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  • Writer's pictureAnna Kouns

Teaching Service Dog Mobility Basics - Part 1 - Picking Up an Item

Have you ever watched a dog pick up a favorite toy or noticed a pup drag around a stick that is way too large for them? Or have you ever found yourself with a ball or frisbee dropped at your feet – obviously for a game of fetch? Picking something up, putting something down, and dragging something around are all natural tasks that your dog might do on the daily. Believe it or not, many of the most complicated tasks that mobility service dogs perform hinge around these basic motions. Although your dog might do these things naturally, the key is to get them to do them on command. How do you accomplish such a feat? For simplicity’s sake, I am going to teach the play method. I have found this method to be very successful; however, if you try this method and it does not work for you, that’s okay!

In this blog, we are going to focus on how to teach your dog to pick something up on cue and bring it to you. First, you will need a few things:

1) High value treats or a favorite toy (but if the toys or treats are all your dog will focus on, then use something less exciting so that your dog will feel rewarded but not over-stimulated).

2) A quiet environment (now is not the time to have all the kids and dogs running around).

3) A favorite toy (such as a tug or ball).

Prerequisites: If your dog is not a natural retriever, you may want to do some pre-requisite training that involves playing with your dog. Doesn’t seem too complicated, right? The goal of this play style is to get your dog to love – I mean LOVE a particular toy. They will want to hold it, to snuggle it, to show it off. Once you are seeing signs that your dog loves this toy, then you are ready to progress. Here is an example of teaching your dog to love an item.

Our precious boxer/beagle’s name is Sparky, and he is about 37 pounds of love. All he wants in the world is to keep his all of us safe and to make us smile. Although Sparky is not a service dog, he still loves to learn new tricks and I love to teach them. Somewhere along our training journey, my husband David and I wanted to teach him to retrieve an item (really, we didn’t care what kind of item it was) from the refrigerator. This task involves several steps but one of the steps was to pick up the item of choice from inside the refrigerator. Thinking that if we wrapped an item (it ended up being an 8oz vitamin bottle) in a sock, he would get a better grip in his mouth and we would end up being able to wrap any item (i.e. a can of coke, jar of olives, small bottle of dressing) in that sock and he would know that’s what we wanted him to retrieve. So we asked him to retrieve that “sock” and gave him a treat once he did. And we asked him again and once he did, we gave him a treat. And asked again and we gave him a treat. And again. After multiple repetitions, I got out his tug toy and played tug with him. Being half boxer, Sparky loves tug. He latches on hard and pulls with all his might until either you tell him to stop or you give up. Every day and sometimes multiple times a day, David and I trained in this way with our pup. Over time, Sparky has accumulated a bunch of toys – all of whom he will play with. However, there is one thing that all of his toys have in common: they either squeak, bounce, or they taste good. The vitamin bottle wrapped in a sock had none of these characteristics. One day, after about a month of training in this way with “sock”, I caught Sparky doing something unexpected. He was lying in his bed cuddled up with sock! Then, low and behold, he picked up sock in his mouth and sat there in his bed just looking at me. The moment lasted about thirty seconds until finally he dropped it back in his bed and laid down with it again.

I thought this might have been an anomaly but then the next day I asked him to go get his “ball”. To be honest, I was not sure if he 100% knew the word “ball” but it is his favorite toy so if I ask him to get anything, he almost always gets his ball. However, this time when I asked him to get it, he came back with sock! This pattern continued and I realized that all his sock retrieval training was paying off. We taught Sparky to love his sock.

This was a long story for conditioning your dog to love a toy but hopefully it made a point. If you associate positivity and fun with an object, your dog will develop a certain fondness for that object and training them to pick it up on command will be a piece of cake!

So back to training!

A frequent question that I get asked when helping people train their dogs is, “How do I know when my dog is ready to progress to the next step?” Unfortunately, the answer is not as cut and dry as you probably want to hear. When your dog is ready to progress varies from dog to dog. Although, the practice time needed varies depending on the dog, I do have a magic number that I use to determine this. If your dog can complete the task without stopping to pause, 3xs in a row, they are ready to progress to the next step. However, this is not always the case. As a general rule, if your dog is struggling at one step, go back to the previous step until they are confident there. In dog training, slow is faster!

Now we are ready for the first task!

To teach your dog to pick up an object:

Step 1)

Start with a favorite toy. Play with them with that toy. If they love retrieving, throw the toy a short distance and when they go get it, praise them and reward them with a favorite/ high-value treat. Once, they are doing this consistently, start tossing the toy less and less far away until you only have to drop it in front of you and they pick it up. Even if your dog is not a big retriever, you can convince them that they want that toy in their mouth by just playing with it with them. Now you are ready for the next step!

Step 2)

Now that they are picking up the toy easily, you can try attaching something that is not a toy to the toy. Repeat step one, playing with your dog with the toy + new object until your dog is easily picking up the toy/new object combo.

Step 3)

Now is the moment of truth! Un-attach the toy from the new object and toss it down just like you did with the combo. If your dog goes towards it, praise them! Encourage them to pick it up. It may take a bit of coaxing a few times of throwing it down but they should pick it up. Once they do, throw a party for them! Take them to Disney Land! Give them a jackpot of treats! You get the idea - don’t hold back on the praise! If you can’t convince your dog to pick up the item, don’t be discouraged! Go back to step 2 and repeat until your dog is eagerly picking up the toy+item. It may take some play and time, but you will get there! It may also help to have the attached item be something more pleasant for your dog to carry in their mouth like a leash or item of clothing. You might want to steer away from metal objects until they master the soft-textured items.

Step 4)

Add a verbal command to the task! You might consider “get it!” or “take it!” You may also start to name the dropped items such as “get leash!”

Diane Keaton, a cardiac alert and mobility service dog, learns how to retrieve her leash - video and training by P. Lynch

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