When you bring home your first puppy you may dream of the day when you can take him to the park, throw a ball and have hours of fun together. It starts out as an easy way to bond with the newest member of your family and to give him the exercise he craves. Later on you may even tempt your children to switch off their iPhone, dig out the old Frisbee from the attic and join you in the fresh air to play along too. And, you don’t need to stop there: you can teach your dog to fetch his lead when it’s time for your walk; bring your slippers when you come home from a hard day at work; or even train him to retrieve game birds, if you go hunting.
Some dogs will naturally love to fetch, it’s hardwired into their instincts. Border collies, Labradors, Springer Spaniels, shepherd dogs, Poodles, retrievers and pointers have all been used as working dogs for their ability to fetch and carry a range of items in a variety of environments. With these breeds, teaching them to play fetch is a breeze, but with others, like my little lazy Dachshund, I will throw the ball and he will look up at me, yawn and wait patiently for me to fetch it myself. So, what can you do to teach your dog to play fetch?
#1 Teach Your Dog to ‘GIVE’ First
Okay, it may seem a bit back to front to teach the GIVE command first,but if you don’t then the games of FETCH you play will become very short-lived if your fog fetches the ball and then keeps it to himself. I’ve written another post on the best way to teach the GIVE command that you can jump over to here.
#2 Technique for Dogs that Love to Retrieve Naturally
This will be an easy lesson for you to teach, but it will require patience and a lot of repetition, especially if you want your dog to retrieve specific items. A natural retriever will love this game and your biggest difficulty is bringing the game to a halt when you’ve had enough and you want to go home!
To start, get 2 tennis balls, a pocket full of treats and a soft toy (preferably his favorite one).
- Throw one of the balls and let your dog run after it.
- As soon as he picks up the ball, bounce the second ball.
- If your dog runs back to you and drops the ball, throw the second one for him to chase.
- If your dog runs back but doesn’t drop the ball, put your hand on his collar and your palm face up under his chin and use the GIVE command. You might need to use a treat to encourage him to give up the ball.
- Now throw the second ball.
- Repeat this action until you have both enjoyed the game and feel it’s time to go home.
#3 Avoid Tug-of-War
Some dogs won’t give back the ball even after being tempted with a treat and you may try to take it from him and be drawn into a game of tug-of-war. You must avoid that temptation. The best way to deal with this is to walk away or turn around, signaling the game has paused. After a short while, use the GIVE command again and if he drops the ball then resume the game. If that fails, I take the soft toy and begin to handle it myself as though it’s the most interesting thing in the world. Curiosity normally gets the better of the dog who drops the ball to play with this new thing. I don’t give him the toy, but throw the second ball for him to chase again, before putting the toy back out of sight and picking up the first ball. The game of FETCH resumes and the dog begins to understand that the fun continues if he plays the game properly.
#4 Stimulating Interest to Retrieve in the Others
If your dog doesn’t naturally enjoy retrieving, you must first teach him the command TAKE IT (see my other post on training this command). Once he has mastered this and you are confident that he understands he can pick the ball up from the floor, you throw the ball a little distance away from him and command TAKE IT. You then call him to COME to you then GIVE the ball back. You develop this into a game of fetch by throwing the ball further and further away each time.
For dogs that like to sit and stare you can stimulate them to chase by holding onto their leash as you toss the ball, they will naturally tug at the leash as they see the movement and when you let go it will propel them in the right direction and motivate them to chase the ball.
#5 Introducing Other Retrieving Games
Once your dog has mastered fetching a ball you can introduce the idea of him fetching other specific things. Think of the items you want him to fetch and teach them one at a time, making sure he has mastered each instruction before moving onto the next. Right from day one of training, I always suffix the FETCH command with the item I want the dog to fetch. For example,
- FETCH the BALL
- FETCH my SLIPPER
- FETCH your BOWL
Always remember to reward with high value treats, allow plenty of time for your dog to learn and be patient. In time, you will be able to ask your dog to retrieve and give you, without any fuss items, that he values very highly.
Let me tell you a story.
My first dog, Finbar, was a chocolate Labrador who came from a long line of hunting dogs. Although I didn’t want to use him for hunting, I did want him to be able to practice the skills he was so well suited for. At the time I kept chickens and this gave me a perfect opportunity for teaching him two very important skills for a hunting dog…SOFT MOUTH and FETCH. Every morning I would send my children down to the chicken coup to collect the eggs, Finbar would go with them. One by one they would place an egg carefully for Finbar to pick up in his mouth and he would carry it to me who was waiting in the kitchen. If the egg arrived unbroken, he would get a big treat and then would run off to collect the next egg to bring me. Inevitably at first as many eggs arrived broken as intact, but after a relatively short while Finbar became an expert egg handler. As he grew older his skills extended to fetching back one of the hens who often escaped into next door’s garden and he was never happier than when he was running errands and fetching things for me.
#5 On Leash or Off Leash Training
If your dog has mastered the COME command then you can play FETCH with him unleashed. It is more fun for you both and you can throw the ball further distances. However, if your dog is still a puppy, you will need to teach him this command on a leash. So when you call him to COME to you he isn’t tempted to run off with the ball, chew it up or hide it somewhere never to be found again.
Playing Fetch with Your Puppy
Before we leave this article, I just want to give a word of caution when playing fetch with a puppy. Puppies still have baby teeth which are easily damaged, so use a soft rubber ball when you play fetch rather than a harder tennis ball and never use a cricket or hockey ball. You can buy rubber toys that squeak which will get your puppies attention before you throw it and they are not yet strong enough to rip it apart to get the squeak out (many older dogs will do this with squeaky toys and then try to eat the squeak).
Despite the typical image of a dog fetching a stick, when you teach your dog to play fetch puppies should never be given a stick to chase as it could easily splinter and get stuck in their mouth. Older more experienced dogs too are not exempt either from receiving painful injuries from sticks, and you may find yourself having an avoidable and expensive trip to the veterinarian.