While some dogs love to play fetch, and for dogs like retrievers the game comes very naturally, other dogs may find the idea of fetch foreign. Some dogs don’t have much interest in toys or aren’t naturally inclined to bring toys back after being thrown. Similarly, some rescue dogs may not have had experience playing with toys as puppies and just don’t know what to do with a toy. Fetch is a game that most people want to play with their dog and it can be frustrating if you throw a toy and your dog just sits watching you or goes and gets the toy but doesn’t bring it back. Although fetch doesn’t come naturally to every dog, it is a skill that can be taught!
Supplies Needed to Teach Fetch:
Toys – When teaching a dog to fetch, I like to have an array of toys available. This will let you get a feel for what kind of toys your dog is going to like. Some dogs are ball lovers while others prefer plush toys. If your dog is really not toy motivated especially if he is a rescue dog who didn’t have a lot of exposure to toys as a puppy it can help to find toys that have a velcro compartment to put food in can be very helpful. I’ve even used fun fur pencil pouches filled with smelly treats for teaching fetch to dogs who are especially reluctant to put something in his mouth.
Treats – For teaching your dog to fetch you want to have a lot of small pieces of high-value treats.
Clicker – if you use a clicker to train your dog, have it ready. Clicker training can be especially useful to help you communicate with your dog in the early stages of teaching the trick.
Step 1: Teaching Hold
The first step to teaching your dog to fetch is to teach hold:
- Sit on the floor with your dog facing you, while holding a toy show it to your dog.
- When your dog goes to investigate the toy praise/click and treat. At this stage, you want to reward any interest in the toy.
- Next, increase the criteria slightly. Wait until your dog sniffs the toy click/praise and treat. Next wait to praise/click/treat until she puts her mouth on the toy.
- When your dog is regularly putting her mouth on the toy, start building duration into the trick by not immediately clicking/praising the instant she puts her mouth on the toy and wait a moment, and while her mouth is still on the toy click/praise and treat. Build up very slowly, adding just a half-second and then a second before you praise/click and treat. Going very slow here will pay off later. When your dog is constantly keeping her mouth on the toy for a couple of seconds before you click/praise and treat you can begin introducing a verbal cue like “hold.”
- Once your dog is keeping their mouth on the toy until you click/praise and treat you can start adding in more time. Again, go very slowly building with fractions of a second of time you are asking your dog to hold. You can also begin moving your hands off of the toy, then quickly put your hand back on the toy before your dog drops it. Praise, take the object, and give her a treat.
- Keep your dog successful by working at her pace building the length of time she’s asked to hold very slowly. It’s much better to do many repetitions of short holds then asking for one very long hold.
Step 2: Teaching Fetch
Once your dog has mastered “hold” it’s time to start teaching fetch!
- Hold the toy out to your dog in your outstretched palm and ask her to “hold.” if your dog takes the toy click/praise and treats. If she doesn’t take the toy that’s ok, just practice the above “hold” skills a little more.
- When your dog is successfully taking the toy from your outstretched hand place the toy on the floor in front of her. Ask your dog to “hold” the toy and when she picks it up immediately praise/click. This is where having gone slowly with building understanding with your “hold” cue will really pay off with your dog being able to generalize the skill to a new location. At this point, you can start to introduce your new verbal cue like “get it” or “fetch.”
- When your dog has been consistently successful picking up and holding the toy, start moving the toy slightly further away from you. Start with the toy right next to you
- Start to very slowly increase the difficulty/distance away from you the toy starts just a few inches at a time. The goal is to break down the retrieve into very small behaviors so your dog can be successful instead of starting with the toy next to you and immediately moving it across your yard (which will be too much for a dog just learning the skill.)
- Continue increasing the distance you ask your dog to go to get the toy. As your dog gains understanding in the game, you can begin to alternate between asking your dog to get a toy that you have placed away from you and throwing the toy. It’s a good idea to also vary the toy you are asking your dog to fetch so practice with balls, plush toys, rope toys etc.
- By continuing to build distance very slowly and keeping your dog’s rewards very high value, you will be building a lot of value in the hold/retrieve game.
With a little patience and consistent practice, the finished skill will be a smooth cued retrieve of any toy. Just remember that for dogs, you teach to fetch the reward isn’t the game itself and you want to be sure to continue to reward the fetching behavior with treats.