One of the most frequent questions I get in is "how do I get my puppy to do a better job retrieving?" It's not an easy answer - some puppies just aren't great retrievers, regardless of the amount of training they receive. However, there are definitely some things that we can do as trainers to cultivate the retrieve drive in our puppies (or dogs).
Here is a list of some of the rules I follow when creating retrieve drive in my puppies.
1) LESS IS MORE. Young dogs shouldn't be made to retrieve so much that it becomes a job. This should be an easy concept for us to understand because the same concept applies to humans. If you get too much of a good thing, it will cease to be a good thing. We want to keep puppies EXCITED about retrieving, which means they should only get a few retrieves in each session. We want to end each session with the puppy wanting more. If you end when the puppy gets disinterested, that means you did too many retrieves! Next time, make sure you stop sooner.
2) Use an object that the puppy really likes. If your puppy doesn't like a hard retrieving dummy, then don't use it. We want retrieving to be exciting and fun for them! My favorite retrieving items for a puppy are a tennis ball (sometimes a small one for a young puppy), knotted up rag, or soft canvas dummy.
3) Keep it small. For a young dog, I want the retrieves to be very short and easy. That means I usually start out in a hallway, and sometimes I use only half of the hallway. The last thing I want to do is go outside and throw a long retrieve for a puppy. That's frequently going to end badly because the puppy is going to get distracted and forget about the retrieve, or it's going to struggle to find the retrieve and lose interest. Short, easy, and FUN are good things to remember here!
4) Intelligent praise. If the objective for your puppy is to retrieve an object to your hand, don't offer praise for other behaviors. I frequently see people praising their puppy when it is not retrieving, hoping this will cause the puppy to retrieve. It rarely works this way. We want to make sure we are offering praise at the right moment, and that the praise stops when the correct behavior stops.
5) Isolated training. Before a retrieving session with a puppy, I always start with the puppy in the crate for a period of time (maybe 30 minutes), then I do the retrieving, then the puppy goes back into the crate. Trust me on this - if you isolate the retrieving session, you'll get more effort out of your puppy.
6) Don't ask for too much. Whenever we ask our puppy to do something that isn't natural, it's a form of pressure on the puppy. Demanding a perfect delivery from a puppy is most likely going to be counter productive as the pressure will sap the fun out of the retrieving. I take what I can get on the delivery, and slowly work on making it better over MONTHS of retrieving games, not in one session.
7) Don't reach. Can you imagine a 100 LB hand reaching into your face to take something out of your mouth? Intimidating to say the least. This is the perspective for a puppy when you shove your hand in its face. This frequently causes dropping the object short, or avoidance. My suggestion is to instead call the puppy back into a Cato Board, or to your knee (assuming you're crouched down to the puppy's level) and THEN take the take the retrieve. This way, the puppy isn't feeling the pressure of the hand, but is instead is being called back to a positive, inviting place.
8) Implement the Cato Board early on. Even with an 8 week old puppy, I start giving them retrieves off of a Cato Board. Initially they may not even be aware that they are on the Cato Board, but fairly quickly they will understand that when they hop onto the Cato Board, it leads to games with you. This will serve them well throughout life as many advanced games (drills) will happen off of the Cato Board throughout their life.
While each puppy is unique, following these rules will help your puppy to develop into an adult dog that loves retrieving. Good luck and happy training!