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Teaching Your Dog to Play Fetch

The Reluctant Retriever

For dogs who really don’t grasp the concept of chasing after toys at all, you need to start with the basics. If your dog likes to play tug-of-war, teach him to go get a fetch toy so that you can play tug with it. Start by playing a short game of tug with a soft toy that your dog likes to tug on. Then take the toy from his mouth, tease him a bit by wiggling it on the ground, and toss it just a few inches away. If your dog runs to the toy, immediately snatch it up and start another fun game of tug. If he just stands there and looks at the toy you’ve thrown, reach out and wiggle it around on the floor again until he finds it irresistible. As soon as he goes for it, toss it another few inches away. Continue doing this until your dog chases after the toy. When he does, you can reward him with another quick tug game. Soon he’ll reliably chase the toy when you toss it, and you can start throwing it greater distances. Encourage your dog to come back to you by reaching for the toy in his mouth and tugging on it. When he gets the idea that bringing the toy back to you leads to a tugging battle, he’ll be eager to run and fetch the toy. Once you start throwing it a few feet, it’s helpful to turn and run away as your dog comes toward you with the toy. This will encourage him to run faster and chase you. When he catches up to you, play tug with the toy. Eventually, you won’t have to play tug every single time your dog fetches the toy, but be sure to do so intermittently to keep him eager to play.

On the other hand, if it’s treats that your dog likes, you can teach him to fetch a toy for the promise of a yummy tidbit. Show him the toy and toss it a few inches away. Even if he only watches the toy at first, praise him and give him a treat. After three or four repetitions of this, encourage him to chase after the toy. As he takes a step or two toward it, praise and give him a treat. Repeat this three or four times. Next, toss the toy and see if he’ll sniff it or put his mouth on it. If he doesn’t, touch it yourself—wiggle it a bit. The instant your dog moves his mouth toward the toy, praise and reward him with a treat. Ask for a little bit more from him each time, until he’s actually picking up the toy. When he does, go wild with your praise, and give him a small handful of treats! At this point, he’ll think that the toy is pretty interesting, so try tossing it farther. Encourage him to come back to you when he’s got the toy in his mouth. Some dogs have to learn that they can actually walk and hold something at the same time, so be patient. If your dog drops the toy, say “Uh-uh, get the toy,” and point to it. He’ll figure out that the only way to earn his reward is to bring the toy to you, so he’ll either stop dropping it or he’ll go back and get it when he does drop it. Once your dog learns the fetch game, he might enjoy it enough that you won’t need to give him treats each time he brings the toy back, but in the beginning, be sure to praise and reward him for every fetch.

Another variation on this exercise is to use a toy that you can stuff with treats, such as the Genuine Dog Gear Toss ‘N Treat or the Zogoflex® Tux™ treat ball. Show your dog that you’re stuffing his favorite treats into the toy, and then toss it a few inches away. When he sniffs or mouths it, quickly pick it up and give him some of the treats inside. Then stuff a few more in the toy and repeat the sequence. Keep doing this until your dog learns that the quickest way to get the treats is to bring the toy back to you.

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