Fetch is a game we take for granted. Yet fetch is the most perfect of all dog games. It’s easy to learn. It’s easy to do. Fetch is great exercise for your dog (even exercise for you, if you walk or jog to a park to play). Most important, fetch is all about give and take (quite literally); you and your pup are working in tandem.
You know the drill: You throw the ball, your dog brings it back. You throw the ball, your dog brings it back. You throw the ball… But what do you do when your dog seems completely unfamiliar with the game of fetch, when all those other dogs seem to know instinctively how to play?
Although some breeds do have a natural instinct to play fetch—especially retrievers bred through the ages to fetch things, and herding dogs who have a sharp eye for objects wandering away from the flock—not every dog comes pre-programmed with this behavior. Why, some dogs seem to be thinking, would you throw something across the yard just so I have to run all the way over there and get it? And if I do, will you promise not to do that again?
But playing fetch can be fun for you and training your dog. It’s also a great way for dogs to get their important daily dose of exercise.
Assess your dog’s Fetch I.Q.
Find a toy he really likes. Wave it in front of his face to get his interest. Toss it a few feet away and say, “Fetch!” What does he do?
If he runs to the toy, picks it up, and brings it back, congratulations. Your dog knows how to fetch. Go play!
If your dog doesn’t seem to have any fetch instinct, the first step is to teach him that he’ll be rewarded for paying attention to the object you want him to fetch. (For this guide, we’ll say you’re teaching him with a ball. It may be another toy or a retrieving dummy.) Stock up on your dog’s favorite treats. Hold the ball out to your dog. If he sniffs it, praise him and give him a treat. Repeat this several times. Then, put the ball on the floor and say “Fetch.” If your dog sniffs it or picks it up, praise him and give him a treat. Keep practicing until he understands that he has to sniff or pick up the ball to get the treat.
Now it’s time to teach your dog to pick up the ball. Wave the ball around in the air to make it more enticing. As soon as he takes it in his mouth, praise him. If he won’t take the ball, try smearing it with a little peanut butter or meat paste. When he reliably takes the ball in his mouth.
Now, you need to motivate your dog to give back the ball. Get your dog to take the ball. Praise him, then offer a treat. He’ll have to drop the ball to get the treat, so be sure you are there to take it. Praise him. Practice this a few times. When he reliably takes the toy then drops it for the treat.
If your dog isn’t very interested in treats, you can also use two balls and entice him to drop one ball for the other.
Now you are ready to try a small-scale fetch. Show your dog the ball. Toss the ball a few feet away from you and say “Fetch!” If he doesn’t go to the ball, try throwing it closer, or handing it to him again. When he does go to the ball, call him back to you, treat in hand, and trade treat for toy. Repeat, throwing the ball a little bit farther each time. Before you know it, you and your dog are playing fetch…just like all those other dogs!
Every dog is different, motivated by different things and tempted by different variations of the game, but for many dogs, there will be a point during this dog training exercise when they suddenly understand what playing fetch is all about. At this point, the game is its own reward and you can save the treats for teaching your dog the rules for the next fun game.