As with many other areas of dog training, there are many ways of teaching a dog to retrieve. I'm providing one method that works for teaching an obedience CDX hopeful, as well as for water rescue work:
Retrieving practice can be fun no matter what the weather!
'If you have a little puppy, play retrieving games where the puppy doesn't always have to give up the toy. Sometimes, just hold onto the toy with the puppy and use your other hand to stroke and pat the puppy for "getting" it and for "holding" it. This should continue through your dog's adult life and results in dogs who like having you a part of the retrieve, like to hold onto things and carry them around, and like to show you what they have in their mouths.
'Start retrieving games in places where the puppy cannot run off with the toy. The end of a hallway with the doors closed is a good beginning.
'When you start the formal "take, hold and give," start with a small bumper and have the dog in sitting position. Place a dish with dog treats in sight. Tell the dog to "get it" and slide the bumper into the dog's mouth. Hold up on the collar behind the dog's head with your left hand so that you have control over the dog's head movement. Your right hand strokes under your dog's chin and prevents the dog from dropping the bumper while you praise the dog for "holding." If the dog struggles, don't tell the dog to "give" up the bumper until he relaxes. When you take the bumper, give the dog a treat from the dish. Make a production of getting the treat out of the dish and praise enthusiastically. Repeat this exercise several times and daily for a week. Encourage the dog to hold the bumper for several seconds.
'The second week, stroke the dog over, around and under the muzzle, but challenge the dog to hold the bumper himself for several seconds. Alternate with your right index finger held our for him to "watch." You can still use your left hand in the collar held up for good control. It is very important to move the dog along at this point so that he doesn't think you are going to hold the bumper for him. This is HIS job, not yours. Up the ante on the reward in return for his holding his own bumper. Put the dish with treats in a different room. After he holds his bumper and then gives it on command, ask him to race you to the cookie and run to the dish with him to add excitement. Give his treats in several little bites, rather than one treat to simulate having a party in celebration. Then, go back to the other room and try again. Some dogs begin to take the bumper themselves at this point. If not, continue putting the bumper in his mouth immediately after the command to "get" it.
'The third week, give the dog his bumper with him in a standing position. After an initial relax and "hold", tell the dog "let's go" and start him moving by holding onto the collar and your right hand under the chin. Try to get to the point quickly where you are holding the bumper for a few seconds and then have the dog move fast while you praise madly and move fast yourself. This gives the dog confidence, as opposed to you and the dog creeping along as though
neither of you believe he can hold the bumper and walk at the same time. When you stop walking, enforce a "hold" first before taking the bumper. Repeat the run to the cookie dish for the prize. Add the command "head up," tapping the dog's chin so that he holds the bumper with his head up. This helps with whether the dog is bringing in his life jacket or a dumbbell.
The next step is to set aside the bumper and have the dog sit at your side while you hold onto his collar and help him to wait while you throw a piece of cookie high in the air and away from you both while you ask him to "mark," "readyyyyyy ... Get it!" Run with him to find and eat the cookie. Race him to the treat dish for a little cookie "chaser," or second treat. Repeat several times.
Use the above step as a warm-up and follow by throwing the bumper up and out while he waits and watches the bumper thrown. Race him to the bumper. If he doesn't pick up the bumper immediately, scoop it up quickly and slide it into his mouth while his head is still down searching for the bumper. Sometimes sliding the bumper around between his front feet will get him to madly grab for the bumper. Run backwards, asking him to hold it as he brings it to you. Remember to have him hold the bumper briefly on his own when he gets to you before taking it.
As he starts to pick up the bumper on his own, you can take fewer steps in the direction of the thrown bumper until you aren't running with him other than occasionally. Sometimes, tease him with the bumper and then throw it. You can switch to the dumbbell at this point, or add a lifejacket if you are training for water work. If your dog has trouble on any given day after this point, you can go backwards to any of these steps and then move forward to work our the problem, being assured that the dog understands the several little steps that make up the retrieving exercise.