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How to Teach a Dog to Fetch

Not all dogs automatically know how to fetch.

It might seem as though it should be instinctive behavior for dogs to chase, retrieve, and bring back toys that we throw for them. It seems like a law of nature: fish swim, birds fly, and dogs play fetch. The truth is that some dogs don't naturally want or know how to play retrieving games. However, fetch is terrific physical and mental exercise for dogs. It allows them to release pent-up energy that might otherwise come out as negative behaviors such as chewing on objects in the home, digging holes in the backyard, or barking and howling when you leave them alone. So how can you teach a dog that doesn't do it naturally to play fetch?

Positive Reinforcement

As you prepare to teach your dog to fetch, it's important to remember that dogs learn best through positive reinforcement. Praise, treats, and attention in exchange for the behavior that you want your dog to perform is always a great way for a dog to learn. Negative reinforcement: yelling, hitting, or otherwise punishing for the behavior that you don't want your dog to do is wrong, plus it generally triggers anxiety, stress, and more negative behavior.

Steps for Teaching Your Dog to Fetch

  1. First, figure out what your dog's favorite type of toy is. It may be balls, stuffed animals, or tug-of-war toys.
  2. Start by showing your dog a brand new, never-before-seen version of his favorite toy and letting him play with it briefly (just for a minute or two). Then, toss the toy a few inches away from the two of you.
  3. If your dog moves toward the toy, praise him and give him a treat.
  4. If your dog does not move toward the toy, move it around a little bit to get his attention back on it, then reward him with a treat and praise when he moves closer to it.
  5. When your dog grabs the toy after you've thrown it a short distance away, use an excited voice and demeanor to encourage him to bring it back to you, then reward him with a treat and praise.
  6. Once your dog consistently grabs the toy and brings it back to play with you at the distance of a few inches, toss it away a little bit further.
  7. Continue repeating steps 5 and 6 above, throwing the toy further and further away. During every step, always give your dog praise if he follows the toy when you throw it, and LOTS of praise if he brings it back to you. If he doesn't, get his interest again by moving the toy around, then return to tossing it a shorter distance.

Work on training for five to ten minutes at a time. Trying to train for too long can cause your dog to lose interest or become frustrated.

These steps used consistently: playing, increasing the distance of the thrown toy, and lots of praise and treats will have your dog playing fetch, usually, in a week or two.

Solutions for Common Fetch-Related Problems

  • If you have a dog that does not like to pick things up in his mouth:

    • You can teach your dog to enjoy picking up toys through positive reinforcement. You can dip a toy in chicken stock so that your dog gets a nice taste when he picks it up. Alternatively, you may use a treat ball. This is a rubberized ball that can be packed with treats (see some examples below). When your dog picks it up and plays with it, he gets a tasty reward.
  • If you have a dog that won't let go of the toy when he brings it back to you:

    • Arm yourself with a second beloved toy, but keep it out of sight. When your dog fetches the first toy that you've thrown but won't relinquish it when he brings it back to you, show him the second toy and get him interested in it, while simultaneously holding your hand under his chin and the first toy. When he drops the first toy into your hand to investigate the second one, immediately throw the second toy for him. This will help your dog understand that, when he drops the fetched toy, he will get the reward of chasing it again.
    • It is also helpful to connect a command such as "drop it" to the action so your dog knows when you want him to let go of the toy. Say the command every time you want your dog to drop his toy, and reward him with praise and a treat every time he does it. In the beginning, you may be giving him a treat when he accidentally obeys your command, but over time he will understand that he got the treat for dropping the toy when you requested it.
  • If your dog chases the toy but then runs off with it instead of bringing it back to you:

    • Attach your dog to a long (six to twelve foot) leash, and keep it loose. Toss the toy away from you but not so far that he can't get to it while on the leash. You don't want him to hit the end and hurt himself. When he picks up the toy, excitedly encourage him to return to you. If he dances around with the toy or tries to take it further away from you, gently pull on the leash to lead him back toward you.
    • You may also use the second toy trick described above in this instance. Show your dog a second toy that you have previously hidden from him to encourage him to return to you with the first toy.
    • A third trick to try if your dog doesn't return to you is, once your dog has picked up the thrown toy, turn and run away from him. Most dogs love to chase, and this may help him learn to return to you.
  • If your dog still just doesn't understand the concept of chasing toys at all:

    • Consider how your dog does like to play, and use that activity to introduce the concept of fetching. Below are two examples:

      If your dog likes to play tug-of-war:

      1. Start by using a toy to play tug-of-war with your dog for a few minutes.
      2. Then, take the toy from him and throw it a few inches away. If he runs to it, grab it immediately and start a game of tug again. If he does not run after it, grab it and move it around on the floor until he does go after it, but throw it a few inches away again before he can get it.
      3. Continue this process until your dog reliably chases the toy when you toss it away.
      4. Start throwing the toy longer distances. Reach for the toy in his mouth and tug a little to encourage him to bring it back to you for another short game of tug-of-war.
      5. Eventually, you won't need to play tug-of-war every time your dog returns the toy to you, but it's helpful to keep him interested in the game by doing it every so often.

      If your dog is highly motivated by treats:

      1. Use a toy that treats can be stuffed into (see suggestions below).
      2. Allow your dog to see that you are putting his favorite treats into the treat toy.
      3. Toss the toy a few inches away.
      4. When your dog goes to the toy, grab it and give him one of the treats inside.
      5. Repeat the sequence, throwing the toy a little bit further away over time.
      6. Your dog will learn that the fastest way to get the treat is to bring the toy to you.
      7. Once your dog is reliably bringing the treat toy back, substitute a different fetch toy, and give your dog a treat from your hand when he brings it back to you.

When you are playing fetch with your dog, try to throw the toys low, to decrease the amount of jumping up that your dog does to catch them. Knee injuries are a common occurrence, especially with Frisbee toys. Also, never play fetch with sticks or other potentially damaging items. Sticks can puncture the tongue, throat, neck, or chest. Use only soft, safe toys.

Examples of Good Fetch Toys, Tug-of-War Toys, and Treat Toys

Tux Treat Zogoflex Toy: Tough, soft, colorful, and non-toxic toys that can be stuffed with treats.

Tizzi Dog Zogoflex Toy: Rugged, gentle on gums, attractively colored, non-toxic toys with a treat hiding spot.

Toppl Treat Zogoflex Toy: An extremely entertaining treat toy that can be used to teach fetch.

Bῡmi Tug Zogoflex Toy: This is a great tug toy and it bounces in unexpected ways when thrown for fetch. This keeps dogs interested.

Zisc Flying Disc for Dogs: This is a great fetch toy for dogs because it's gentle on their gums, very durable, and it floats, so it's great in or out of the water. Just be sure not to throw it high so that your dog has to leap for it, as this can result in injury.

Spot Bites Tennis Balls: Tennis balls are the old stand-by for fetch for a reason. Dogs love balls.

Mega Twister Rope Toy: This durable toy is great for teaching fetch to dogs that love tug-of-war.

Clicker Training

Clicker training is another great way to enhance your efforts while training your dog to play fetch. When your dog has done one of the steps properly, you use a certain sound to let him know, then give him his reward. You can read specific instructions for using clicker training to teach a dog to fetch How to Teach a Dog to Play Fetch Using Clicker Training.

By following the easy steps above, remaining positive and playful during training, and keeping your eye on the ball, you can train your pup to play and enjoy fetch. This will lead to hours of fun, interaction, and physical and mental exercise for you and your dog.


You May Also Like These Articles:

Why Dogs Beg

Tug Of War

Clicker Training for Dogs: An Overview

How to Stop a Dog from Digging


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