick in your hand and letting the pup chew on it for say ten seconds, then taking it away, then giving it back helps to create the hand contact and familiarity with objects being taken away and then given back. Sit in it's bed, throw the chew stick a short distance and then encourage it back for you to hold it once more. Attach a rag to the chew stick and once the pup will bring chew stick with rag, put the rag on a ball or bumper and soon the progression to carrying anything is well under way. Although this may sound rather gross, I also put my scent on retrieve objects by spitting on them and rubbing the spittle over them.
Most pups are keen carriers of sticks and other small objects, some of them not always pleasant, and when they do pick things up they often run off with them. This quite normal reaction is a result of the pups 'natural' instinct to pick up scraps of food and carry them away to eat without the danger of them being stolen by littermates. So you will often find that even if pup does come to you, it will sometimes roll on the retrieve object, put it's head down to guard it or keep turning it's head away so that you cannot take it. Providing the pup is holding the object never hurry the delivery but wait for the dog to become confident and want to bring it up to you. When it does, do not take it immediately but let the pup hold it while you praise it for doing so. If you rub behind the pups ears with your hands either side of the face or rub it's chest then the pup usually begins to adopt a nice delivery position without even realizing. Gently guide the retrieve out of the dog's mouth giving the command 'Drop', and after a few seconds, if it is a stick, ball or similar safe object, give it back to the pup to carry around. Sharing the object builds confidence in the dog and it will be more likely to let you have it's possession if it thinks they will be returned. With valuable or personal, objects be careful not to let panic take over. Do not chase the pup or snatch the object from it's mouth. Encourage the pup up to you or walk calmly up to it and gently open the mouth taking the object without making a big fuss or punishment. Never punish pup while it is carrying.
A young pup needs time to develop the right actions, so don't make a big thing about retrieves that are not perfect or the fact that when you call the pup it may put down what it is carrying before returning to you. You are only at early play school not university, and pup needs time to learn what is required. Watch for situations where you can manage the actions of the pup getting it to do exactly what you want and then praise. You will be surprised how quickly it will learn from this. However lose your cool and do things which frighten pup and you will not only be surprised how it learns this reaction from you but also remembers it for the rest of it's life.
Once your pup returns to you willingly and likes being praised and handled, you can give the occasional 'formal' training retrieve with a soft object - a rolled up sock or a puppy dummy is ideal. This training 'toy' should not be left around the floor for pup to see and play freely with. It should be your special training 'toy' kept purely for retrieving training. Initially, let your young pup run with the thrown 'toy' to instill some enthusiasm. As you throw the 'toy' give the command "Fetch it". The moment pup reaches the 'toy', call and encourage it back to you using your voice to entice pup right up to your body. Sitting on the floor with your legs open to guide pup into your body helps. If the pup does it well, don't keep doing it over and over again to see if it will do it well again, but stop on a good piece of work. Let the pup know you are pleased with your voice, your hands, your face and your whole behavior. Of course the amount of praise should match the temperament of the dog. An excitable dog should be praised calmly and an unenthusiastic one praised more actively. If you have an enthusiastic pup that really enjoys retrieving and hunting for the 'toy', begin making it wait (steadying) before sending it with the command to 'fetch', by holding it gently in the sit position with the command "sit", then throw the 'toy' and gradually increase the time before you send the dog with "Fetch it". If you kneel down and hold pup between your legs or with your arm around it, the hand on the front of the chest, in easy stages you can slacken your grip of the pup as it is sitting there until it begins to sit and watch the 'toy' being thrown without being held. It then waits for your fetch command. A dog that isn't very enthusiastic should be encouraged and enthused by letting it quickly chase the thrown object until the habit is well instilled, then steadied gently.
To get a dog really interested in retrieving, a tennis ball often does the trick. The motion of rolling it along the ground creates excitement and when it gets buried in grass or rough cover the dog has to use its nose to find it, another strong natural ability of your dog that it loves to work with - searching and scenting. Sometimes getting a ball out of the dog's mouth can be a problem. But don't panic, place a hand either side of the pup's mouth like a sandwich with the nose and mouth as the filling and your hands as the bread. The ball will now be between your fingers and by putting your middle index finger behind the ball, you can gently take it out. The pups face will also be guided so that is directly looking at you when you do this which is the start of a nice 'pretty' delivery. In the early days use short grass for retrieving so the pup quickly succeeds, but later you can work up to longer grass, so your pup really has to use its nose and work for the retrieve object.
When you are practicing early retrieves remember the young pup is only at play school and a perfect delivery is not essential. Just getting the retrieve back promptly to you with the pup holding it and not afraid of you touching him, should be the main objective. So often inexperienced trainers try to get their dogs in a sitting delivery immediately and in doing so create a number of problems. Try not to pressurize your pup in these early stages but get it in the habit of going out, searching, picking up, returning and holding the 'toy' until you are ready to take it.
Throughout all your puppy training and especially when doing retrieving use the tone of your voice rather than its volume to communicate with the pup. Your dog will have good, possibly even sensitive hearing at an early age and therefore there is no need to shout or even talk loudly when giving a command. By talking and calling softly you will attract its attention just as easily by using a calm, friendly tone and, more important, on the odd occasions that you may have to raise the volume you will be able to do so with effectiveness.
Make your retrieve training 'toys' special. To get the best out of a dog it is often advantageous to deny the dog any form of reward whether it be ball, rolled up sock or even freedom for an hour before undertaking any training. The 'toys' I use for retrieving are just for that and are not allowed to be around the house where the dog can play with them alone or just see them. They are special and do not become everyday 'ordinary' uninteresting objects. Training and working with the handler should be the highlight of the day. This is where a crate or kennel is invaluable during the early days of training. Let the pup have a 'time out' for re-vitalization and an unstimulated break before training - two hours or more. A place where the dog can relax and be out of harms way but where life also is a little inactive, where it is, dare I say, even a little boring. In fact the best time for training is early morning after a good sleep. The moment the dog comes out to train then anything done with you which is fun has to be one hundred percent or more enjoyable when compared to being in the crate plus it is alert. And, if you are concerned about time availability - all you need to do it for is five to ten minutes maximum. If you can do two sessions a day then that is a bonus. Exercise? Training using retrieving is exercise.
Once retrieving is instilled in your dog as a pleasurable activity it can be used to reinforce many other actions and is often seen by the dog as your part in the partnership you play together. You help the dog by throwing the retrieve, sending him, controlling him and receiving the retrieved object to do another activity with. I get the impression that the dog feels it is actually rewarding you by giving you the retrieve. It stands back and says' There's a good owner for doing what I enjoy!!' the reward and pleasure goes both ways, to owner and dog, a true partner relationship.