“My dog will chase the ball, but doesn’t bring it back.” Or “My dog will play fetch for two throws, but loses interest after that.”
I hear this all the time from people who had a vision of a dog who would love nothing better than to chase and bring back a tennis ball for hours on end. It can be disappointing to have that vision, and end up with a dog that doesn’t share it.
Certainly, there are dogs who will have absolutely no interest in ever chasing and bringing back a toy, just as I have no interest in learning how to ballroom dance. But if you have a dog that will chase a toy, you may very well have a dog who loves to play fetch, but just doesn’t know it yet.
Sometimes people believe that dogs are born knowing how to fetch and they either do it or don’t. But many dogs can be taught how to fetch and learn to love it as an enjoyable game. Training a dog to play fetch is like training any other behavior; break the sequence down into smaller behaviors and work on them individually.
Choose your dog’s toy
Because you want to make this process as easy and enjoyable as possible, you want to choose a toy that your dog loves. Most people think of tennis balls when they think of playing fetch, but if your dog isn’t that interested in those then select a toy that does get them excited. Once you teach the actual skill of fetch, and your dog loves to play, you very well may be able to go back to using a tennis ball.
You might have to do a little bit of testing to find the right kind of toy. Does your dog love plush toys, rope type toys? Toys made out of rubber? Or maybe balls, but not tennis balls? What you’re looking for is a toy that your dog is going to be willing to pick up and carry in their mouth.
This method of teaching a dog to fetch actually requires two identical toys to begin with. So, once you determine the type of toy that your dog is most likely to engage with, go and buy two of them. These will be toys that you only use for fetch, so don’t leave them out where your dog can play at will.
Two-toy method of teaching fetch
Now that you have your toys, you can get started on actually teaching your dog to fetch. There are three skills that we need to teach your dog in order for them to be successful at fetch. Who knew that fetch was so complicated! Your dog will need to learn how to chase the toy and pick it up, bring the toy back to you, and drop it.
One of the bigger mistakes that people make when they first try to teach a dog fetch is to throw the toy as far as they possibly can. This means that the dog is farther away from the person when they actually get to the toy, and it makes it easier for them to pick up the toy and go off and do their own thing. This is very common!
So, make things easier for both you and your dog by ensuring that in the beginning you’re not tossing the toy too far away. It may actually be easier to teach fetch in a smaller space, so beginning the training inside your house can be very helpful.
To start just toss the toy about 10 feet away from you. When your dog picks it up praise heavily as though they did the most amazing thing!
At this point your dog may start to have a party of one, and run around with the toy in their mouth as though you don’t exist. Don’t worry, the next step should help you with this!
Ignoring your dog, take the second toy and start playing with it yourself. Wave it around, bounce it on the ground, throw it up in the air and catch it and throw it again, run away from your dog with it, waving it in your hand. For most dogs, other people’s toys are always much more fun than the ones that they have. Once your dog notices that you have a really fantastic toy, chances are that the dog will come running to see what you’ve got.
Resist the urge to grab your dog and remove the toy from their mouth. It is less likely for your dog to want to play fetch if they think that you’re going to take the toy away from them. Instead, you want the dog to voluntarily open their mouth and drop the toy themselves. When you play with your dog you want to be equal partners, and that means that you have to trust each other. Teach your dog to trust that you won’t take the toy.
So, if your dog is in front of you holding their toy, you’re going to start playing with your toy. Wave it around, toss it up and catch it, back away from your dog while wiggling it. At some point your dog may drop their own toy, but you need to resist the urge to reach for it.
If your dog drops the toy and you reach for it you have just lost their trust. Instead, immediately throw the toy that you’re holding. Don’t psych your dog out by pretending to throw it, don’t ask for a sit first, don’t wait 5 seconds, just throw it the second your dog’s toy hits the ground. But remember not to throw it far – about 10 feet is good.
If your dog turns away from you and the toy they dropped, to chase the toy that you’ve just thrown, you can reach down and pick up the toy that is on the ground. Once your dog has the other toy, get their attention, and start playing with your toy again. You can start backing away from your dog to encourage them to come into your space. If your dog starts to come towards you, start praising.
At this point some dogs will drop the toy before they get all the way to you. Don’t worry about that right now, just immediately praise and throw the toy you’re holding. It might mean that for a time you will have to go to the toy to pick it up, but right now we’re working on getting the dog to enjoy the chase and drop portion of this fetch behavior. Later on, when your dog totally loves the game, you can hold out for your dog to drop the toy at your feet.
If your dog runs to pick up the toy you’ve just thrown, and doesn’t come back but instead decides to have a party of one, you’re going to make your toy as interesting as you can the way you did earlier. You can try calling your dog’s name, and then running away from your dog waving the toy at your side to see if your dog’s prey instinct doesn’t kick in.
If when your dog drops the toy, they go back in and repeatedly pick it up and drop and seem a bit fixated on the toy on the ground, work to get your dog to move away from that toy. Call your dog’s name, pat your leg, and move away from the toy on the ground, while waving the toy in your hand. If your dog leaves the toy behind you are going to immediately throw the toy in your hand.
If your dog follows you but picks up the toy first, work hard to make the toy in your hand the most amazing thing ever. If your dog drops the toy again, briefly place the toy in your hand right in front of their face, and immediately toss it a few feet away.
Problem solving fetch issues
If you have a dog who fetches a few times and then loses interest in the game, end the game after just a few throws, before your dog loses interest. If you end the game while your dog is still having fun, they will remember that the next time you play fetch and are more likely to be eager to play with you. Over time you’ll be able to gradually increase the number of throws before you end the game.
As your dog gets better and better at fetch; will chase the toy bring it back and drop it, you can gradually increase your expectations with every play session. If your dog is still playing the game of repeatedly picking up and dropping their toy, you can start to hold out for a solid drop and leave it. Don’t say anything to your dog in the way of a cue, but hold onto your toy and wait until the dog has dropped their toy, and is looking at your toy before you throw it.
You can also start to hold out for your dog to bring the toy right to your feet before you throw the second toy. If your dog is dropping the toy halfway on their return to you, start tossing the toy shorter distances. Once your dog has the toy, start running backwards, pat your legs and encourage your dog to come into your space. If they do so praise heavily and reward with a toss of your toy – again at a short distance.
As you dog gets better at playing the game you can start to wean them off needing two toys to play. When your dog brings the toy you’ve just thrown and drops it, see if you can reach down and pick it up to throw that one. If so you can probably just go to one toy.
If not you can make your movement towards the toy just a slight bending at your waist and a small reach, and if the dog doesn’t try and get the toy, immediately throw the one you’re already holding. Over time you’ll reach farther and farther, rewarding a lack of response by the dog by tossing your own toy, until you can eventually pick the toy up off the ground and throw that one.
Some dogs get extremely obsessed about playing fetch and don’t know when it it’s over, even if you start packing things up and turning away from them. It can be very helpful to give your dog a verbal cue that means the game is over. It can be something like ”all done” or “game over”, used consistently when you want the fetch to end. Your dog will start to realize that no more throws are coming and be more accepting about the end of the game.
Fetch can be an amazing way to exercise your dog. With a little bit of time and patience you can teach these skills to your dog and have an enjoyable way to play a game that you both love.
I also offer in-person training within a 30 minute drive of Ixonia, WI.
I would love to work with you and your dog!