The Retrieve as a Behaviour Chain

A marked retrieve is often considered something that a retriever does because that’s what retrievers do.  They go and fetch things and bring them back – sometimes….  In order to make this going and fetching things (birds or dummies) and bringing them back reliable and consistent we need to treat the retrieve not as a single behaviour, but as a complex behaviour chain consisting of a number of discrete behaviours linked together to form a continuous chain.

On the assumption that you are in line for a single marked retrieve, breaking down the entire behaviour into its component parts will probably look something like this:

  • Walking into line on lead.
  • Removing the lead
  • Getting into position in the line
  • Placing the dog in a sit (or stand) on your left (or right) hand side.
  • Checking the position of the gun or guns
  • Checking the position of the dog before indicating to the line judge that you are ready.
  • Marking the fall – both you and your dog
  • Sending the dog
  • Locating the dummy and picking it up
  • Returning to you with the dummy
  • Delivering the dummy to hand
  • Returning to heel if the delivery was made facing you.

Building the chain backward ensures that you are always moving toward reinforcement—the prize at the end of the chain—and that each part in the chain is strengthened, every time, by the cue for the next part.

Cues can be a number of things that tell the dog what comes next in the behaviour chain.  Cues can be verbal such as the cue “Sit”.  A cue can be a hand signal such as a hand extended to take delivery of the dummy.  A cue can be environmental – a bird or dummy lying on the ground which would cue the dog to pick it up.

It is important to note that a cue, if properly established, is a conditioned reinforcer.  Because the cue has been associated with a primary reinforcer many times, it becomes reinforcing by itself.  With the retrieve behaviour chain, therefore, the cues themselves reinforce the behaviour preceding them until the end of the chain where the big prize awaits – huge praise from the handler, a game of ball, or an extra special treat.

So, if you build the chain backward – starting with the last part of the chain, then the “return to heel” will reinforce the “delivery” will reinforce the “return to handler” etc. etc.

Back-chaining is useful for human tasks as well.  If you ever have to memorize a poem, a piece of music or a speech it is much easier to learn it in chunks starting with the chunk at the end and then learning the second to last chunk and so on.

Another important thing to understand about behaviour chains is that within a complex chain, such as the retrieve chain, you also have a number of “mini chains”.  Once you have taught the individual behaviours you can join a couple of them together as a mini-chain.  An example of a mini chain in the breakdown above would possibly be

  • Returning to you with the dummy
  • Delivering the dummy to hand
  • Returning to heel

This particular mini-chain would hold no matter what kind of retrieve is desired – be it a blind retrieve, or one of a series of marked retrieves.  And, because this mini-chain has received stacks of reinforcement during training (if you “back chained”) it will automatically reinforce the preceding mini-chain which would probably be the send off, the location of the bird or dummy, and the pickup.

I have used the word “cue” instead of “command” in recognition of the fact that there are many, many signals (or cues) out there that trigger various behaviours and that the cue does not necessarily come from the handler.  Environmental cues are extremely important to everyday life – think of how your approach home in your motor car cues certain behaviours in your dog.  For a dog working in the field with its attendant smells and sensations environmental cues are everywhere.  Many of our interactions with our dogs are cues that the dogs respond to whether we are aware of them or not.


One Response to The Retrieve as a Behaviour Chain

  1. Here is a positive-training, reward based drill I use to improve line manners and marking on walk-up marks.

    I’m trying to mimic the excitement of coming out of the holding blind at a hunt test/field trial and the control is “self imposed” by the retriever…I do NOT use a heeling stick, ecollar, or verbal commands…it is a magical moment when the youngster figures out that the only way he will get the reward (retrieve) is when he is in proper heeling position.


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