I’d always had this impression that Labs naturally held things—birds—softly in their mouths. To some extent it’s true that a dog can be predisposed toward having a so-called soft mouth or a low-pressure bite. Mostly, though, it’s a skill that must be trained like any other.
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“Hold” means you’ve got to keep this object, whatever it may be, balanced between your teeth and not chomp or chew on it. I don’t care how soft a dog’s mouth is, if he doesn’t know a hold command and you put a pork sausage in his mouth, it’s gone. Sue Barns and the Assistance Dogs of the West trainers taught me this sausage trick as a way of illustrating what’s called stimulus control. That is: Because I’ve given the “hold” cue, my dog Danger should view the sausage not as a treat for completing a task, as he would ordinarily, but as an object to hold as he’s been taught. The treat, his normal dog food, comes after he’s held the sausage for what must be an unbearable length of time.
How to work up to this one slowly: Teach your dog the hold command with a wooden dowel. Click just for light but steady pressure on the dowel being sure to maintain control of it until your dog will hold it—even for a fraction of a second—without rolling it in his molars. Add the cue once you’re getting a consistent hold of a few seconds. Then, once he knows the command, very slowly raise the criteria with objects that he’s more likely to chomp down on or treat like a chew toy. Finally, when your dog can hold actual chew or squeeky toys calmly, introduce a frozen sausage. Then slowly let it thaw as you train. Mike Stewart and the Wildrose gang use a similar progression for hunting retrievers, starting with a frozen game bird and then gradually letting it thaw as several young dogs make retrieves with it.
This article originally appeared on Outside K9, the former dog blog of Outside magazine, on June 22, 2009.