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Teaching Your Dog to Play Fetch

More Tips for Playing Fetch

  • Once your dog is happily running after the toy, try holding him back by the collar while you throw it. Tempt him by saying, “Oh, do you want it? Are you gonna get that ball?!” When he seems really eager to go after the toy, excitedly say “Okay, get it!” and let go of his collar. The extra bit of frustration he feels when you hold him back will encourage him to be even more enthusiastic about going after the toy when you finally release him.
  • If your dog goes after the toy quickly but comes back to you slowly, call him and run away from him at the exact moment he picks up the ball. Dogs love to chase, and he probably won’t be able to resist running after you. Praise him when he catches up to you. If you consistently do this for a few weeks, your dog will come back faster, even when you don’t run.
  • If your dog likes to play “catch-me-if-you-can” with the fetch toy, or if he simply prefers to go off with it and play by himself, attach a light leash or rope to the toy. Throw it, and when he picks it up, wiggle the line and run off in the opposite direction, encouraging him to chase you. If he follows after you with the toy, praise him and play a little game of tug or give him a treat. If he drops the toy, drag it behind you so that he can chase it. If he still tries to run away with the toy, pull on the line and reel him in. Praise and reward him when he gets close to you. Sometimes, throw the toy again quickly. Other times, let him keep the toy for a few minutes. This way, he won’t learn that every time he comes to you, you take his toy away. If you consistently play with a toy on a rope for a few weeks, your dog will stop trying to take off with it.
  • If your dog brings the toy back but won’t let you have it, say “Drop it,” and then put a tasty treat right in front of his nose. Few dogs can resist that, so he’ll probably spit the toy out. (If he doesn’t, try using a more exciting treat, like a small piece of cheese or chicken.) When your dog drops the toy, praise him and give him the treat. After a few repetitions, he’ll learn to drop the toy when you ask him to. Eventually, you won’t have to give your dog a treat every time he drops the toy. Throwing the toy for him again might be enough of a reward. But be sure to give your dog a tasty tidbit every once in a while to keep him eager to drop the toy when you ask him to.
  • If your dog returns with the toy but spits it out on the ground a few feet away, you can teach him to bring it all the way in to you. Watch him coming toward you. Just before he reaches the point where he’s likely to drop the toy, say “Bring it,” and wave him in with your arm while you walk a few feet in the opposite direction. When he sees you moving away, he’ll keep following you. When he reaches the spot where you were standing, turn and walk back to him. Tell him, “Drop it.” He’ll spit out the toy and back up. Praise him and throw the toy. If you do this consistently for a few weeks, your dog will learn the meaning of “Bring it,” and you can remind him as he’s coming in to bring the toy all the way to you.
  • If you want your dog to put the toy in your hand and he’d rather spit it on the ground, you can teach him to “Give it” to your hand. Before your dog has a chance to drop the toy, place your hand, palm up, underneath his jaw and say “Give it.” When he drops the toy, catch it. Praise him and throw it again right away to reward him. Do this consistently for a few days. Then test your dog by saying “Give it” and holding your hand out, palm up, in front of his mouth. If he reaches forward to drop the toy into your hand, praise him profusely and throw the toy again. If he drops it on the ground, say “Uh-uh, give it,” and keep your hand in place. Wiggle your fingers while you say “Give it” to show your dog that you want the toy in your hand. If he picks it up and tries to place it in your hand, praise him enthusiastically—even if he misses! (His aim will improve with practice.) If your dog keeps picking up the toy and dropping it on the ground, or if he just stares at the toy on the ground, walk away. When he picks up the toy to follow you, try getting him to put it into your hand again. Realize that if you teach a small dog to return the toy to your hand, it’s inevitable that he’ll jump up on you to reach your hand. So before you teach this skill, give some thought to whether you’re okay with your dog jumping on you, even when he’s wet and muddy. Be careful what you wish for!
  • If your dog drops the toy for you but then tries to snatch it up as you bend down to get it, teach him to sit and stay while you pick it up:
    • When your dog runs up to you with the toy and drops it, ask him to sit and stay. Praise him and bend down to pick up the toy. He’ll very likely try to grab it.
    • If he doesn’t, remind him to sit and stay, and calmly pick up the toy. When you’ve got the toy and you’re standing up straight again, say “Okay” to release your dog from the stay. Then reward him by throwing the toy.
    • If he does try to grab the toy as you bend down to pick it up, immediately say “Uh uh,” and quickly stand up. (If you’ve already picked up the toy, drop it on the ground in front of you before standing up. If you haven’t, just stand up, leaving the toy on the ground. If your dog has managed to snatch the toy and is holding it in his mouth, wait patiently until he drops it again.) Then ask your dog to sit and stay. When he does, praise him. Bend down to pick up the toy. If he breaks his stay a second time, quickly stand up straight again. Continue repeating this sequence until your dog figures out that if he wants you to throw the toy for him, he has to sit and stay while you pick it up. When he finally does hold the stay while you pick up the toy, immediately say “Okay!” to release him from the stay, and throw the ball to reward him.

Stick to these rules every time you play fetch with your dog. Eventually, you’ll be able to pick up the toy while your dog waits politely.

  • If your dog becomes a real whiz at fetching, you can make the game more challenging for him with a few simple tricks. Try throwing the toy uphill so that he has to work harder to run after it. If you play in the house, you can throw the toy up a staircase. If your dog chases tennis balls, use a tennis racquet or a Chuckit! Ball Launcher to send the ball farther away.
  • If your dog prefers to chase a Frisbee, be careful not to throw it so he jumps up into the air to catch it. Dogs can easily get injured jumping like this. Even though you may have seen disc dogs take spectacular flying leaps after their Frisbees, realize that their handlers know how to throw a Frisbee to minimize the chance of injury. Throw the Frisbee low to the ground so that your dog can still snatch it in the air but won’t have to jump up and then land on his rear legs.
  • Keep your fetch sessions short, and end the game while your dog still wants to play. If he quits first, you risk him becoming bored of the game. Instead, leave him wanting more. If your dog is still a puppy (under 6 to 12 months old, depending on breed), be especially careful not to exercise him too strenuously because that could permanently damage his joints.

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WebMD Veterinary Reference from ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist

The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk. If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.

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