Retrieving, or “fetching” for the average puppy, is a fun and self-rewarding activity that most pups enjoy. Even some very young puppies, especially spaniel and retriever puppies, will bring a toy or another object to their owners without understanding why they are doing so. No matter what the breed, however, as soon as a puppy is able to carry an object in his or her mouth, it is likely to be ready to start retrieving.
Puppies tend to follow a developmental timetable. They open their eyes anywhere between 11 and 15 days of age, but their vision doesn't sharpen until they are about a month old. By that time, their legs are starting to function properly, they can stand, walk without wobbling too much and control their movements enough to start to play with their litter mates. All of these things are important to developing retrieving behavior, in that puppies must be able to see an object and control their body well enough to retrieve it.
Once puppies are able to see, move around and play, they are interested in exploring their worlds. Such exploration often involves picking things up with their mouths, carrying those things around and sometimes running away with them. Naturally, picking things up also includes dropping things and chasing those things around if they roll, if only to pick the objects up to carry them around some more. All of these behaviors are instinctive and can be shaped into actual retrieving behavior as puppies mature. After 8 weeks of age, puppies are interested in playing retrieving games with their owners.
Playing “fetch” with your puppy is an informal retrieval game that acts upon his instinct to pick up and carry. The puppy plays solely for the joy of running and getting the approval of the owner. There is no need for your puppy to go immediately to the toy he is to fetch by the most direct route. Neither does your puppy need to return the item directly to you, so “parading” by carrying the toy back and forth is acceptable behavior.
Retrieving, in training terms, is a formal behavior. It requires the dog to go directly out to the retrieve object, pick it up without mouthing it, and bringing it back to the trainer without pausing. Unlike the “fetch” game, no toy “keep away” play is allowed: the puppy must release the object immediately into the trainer’s hand. Because of the formal training requirements, the puppy takes longer to learn how to build on his natural retrieving instincts than he does learning the informal “fetch” behavior. After the puppy has reached 3 months of age, his brain should be developed sufficiently to learn more formal retrieving behavior.
Puppies like to bring things back to their sleeping places or other secure places. You might want to sit on or near your puppy’s bed to encourage him to return a toy to you or near you at first. Training your puppy to chase and return objects to you using a restricted area, like a hallway, also is helpful. If your puppy has no way to parade for long distances and has no place to hide, then he’ll be more likely to bring the object back to you to throw again. As with any training, start slow and keep the retrieves short. Start with tossing the ball or toy only a few feet -- or only a few inches, if necessary -- and make it seem like the best fun in the world for him to bring the object back to you. Lots of praise and petting is the best reward and the best encouragement for early retrieving training.
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