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German shepherd puppy playing fetch outside
German Shepherd puppy.

AKC GoodDog! Helpline Trainer Erin Rakosky tells us how to get any dog interested in picking up and retrieving toys. Fetch is a great game to play with your dog and also a good way to exercise your pet.

Some dogs naturally pick up fetch while others may have no interest. Some dogs like the act of chasing the ball but won’t bring it back, which really ruins a good game of fetch. And some dogs don’t see the point of either chasing after a toy or bringing it back to you. Try following the advice here to teach a dog to fetch. We think you’ll both enjoy it.

For training fetch, the tools you will need are an appropriate amount of tasty treats, a clicker or a marker word, and plenty of fun toys. For teaching fetch, we are going to use what trainers call “shaping.” Shaping means allowing your dog to figure out how to perform a behavior with minimal help from you.

Shaping Fetch

First, you want to choose a toy that your dog is willing to put in his mouth. Some dogs have a preference for plush toys while others like balls. After he learns the behavior, you will be able to ask him to retrieve anything.

For the purpose of teaching, we will use the case in which your dog has no interest in playing with toys.

  • Place the toy on the ground. Initially, you will mark any sort of interaction with the toy. This may be your dog just looking at the toy. When I talk about marking, I am referring to using a clicker or specific word to mark the exact behavior you want and rewarding afterward with a treat. So, you will wait for your dog to look at the toy. As soon as he does, click (or use maker word) and reward. Make sure to use a special treat your dog will love.
  • Do this until your dog is reliably looking at the toy for a reward. Once he has this down, it’s time to ask them to do something else with the toy. He’s probably getting frustrated that his treat is not forthcoming. Most dogs at this stage will nose the toy or touch the toy with their paw. When this happens, mark it and reward. This is now what you require before he’s rewarded.
  • Hold the toy in your hand and place it near his face. If he wasn’t previously touching his nose to the toy, this is when you will require it. Wait until the dog sniffs the toy and then mark and reward.
  • Progress from here. Again, once your dog is nose touching the toy, hold out on the reward. Your dog will then get frustrated and try and mouth the toy. Immediately mark and reward this.
  • Put the toy back on the ground in front of you. Ask him to pick the toy up and then place your hand under the toy and mark and reward when he places it in your hand. Now you want him to understand that he should retrieve the toy and bring it to you even if you’re further away.
  • Take a step back and ask your dog to bring the toy to you. Encourage him and be sure to reward him when he does so. Next time, move two steps back, still encouraging him and acting excited when he moves towards you. Instantly reward him again.
  • Increase the distance gradually while maintaining your requirements for getting the reward. Eventually, your dog will be willing to pick up anything you ask and place it in your hand for his reward.

What if My Dog Has No Interest in Playing Fetch?

The main goal of this exercise is to show your dog that fun comes from playing with you with the toy – no matter what type of toy!

Get four or five toys that your dog enjoys playing with and set them in a circle.  Outside, in a fenced area is best for this. But if you don’t have access to an enclosed outside area, a large indoor space will work too.

Start playing with one of the toys with your dog. Act very excited, like this is the best game in the world.  When your dog is really into the play, take off running to the next toy.

If your dog follows you, start playing with the new toy with him, again remembering to be super excited. If your dog is still playing with the first toy, play with the new toy by yourself.  This is when it is really important to act like you are having the best time playing with this toy.

Eventually, your dog will want to join in the fun and come over to you and the new toy. Continue this exercise, running from toy to toy. If you do this exercise a couple times a week, your dog will learn that you bring the fun and not the toy!

For more training tips and advice, subscribe to the AKC GoodDog! Helpline. Experienced trainers man a phone line seven days a week to help our clients with all their training and behavioral questions.
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