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How to Teach a Dog to Fetch

Even dogs who aren’t natural retrievers can learn.

by Karen B. London, PhD
July 8, 2020
Dog playing fetch with tennis ball in long grass
Ian Sherriffs / Adobe Stock

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The game of fetch wins the prize as the ultimate good-for-us, good-for-them activity. It gives dogs exercise without humans having to work up a sweat and is a great way to teach dogs the crucial skill of dropping an object on cue. Since it’s fun and interactive, it enhances the relationship between people and dogs.

A few dogs are really good at fetch (and some will even play it by themselves). All you have to do is find a likely object (a ball, a stick, a pine cone), throw it, and enjoy the fun of a good game with your dog. If you have one of these dogs, you can give them lots of exercise and they will, quite literally, consider you the best game in town. For the rest of us, there are ways to teach a dog to fetch so that you can both enjoy playing it. Many dogs who aren’t naturals at the game love to fetch once someone has taught them how to play.

Step by Step: Teach Your Dog to Fetch

To make it as likely as possible for your dog to take an interest in the game of fetch, begin teaching her inside the house. I know, I know, playing fetch in the house seems crazy, but it’s only temporary. Eventually, you’ll be playing outside — but by starting indoors where there are fewer distractions, it’s easier for your dog to focus. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the word “ball,” but fetch can be played with any toy your dog finds appealing.)

Step 1. Play with the ball yourself for a few moments.

Bounce it a couple of times, toss it in the air and catch it, or wave it around. It’s often the movement rather than the toy itself that dogs find attractive, so get that ball moving.

Step 2. Now that they’re interested, give the ball a gentle toss.

Toss no more than five feet away from you and your dog. If your dog heads in the direction of the ball and picks it up, clap gently and head in the other direction. Most dogs love a chase game and your movement is likely to entice her to follow you. Resist the urge to call them to come or to say their name, which will make many dogs drop the ball and trot to the person calling them. If they come partway to you and then drops the ball, keep clapping and moving away from them. Consider it an unbreakable rule that they move toward you and you do not move toward them.

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Step 3. If they grab the ball and runs away, start running yourself.

Always run in the opposite direction. Dogs can rarely resist a chase game, and it’s up to you to be the chase-ee rather than the chaser. This isn’t easy, but making a conscious effort not to give in and chase your dog will pay off in the long run.

Step 4. If your dog brings the ball back and drops it anywhere near you, pick it up and throw it instantly.

Most of us tend to pick up the ball and hold it while we praise our dog or pet her, but this isn’t the time for that. We think we’re playing fetch but our dogs think we’re hoarding the ball. They want the ball back, and they want it now. Since we’re trying to make sure they love the game of fetch, we need to make it as fun as possible for them, and that means letting them have the ball, not holding on to it.

So, toss the ball the instant your dog drops it. This sounds simple, but over the years, I’ve found it to be the aspect of fetch that many people struggle with the most. Think of throwing the ball the second you get your hands on it as a challenge you give yourself. You win if you toss it right away; you lose if you hold onto it.

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karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.