Why Won’t My Golden Retriever Release His Toys?

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We all know the dog that loves to play but won’t give up his toys. He tugs as if his life depends on it.

How a dog reacts depends on his genes and past experiences. 

Of course goldens were bred as hunting dogs to retrieve.

As a dog trainer, I’ve worked with many goldens and labs. And even though they may love to retrieve and tug a toy, many don’t want to give them up.

Golden Retriever holding green toy sitting on the grass

Why Won’t My Golden Retriever Release His Toys?

My golden Riley loves to fetch a toy and tug. He would joyfully retrieve his fleece or rope tug toy, shaking his prey as he approached.

But he wanted to tug without releasing his toys.

So I had to teach him to let go or the game would end.

There are many reasons why dogs don’t want to release their toys.

Reasons Why Dogs Won’t Release Their Toys

1. It’s fun!

Tugging and running around with a toy is self-rewarding. It’s a fun game to your pup.

2. The dog doesn’t know the rules of the game

If you don’t teach your pup not to tug, he thinks that’s part of the game.

After all, many dogs find tugging to be a lot of fun. My Aussie mix puppy loves to tug. 

She loves to tug and shake her Kong Wubba as if she caught a rabbit.

I had to teach her to give the toy up. 

We still play tug sometimes, but on cue. She’ll tug and I’ll say “yes! Good tug!” 

But I also taught her to release the toy on my cue “give.”

3. Some dogs hoard and hide their toys

This is different than guarding their toys aggressively. 

These pups want to hold onto their toys so that they can hide them and play with them later.

I rescued a Pekingese named Dina who had this habit. She wasn’t  aggressive at all when I went to take the toy.

But when she had the toys she’d run around and place them under furniture to enjoy at a later time.

4. Some goldens love to always have a toy in their mouth

Even when not actively playing, my golden Spencer almost always enjoyed having a toy to carry around.

He didn’t guard it. For him, it was just fun. I’ve trained many other retrievers with similar instincts.

It wasn’t a big deal: I just taught him to give it up on command.

5. Some dogs guard resources, including toys, food, space, and people.

Resource guarding occurs because of a dog’s survival instinct. There are limited resources and, to be safe and to survive, dogs try to guard the resources they have.

Most dogs learn that they don’t need to guard resources. We teach them that there’s plenty to go around. 

And we teach them to exchange a desired resource for an even better one, like exchanging a toy for a yummy treat.

What Can I Do To Teach My Dog To Release Toys?

For our dogs to succeed, we have to teach them our rules. 

There are certain training exercises that help convey to our pups that the game ends unless they give up the toy.

Have high-value pea-sized treats ready for your training exercises. And, to be successful, make sure that your pup has had enough exercise before working with him.

1. Teach your dog to give the toy to you or drop it to the floor

You want to set this up as a separate training exercise so that when the real game occurs, your dog will know what’s expected.

Hold out a toy that’s long enough for your dog to grab and you to hold too. A long fleece-type toy or rope toy usually works well. It should be long enough that your dog’s teeth aren’t near your hand.

I don’t use a ball for this to start the training because there isn’t enough space for me to hold it while training my dog to release it. 

But I will teach my dog to release any item–including a ball–after he understands what’s expected of him.

Have your reward treat ready. 

Wave the toy in front of your dog’s nose, telling him “take it.” When your dog takes a hold of the other end of the toy, tell him “give.” 

Immediately show him the treat with the other hand.

As soon as the dog releases the toy to your hand, reward with the great treat and praise (“Yes! Good give!”).

Do the training exercise a few times, then, at the end, throw the toy and tell your dog to get it.

You can also teach your dog to drop the toy to the ground instead of releasing it to your hand. 

When you exchange the valued treat for the toy, just tell your dog to “drop it” and don’t take the other end. Just let the toy fall to the ground. Reward with the treat and tell your pup “Yes! Good drop!”

Do this training exercise a few times, then throw the toy and tell your dog to get it.

Always end the training session on a positive note.

When your dog understands the “give” and “drop it” exercises, which may take days or weeks, start giving the treats on a random basis.

At first, give the treat four out of five times; then, less and less frequently

When you actually play fetch, bring the treat exchange back as needed until the dog understands the exchange when playing fetch.

Some dogs are so toy motivated, you can even try exchanging one toy for another (both being toys your dog really values) instead of exchanging his toy for treats.

Letting your dog get the toy to play with at the end of the training or fetch session helps him not want to guard it and helps him be more willing to give it up. After all, he’ll still get it in the end.

PRO TRAINER’S TIPS: 

Let’s generalize. When doing the toy-treat exchange training exercise, teach your dog to give or drop all of his toys. Use different toys he has in your training sessions. 

So one session, for example, you may use a fleece tug, and another his toy rope. You want him to generalize that he has to release ALL of his toys on command.

Keep your sessions short. Do a few exchanges, then take a break and do a few more. You don’t want to do too many exchanges or your dog will lose interest and zone out.

Distractions, distractions. Start your training without distractions. Add distractions once the dog understands the exercise. 

Distractions can be people moving in the room, noises, or even changes in location. 

You’ll want the dog to perform his training cues everywhere. He’ll do this only if you up the ante and make the training occur in real-life places.

Yes! Whenever training your dog, you always want to mark the behavior you like to let him know he did the right thing. 

Happily saying “YES!’ immediately after he performs correctly will show him that he did the right thing.

2. Teach your dog not to grab at toys or other objects in your hands

It’s a really dangerous habit for a dog to jump up and grab a favorite toy out of your hands.

