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How to Teach a Dog to Fetch – Everything you need to know

Fetch is a great and fun game to play with your pup. Most dogs love the game and it is great exercise! Playing with your dogs is also the best way to build your bond with your dog.

Although some dogs enjoy playing fetch, and for some breeds, such as retrievers, the game comes naturally, other dogs may not find fetch as intuitive. Some pets aren’t interested in toys or aren’t instinctively willing to carry toys back and give them to us. Some rescue dogs may have never played with toys as puppies and may not know how to play with a toy. Your dog may simply stare at you when you throw a toy or may go get it but not return. Fear not! While not every dog is born with the ability to play fetch, it is a game that can be taught.

How Long will it take to Train a Dog to Fetch

Australian Shepherds are naturals at fetching. It does not take much time to train them to fetch as it is quite instinctive. For some dogs, it can take many training sessions over a few weeks to train them to play fetch. It depends on your dog’s natural tendencies as well as the training methods and consistency.

Supplies and Planning for the Training Session

Toys and Rewards: Start with a variety of toys so that you can get a sense for what kinds of toys your dog will enjoy. Some dogs tend to play with balls, and others prefer to play with stuffed toys. If your dog is more food driven than toy driven, have some tasty treats to reward your dog is a good idea. Some popular toys to play fetch with are:

  1. Balls such as Chuckit or Tennis Balls
  2. Squeaker Toys
  3. Rope toys, including those with rubber attachments
  4. Plush dog toys in animal shapes
  5. (Advanced) Discs and flyers for Frisbees. Dogs with sensitive mouth may prefer those made of soft and flexible rubber.

Marker Training: You should use a “marker” to tell your dog that he has done something correctly. Since the clicker produces a clear, distinct sound that is consistent, it is very effective. If you don’t have a clicker, you can also use a verbal marker such as “yes” or “good.”

Pick a Cue (optional): If your dog really enjoys fetch and it comes naturally to him, you can use your reward marker to tell your dog to fetch. Alternatively, you can use a cue word such as “fetch” to tell him what you want him to do.

Steps to Training Fetch

Step 1: Introduce the Toy

Once you’ve chosen a nice toy, introduce it to your pup to get them excited about fetch. Bring the toy close to you. When your dog approaches it, mark (click or verbal), and give them a reward. If your dog touches their nose to the toy, mark and lavishly treat them. For some dogs, playing tug with the toy can increase their desire for the toy. Continue this step until the dog is very excited by the toy.

Step 2: Tease your Dog with the Toy

Now that your dog understands that touching the fetch toy results in rewards, start swaying it around, so they have to run to get to it. Don’t throw the toy or drive it very far yet. Keep the toy at arm’s length throughout various ways and allow the dog to touch it. Mark, treat, and praise each time they manage to touch the toy.  

Step 3: Let your Dog Grab the Toy with his Mouth

It’s time to start treating the dog when they finally grab the toy with their mouth. This will require some diligence on your part. The trick is to observe your dog’s actions and praise your dog as they begin to resemble the desired behavior.   

Place the toy at arm’s length on the ground. When your dog’s nose no longer touches the toy and starts to use their mouth, it’s time to mark, reward, and treat. Continue to praise them as they get closer to biting the toy. Act as if it’s the best thing they’ve ever done if they pick up the toy with their mouth. Keep in mind that your pup may turn to you to validate that they are on the right course.  

Step 4: Play Indoor Fetch Games

At this point, your dog should understand that putting the toy in their mouth results in a treat. The next phase could be the most difficult, but you can use the same strategy of rewarding little steps of progress.  

Sit at the end of a narrow and short hallway. Toss the toy a few feet in front of you. Your dog should run to the toy and pick it up. At this point, because you are in a narrow and short hallway, your dog will have nowhere to go but to return to you with the toy. Mark and reward your dog. If your dog prefers food to toys, reward them with treat. If they prefer toys, you can either take the toy from your dog’s mouth (use the drop it command if they know it) or use a different toy and throw it for your dog to fetch. Repeat this until they realize what you want them to do.

Once your dog understands that they will get rewards as they retrieve and return their toy, begin tossing the toy further. Ideally, you can do this in a longer hallway.

Step 5 (Optional): Introduce the Verbal Cue

If you want to add a marker expression, such as “fetch,” now is the time to do so. Say the word before tossing the ball and then go through the same process in Step 4. Of course, saying “fetch” or a related term isn’t a necessary step. Your dog has most likely learned to love the game itself at this time — with or without a verbal cue.  

Step 6: Play Fetch Outdoors

depth photography of black and white dog carry red ball

You’ve been playing fetch indoors, where it’s peaceful and quiet. But now it’s time to get out into the wild, where distractions abound.  Begin in a fenced-in area, such as your backyard or another enclosed area. If you don’t have such a yard, look for a quiet fenced-in park or other green space. Go when there aren’t many other dogs or people around. Use a long line (15′-30′ leash) so that you can guide your dog to come back to you if they don’t do so naturally. 

Play fetch in the same manner as in Step 4, throwing the toy further and further out and rewarding your dog for quickly getting it back to you.  

Pro Tips and Trouble Shooting

Issue: Your Dog doesn’t want to Return to you after they get the Toy

Play ‘Catch Me If You Can” with your dog: With a long line on your dog, after your dog picks up the toy, start running in the opposite direction. This should naturally cause your dog to want to chase you – they can rarely resist a game of chase. When your dog catches up with you mark, reward profusely (either throw the toy again or give food rewards) and praise. Over time, your dog will understand that they must return to you with their toy in order for you to throw the Toy.

Spend more time playing Indoor Fetch Games (Step 4): Spending more time playing fetch in an indoor narrow hallway can be helpful. This will make the behavior of returning to you a trained behavior as your dog gets more and more repetitions of doing this.

Issue: Your Dog doesn’t want to let go of the Toy after they Fetch and come back to you

Play Bait and Switch with your dog: Try playing fetch with two of your dog’s favorite toys. Throw his first toy to play the ‘bait-and-switch’ challenge. Once your dog has returned to you with the first toy, show them the second toy and move it around excitedly in your hand and act as if you are about to throw it. Throw his second toy in the same direction you threw the first toy. He’ll most likely abandon the first toy to pursue the second. Run to get his first toy as he’s chasing the second toy. Repeat the process with the other toy. Your dog will eventually learn to return his toy to you after you toss it to him, eliminating the need for a second toy.

Teach the Drop it Command: The drop it command is another effective way to teach your dog to let go of the toy. As soon as they drop the toy in their mouth, reward them by picking up and throwing the toy again.

Always Leave your Dog wanting More

Do not have very long sessions – especially in the beginning: If you end a fetch game before your dog loses interest, it keeps them from getting bored with the game. Generally try to end a few repetitions before you think your dog will start to get tired or start to lose interest. Over time, your games can get longer – both in distance and duration – as your dog starts to love the game more and as their fitness improves.

Conclusion

Once your dog has learned to play fetch, go out and play! Many dogs love the game and it is great exercise. Most importantly, playing is a great way to build a great relationship with your dog.

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