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For many dogs, like retrievers, the game of fetch is a fun activity that comes naturally. But some dogs may find the idea of fetch foreign or aren’t naturally inclined to bring toys back after being thrown. Similarly, some dogs may not have had experience playing with toys as puppies and just don’t know what to do with a toy. Although fetch doesn’t come naturally to every dog, it’s a skill that can be taught!
Supplies You’ll Need
When teaching a dog to fetch, it can be useful 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 enjoy chasing after a ball, while others prefer plush toys. If your dog isn’t especially toy-motivated, toys with a Velcro compartment to put food in can be very helpful.
You also want to have high-value treats readily available to you while you’re training. Plus, 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.
How to Train Your Dog to Fetch
Fetch is a game that many people want to play with their dog. But it can be frustrating if you throw a toy and your dog just sits watching you, or retrieves the toy but doesn’t bring it back. While some dogs may simply not want to take part, many dogs just need to learn what’s being asked of them when it’s time to play fetch. 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 or 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, then click or praise and treat. Next, wait to praise, click, or treat until they put their mouth on the toy.
- When your dog is regularly putting their mouth on the toy, start building duration by not immediately clicking or praising when they put their mouth on the toy. Instead, wait a moment, and while their mouth is still on the toy, click or praise and treat. Build up very slowly, adding just a half-second and then a second before you praise or click and treat.
- When your dog is constantly keeping their mouth on the toy for a couple seconds before you click or 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 or praise and treat, 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 them a treat.
- Help your dog be successful by working at their pace, building the length of time they’re asked to hold very slowly. It’s much better to do many repetitions of short holds then asking for one very long hold.
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 them to “hold.” If they take the toy, click or praise and treat. If they don’t take the toy, that’s okay. Just practice the above “hold” skills a little more until they’re ready.
- When your dog is successfully taking the toy from your outstretched hand, place the toy on the floor in front of them. Ask your dog to “hold” the toy. When they pick it up, immediately praise or click. At this point, you can start to introduce a new verbal cue, such as “get it” or “fetch.”
- When your dog is 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 distance away from you where you place the toy — 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.
- 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 ask your dog to practice fetch with a variety of toys, such as balls, plush toys, or rope toys.
With a little patience and consistent practice, the finished skill will be a smooth cued retrieve of any toy. Just remember that, for dogs, the reward isn’t the game itself. You want to be sure to continue to reward the fetching behavior with treats.