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Teach your dog to let go after retrieving

(Q) My chocolate Lab, Alice, is generally a happy and healthy dog. She loves playing retrieve games, but sometimes she will pick up a stick (or a ball belonging to another dog) and then she refuses to come back and drop either the ball or the stick. She stays just out of reach, play-growling and shaking her head. She is particularly prone to doing this when there are other dogs around, although she has done it when we are alone.

It tends to spoil the game, as we just have to ignore her until she gets bored and decides to give up. Unfortunately this can sometimes take half an hour or more. Do you have any tips on how we can get her to stop doing this?

(A) Trainer Elizabeth Kershaw says: If you haven’t already done so, teach Alice the leave exercise. This can be done in several ways but this is my usual version:

  • Hold some food in your hand at your dog’s nose level — say nothing. Ignore until a minimal gap appears between the nose and your hand, then reward.
  • Continue rewarding, first a wider gap and then her nose remaining away longer, until the dog understands that the nose moves away and stays away.
  • Progress to opening your palm to reveal a treat and close your hand if the dog approaches. Then to making the dog’s eyes leave the food and maintaining eye contact with you. Name this particular behaviour ‘Leave’.
  • Start to place uncovered food on your knee, a low table, or the floor. Start to use the cue on other articles. In each case, your dog should withdraw and make eye contact.

Generalise this behaviour to outside — first in the garden and then on walks. On each correct response make sure an appropriate level of reward is given, such as a thrown toy or a special treat.

You can also try the two toy solution. Always have two identical toys available and if Alice is fixated on one and refuses to release it, throw the other in the opposite direction. You can also play with two balls in an open area, away from other dogs initially. One ball you throw and as your dog reaches and picks it up, you call her and throw the other in the opposite direction. You soon build up a pattern of her returning and waiting for the second object to be thrown rather than retreating into the undergrowth with the trophy.

Playing with her with her own toys will help to keep her with you. I would avoid using a thrown stick as these can make dangerous toys for dogs and are best avoided.

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