Retrieve games are fun and an easy ways to exercise your dog. Frankly, it’s always nice if you have the flu or are just plain feeling lazy, to toss a ball to tire out your pooch instead of walking the dog yourself. Also, if your dog loves to play, you may be able to use fetch as a reward for training, so you’ll have more options to reward behaviors. Most dogs can learn to play fetch, but many pet owners aren’t sure quite how to start:
1. Many dogs nowadays spend more time indoors than outdoors, so the outdoors is full of excitement and distractions. It can be easier to start fetch games indoors. However, you may be able to start outdoors if you can find a quiet spot. I often start in a hallway and I close all doors and try to leave only one path for the dog to move. That way the dog is already set up to move in a pattern of bringing the toy back to me.
Video link – Puppy Firefly plays fetch
2. I personally try to avoid using food when working on retrieve games if at all possible. Sometimes food treats will distract the dog from the game, also I really want the game itself to be the reward. It’s hard to work away from using food to reward fetch after using food rewards. That said, if the dog has some issues with guarding – for instance, the dog plays keep away with the toy or clamps onto the toy and will not release, then food may be needed initially. If you do find yourself needing to use food, I suggest using the lowest value treat that the dog will work for (the dog’s own kibble if possible). Also try to move away from using the food reward as quickly as possible.
3. Do not leave your fetch toys out. Put them away, make them “extra special” so the dog only has access to them when you play. I use a variety of different toys for fetch, anything the dog really likes. I often will combine fetch and controlled tug games. Tug toys with a tennis ball at one end are great. You can often later transition to just a ball. I often use more than one toy in each session, switching off right in the middle of the game.
4. Keep your initial play sessions very brief. For some dogs it may be 2 or 3 tosses and then ending the game. Ideally you are ending the game before your dog wants to. Your dog will remember how much fun that was and be eager to start again the next time.
5. As with many things, fetch games are often easier to teach when you start with a young puppy, I usually start fetch games with my own pups as soon as I get them – yes at 8-10 weeks of age. That does not mean it is impossible to teach an older dog.
6. Act silly. High pitch, repetitive noises can get puppies to move. So for instance, saying “hurry, hurry, hurry!” or clapping as the puppy brings the toy back may help. Use your movement as well. For instance, toss the toy then as the pup starts to run back with it, start running away from the puppy yourself to build some distance.
7. If your pup plays tug, you can use that to encourage the pup to bring the toy back to you. Tug a little bit, then interrupt the tug game with a strong “sit” cue to prompt the dog to drop the toy and sit. Then toss the tug just a foot or two away. When the pup goes to get it, grab the end of the toy and prompt the pup to move towards you for another short tug game. As you repeat this process many dogs will start to move in that very same pattern. If your dog has trouble dropping tug toys or gets too excited by tug games to the point of not dropping the toy when you tell him to, or showing some unwanted “over the top” excited behavior, then your pup may need more training before trying this technique or this technique may not be appropriate. See this article on teaching your dog how to play controlled tug games.
8. I like having dogs give me the toy or ball right to my hand. First, it allows me to be even lazier when I exercise my dog since now I don’t even have to bend to get the toy. Secondly, I like to train my dogs to hand me their leashes and other items later on, and starting with the dog in a pattern of handing the ball to my hand makes this easier to teach. I simply start this by setting my puppy up to hand the toy to my hand. At the beginning I will make sure my hand is right there, ready to receive the toy under the pup’s mouth right when the pup approaches. When the pup gets better, I slowly make it a little harder by moving my hand away right as the pup is about to give it to me so the pup has to work a little harder to bring it right to my hand. I will not toss the toy until the pup hands it to me directly.
While I will sometimes interrupt the game with a command, such as a sit, or down and rewarding with a toy toss, I also am careful not to interrupt the game with too many commands. I really want this to be about having fun. Dogs that tend to get too excited may do better with more training interruptions than the dogs that are hard to motivate.
In a multiple dog household it is best to separate the dogs when you are teaching them how to play. Then when you try to play with more than one dog at the same time, do not let them steal from each other mid game – you may trigger a conflict or may end up with dogs playing with each other rather than with you. Or you could even end up having the dog that usually loses the toy lose interest in playing fetch entirely. Each dog needs to play with the toy you throw for them. Any switching or stealing makes the game end for a few minutes for the dog that was “the thief.” This can get pretty tricky, as you may have to give verbal feedback from a distance. In my household Firefly and Louie used to try to “steal” the other dog’s toy. With a lot of practice Firefly has learned that the toy I give her is for her, and the one I’m throwing for Louie is for him to bring back. If it is hard to prevent the dogs from stealing or interfering in the game it is perfectly ok to confine the dogs you are not playing with.
Make sure fetch is not the only game you play with your dog. Some individual dogs may be prone to developing compulsive behaviors or may start to demand that you play with them to the point of becoming annoying. Other dogs may become a bit obsessed by the ball or other item you use for fetch games. Mixing up activities that your dog engages in on a daily basis, making sure you use a variety of different objects to play and making sure that you are initiating play sessions rather than responding to pushy behavior can help keep fetch games a healthy way to have fun with your dog. I start and end all the games at my house. When I say “all done” my dogs know I’m really done, I say it one time and it means the game is over and I put the toy away.
I’ve found that the majority of dogs are able to learn how to play fetch, but there are some individual dogs that really are not interested and may do better with other games or activities. Also fetch games are not appropriate if a dog gets so excited that the owner cannot control the dog, if the dog exhibits unsafe behaviors, or guarding behaviors like “keep away.” If this is the case, the owner to first needs to work on addressing these behaviors with a professional before trying to play fetch games.
Have fun playing with your dog!
Feel like taking your fetch games up to a competitive level? Check out the local disc dog club: http://www.aircanines.com/