Put the Bird Where? – Preserving Delivery to Hand


I arrive at my neighbor’s door and knock. Pete answers the door and invites me to come in. I enter and sit on the couch and the two of us begin the discussion on improvements for the school festival. About 4 minutes into the conversation I feel something nudging my leg and look down. Pete’s border collie, Missy, is nudging me on the leg. I look down and see that she has a ball in her mouth. I take the ball and toss it for her. She fetches it and returns to nudge my leg again. The light bulb snaps on. Missy has,accidentally, trained herself to deliver to hand in order to get a person to toss the ball for her. If Missy could do that by accident, then we brilliant humans should be able to do it by design.

Being an astute dog trainer, I come up with a training model:

Start with two tennis balls:

Roll one ball across the ground. The dog pounces on it. You call him over and take it from his mouth and immediately give him a short throw. That is classic operant conditioning. The behavior is bringing the ball to hand. The reward is an immediate retrieve. Repeat a number of times and add on the cue, “fetch.”  Correct deliveries to hand are immediately paid with a toss. Non delivery to hand is not paid. The dog will figure out the payment system quickly. You will have a dog that delivers to hand and fetches on cue in about 3 sessions of a couple of a couple of minutes each. That beats the heck out of the traditional force fetch programs that can go on for six or eight weeks.

Here is a short video clip of Buccleuch Temperance learning delivery to hand.

Note the strings thru the tennis balls to compensate for fumble-fingered humans. Note also that a training dummy is slipped in when the dog is getting good. Note also  that Tempie is not rewarded for a delivery when she picks the dummy up by the string.

One thought on “Put the Bird Where? – Preserving Delivery to Hand

  1. I’ve been using the tennis ball method to teach young dogs to retrieve for over 40 years. The canine teeth fit neatly around a tennis ball so the puppy seldom drops the ball by accident. If you’re working more than one dog at a time, the more dominant dog cannot steal the tennis ball as he could snatch a bumper. As my throwing arm was getting weary I started using an old tennis racket and I can hit the tennis ball a long way and it becomes a good, quick workout. I can bounce the ball off the side of a tree or building in imitation of an escaping critter. And I have a game I call “catch the rat” which I play with the dog in the driveway where I just bounce and the dog tries to catch it on the bounce (they love it and it’s a quick workout). I also use a couple of tennis balls for marking drills and teaching the dog to complete a retrieve while, at the same time, mark the ball you hit in a new direction when he’s about half way back from the initial retrieve. If you’ll rinse off the tennis balls after a training session they’ll last a lot longer. I found some orange tennis balls which I now prefer over the original color. I usually wear an old glove if the dog slobbers heavily. Thankfully my GSP barely gets the ball wet so I bare hard the ball when I’m working her.

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