His teeth or nails may accidentally scratch you. Or he may accidentally knock you over.

Instead of grabbing, teach your pup to take something out of your hands only on command.

So, when you’re practicing your “give” and “drop it” training exercises, teach a “take it” command.

Make sure that you use a toy that your dog really loves.

Hold the toy out at your dog’s height; tell him “take it.”  If he doesn’t take it, gently wave the toy in front of his nose while saying “take it.” 

Don’t hold it too high–you don’t want him to have to jump for it.

As soon as he takes hold of the end of the toy, tell him “Yes! Good take it!” 

Then, use the “drop it” or “give” command you’ve already worked with.at least a few days, so that your dog will release the toy immediately on your cue.

Then praise and immediately give him the reward treat.

3. End the game on your own terms

Many dogs–especially retrievers–love fetch. But they may love the game so much that they don’t want it to end.

And they nudge you–and even bark at you–to continue the game. Make sure that your dog’s had enough exercise through the game or walks or otherwise (like playing with other dogs). 

You want to set him up to succeed. If he has too much energy to expend, he’ll be less likely to stop retrieving.

It’s important to teach your dog some impulse control, even where the fetch game is concerned. If he learns to control his behaviors, all his behaviors should improve–including releasing toys.

I end the game with the word “enough.” At first, the dog doesn’t know what this means. After I say my cue, I turn away or even walk a short distance away.

If you’re consistent in not rewarding this behavior, it should go away.

A principle of dog training is that behavior that’s not rewarded will extinguish itself. So not rewarding the attempts to play should end.

At first, though, the dog may try even harder to get you to play–nudging with the toy. It’s called the extinction burst and is normal.

But, if you’re consistent and the dog’s exercise needs are otherwise met, you should be successful. Be patient.

To make life easier when you have a die-hard toy retriever, I set up something else for the dog to do when the game ends. 

This can be a puzzle toy to solve, or a chew to gnaw on, or a stuffed Kong to work on.

My Aussie mix puppy Millie dedicates her life to retrieving toys. Of course, I’d throw her toy so she’d exercise and learn to release toys. 

But she’s like the Energizer Bunny and doesn’t want to stop. So using the above methods, she learned when the game’s over.

4. If your dog plays keep-away, the game ends

Some dogs who know how to fetch still think part of the game is to run off with the toy–just out of your reach.

It’s really frustrating!

If you work on the take-give, take it-drop it training exercises, that should solve this problem. The dog should learn to come right up to you when giving up the toy. This should solve the problem for most dogs.

If the dog still keeps out of range, you can take a step away from him as he’s coming towards you, then stop. This should bring him right up to you.

If your dog loves playing keep-away, the game ends. Walk away as described in #3 above.

5. To keep toys interesting, alternate them

Even toys that your dog loves can become boring if they’re always available.

If your dog has a treasure trove of toys, have two or three groups of no more than about eight toys. Alternate the groups every week. By doing so, the toys won’t become boring to your pup.

6. If your dog shows any aggression by guarding his toys, get professional help

If your dog guards only one item or toy, you should just put that toy away. He shouldn’t have it.

Of course, don’t take it away from him. Put it away when he’s not around it, and in his crate or another room.

Many resource guarders guard many items they see as valuable. When you approach or try to take a toy away, if your dog growls, gives you a hard stare or a whale eye in which the whites of eyes show, or his body stiffens and tenses up, or he snaps at you or the air–take it seriously.

Don’t approach or attempt to take a toy away. Instead, get the help of a behaviorist or positive reinforcement trainer who’s experienced with resource guarders.

What Not To Do

Even with the best intentions, there are things that we shouldn’t do when working with the issue of a dog giving up his toys.

Don’t get confrontational with your dog

I advise NOT forcing the toy out of your dog’s mouth. If you try to pry his jaws open, he may lose trust in you and how you handle him. Some dogs may even become aggressive.

Don’t chase your dog for the toy

If you do so, the dog will think keep away is a lot of fun. But you won’t. 

In chasing a four-legged canine, he’ll usually win.

He certainly won’t learn to give a toy up this way. Instead, by teaching him the “take-it, give” or “take-it, drop it” exercises, coming to you to give up the toy will be more rewarding to him.

Conclusion

Dogs may not release toys for many reasons. They may not know that’s what we expect. 

So we need to train them so they learn the rules of the game. 

Be patient and don’t rush the process. Move at your dog’s learning speed. 

If you find any behavioral issues such as resource guarding or aggression, it’s best to get the help of a professional.

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Golden Retriever holding green toy sitting on the grass

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2 Comments

  1. A very good and thorough response. These methods will help in other forms of dog training as well.
    I believe there is one piece overlooked, a point so touching about a Golden’s personality. I have had two wonderful Goldens and now have my third. I have seen this trait in the first.and now my third pup, but my second one was all into this. I learned that all her canine family was as well. That trait is the greeting of others with a gift. She would usually grab one of her toys, but if one wasn’t immediately available she would grab anything. A piece of paper was better than nothing. People always thought she wanted to play. However, she needed a gift but didn’t let go of it. It was so cute. My current pup will sometimes hold on to the hand of the one she is greeting!
    The tail wagging, sometimes smiling and crying, accompanied with a gift in mouth, what better greeting can one get?!

    1. Our current Golden Retriever, Raven doesn’t bring a gift, but we’ve had other dogs that did. Maffy our Border Collie Lab mix used to always bring a gift. Thanks for sharing.

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