While some dogs enjoy fetch and, in the case of retrievers, the activity comes naturally to them, other dogs may be unfamiliar with the concept. Some dogs aren't particularly fond of toys or aren't naturally inclined to retrieve them once they've been thrown. Similarly, some rescue dogs may have never played with toys as puppies and have no idea how to play with them.
Most people want to play fetch with their dog, and it can be aggravating if you toss a toy and your dog just sits there watching you or goes and retrieves the object but doesn't return it. Fetch is a skill that can be taught to any dog, even if it does not come naturally to them.
What You'll Need to Teach Your Dog to Fetch
A variety of toys accessible while teaching a dog to fetch. This will allow you to get a sense of what kinds of toys your dog will enjoy. Some dogs prefer to play with balls, while others like to play with plush toys. If your dog isn't toy motivated, especially if he's a rescue dog who didn't have much exposure to toys as a puppy, finding toys with a velcro section to put food in might be quite beneficial. I've even utilized treat pouches filled with aromatic treats to teach fetch to dogs who are apprehensive about putting something in their mouth.
You'll need a lot of small pieces of high-value treats to train your dog to fetch or better yet, you can even train with your dog’s daily meals.
If you use a clicker to train your dog, make sure you have one on hand. Clicker training can be especially helpful in the early stages of teaching a trick since it allows you to communicate with your dog. However, using a verbal marker, like how we teach in our classes, works perfectly fine as well.
Step 1: Teach Your Dog “Hold”
Hold is the first stage in teaching your dog to fetch.
How to Teach Hold
- Sit on the floor with your dog facing you with a toy in your hand that you can show to your dog.
- Praise/mark and reward your dog when he investigates the toy. You want to reward any interest in the toy at this point.
- Increase the requirements somewhat after that. Reward when your dog has sniffed the toy mark/praise. Then wait until they places their mouth on the toy before praising, clicking, or rewarding again.
- When your dog is consistently putting their mouth on the toy, start building duration into the trick by not marking /praising right away when they do. Instead, wait a second and mark/praise and treat while their mouth is still on the item. Slowly increase the time between rewards, adding a half-second at a time. Slowing down now will pay off later. You can start using a verbal cue like "hold" when your dog keeps their mouth on the toy for a couple of seconds before you mark the behavior and reward them.
- You can start adding in more time after your dog is maintaining their tongue on the toy until you mark and reward them. Again, gradually increase the amount of time you ask your dog to hold by fractions of a second. You can also start moving your hands away from the toy and then swiftly return them before your dog drops it. Praise them, take the object, and reward them. Just make sure not to continue this habit for too long, otherwise when you bring your hands back, your dog will think that you are about to mark that behavior and they will anticipatingly spit the toy out.
- Maintain your dog's success by working at their pace and gradually increasing the length of time they’re asked to hold. It's much better to do a lot of short holds than to beg for a single long hold.
Step 2: Teach Your Dog to Fetch
It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for! It's time to start teaching fetch to your dog once they’ve mastered "hold."
Instructions for Teaching Your Dog Fetch
- Hold the toy in your outstretched palm and ask your dog to "hold." If your dog accepts the toy, click/praise and reward them with biscuits. If they refuse to take the toy, that's ok; simply practice the above "hold" abilities some more. If you ever feel as if your dog is becoming bored or that you are “overdoing it”, change up your training routine or focus on another task for a couple of days and come back to it later.
- Place the toy on the floor in front of your dog once they have successfully taken it from your outstretched hand. Request that your dog "hold" the toy, and when they do, praise/mark them. You can now begin to introduce your new vocal cue, such as "get it" or "fetch."
- Start moving the toy further away from you once your dog has mastered picking up and holding the toy consistently. Begin with the toy that is immediately next to you.
- Begin by gradually increasing the difficulty/distance away from you; the toy should start only a few inches away from you. Instead of starting with the toy next to you and instantly moving it across your yard, the idea is to break down the retrieve into very little acts so that your dog can be successful (which will be too much for a dog just learning the skill.)
- Increase the distance your dog must travel to retrieve the toy. You can alternate between asking your dog to fetch a toy that you've put away from you and throwing the toy as your dog acquires experience with the game. It's a good idea to mix up the toys you ask your dog to fetch, so try balls, plush toys, rope toys, and so on.
- You may create a lot of value in the hold/retrieve game by gradually increasing distance and keeping your dog's rewards high in value.
The finished skill will be a smooth cued retrieval of any toy with a little patience and continuous repetition. Remember that when you teach a dog to retrieve a toy, stick, or something else, the prize isn't the game itself, and you'll want to keep rewarding the fetching activity with goodies.
If you need help teaching your dog to play fetch, or training your dog, check out our online training course for dogs!