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Fetch is defined as a dog that will go after an item, pick it up, bring it back and drop it to then be thrown and repeated.

Importance of Fetch

Fetch can be one of the most important things a person can train their dog on. These are some of the positive attributes:

  • Exercises the dog.
  • Builds bond between dog and handler.
  • Builds respect for handler.

Can All Dogs be Trained to Fetch?

Not all but a lot more than you would think. There are some very low energy dogs with zero prey drive. Ten rabbits could be running around them and they would have zero drive to chase them. If a dog has the slightest inkling to chase after something or paw at it, drive for fetch can often be built from there.

Where is Fetch Used?

Service dogs often have natural desires to fetch. It shows an eagerness to please. We find a very strong correlation between dogs that fetch and ease of training. This is one reason why many people find Retrievers are easier to train than many other breeds. However not all breeders that breed retrievers, breed for the trait of retrieving. We have worked with a lot of retrievers that displayed zero natural fetch characteristics. They can be trained to fetch with a fair bit of work however.

Expedites Training

With dogs that develop any aggression problems or any other behavioural problems, if they enjoy fetch it often speeds up training immensely. For some dogs if they had aggression to certain people, playing fetch near those people helped them associate good things with others Core Rule: Premack Principle.

Use Food for Training Fetch?

Lots of dogs have been trained to fetch using food but we don’t recommend it. Here is the reason why:

  • Drive for Toy
  • Drive for Food

If food is used, the desire for fetch comes from the desire to earn a food reward. For lots of dogs that gets the ball rolling and then they end up enjoying fetch enough that food isn’t required.

However for some dogs once food is removed as a reward the desire for fetch may fade away as well.

The Kicker

Typically we find the dogs that can be trained to fetch using food could have easily been trained to fetch without using food. It’s the dogs that waver that really need to be trained to fetch without food.

The drive for fetch has to come from a strong desire to want that toy.

Big Rules of Fetch

  1. Toy is yours and in your possession. It only comes out when you want to play fetch and it goes away when you are done. The dog never gets the fetch toy on their own. This makes the toy even more desirable and builds drive for the game.
  2. End fetch before the dog wants to. If the dog is good for 5 throws and loses interest, end fetch on the 4th throw. Then tease the dog a bit with the ball to build some drive, put it in your pocket and walk away. It is the “Pringles Effect” (I bet you can’t have just one). Always leave the dog wanting more and it really helps to build drive for fetch. Maybe you have seen a dog at the end of a fetch game tries to play keep away or just takes the ball somewhere to play with the toy themselves. They are leaving you wanting more fetch. Here you are reversing the tables.

The Goal

The goal is to build drive for fetch to be stronger than anything else. If the dog loves their fetch toy more than food, other dogs, rabbits, squirrels, etc., then you have a very focused dog. All other training becomes very easy when you possess a strong and powerful reward for your dog.

Example: Police dogs when finding narcotics, bombs or missing persons get to play with their favorite toy as a reward. In agility courses the dog often earns a tug toy as a reward.

The Easy Version

There are a lot of different tips and tricks to get a dog to fetch and some dogs can be months of work (longest we had was 6 months of training to finally enjoy fetch). Before we dive into a bunch of detail, here are the easy versions:

  • Use a rope and anti-pull harness. Connect the rope onto the front of an anti-pull harness fitted on the dog. This allows you to ‘reel’ the dog back to you after they have gone for the toy.
  • Watch another dog fetch - tie the dog that is being trained to fetch off to the side and ignore them. Play fetch with another dog that already loves fetch and praise them lots for retrieving. If you notice the dog that is tied up seems to be anxious to try, you can switch the dogs out and see if your dog now wants to fetch. If they do, great, if not, tie them back up and play with the other dog that loves fetch. The dog that took us 6 months to train on fetch required this method for 6 months before wanting the attention bad enough to fetch.

Lots of dogs just want to chase the dog that loves fetch or some will steal the ball from the dog fetching and run off with it. This is controlled through a long rope and harness or tying the dog off to the side. You are not allowing them to play their games, you will only allow them to play your game.

Training Fetch

There are many different ways to train fetch and we will go over my most preferred method.  This is a guideline to follow:

  1. Choose a fetch toy that you will use.  We prefer the rubber “Chuckit” balls as they bounce really well, float (just had a person say this isn’t true so be careful around water), dogs love to squish them and they are relatively hard to destroy compared to tennis balls.  Stay away from tennis balls as they can destroy your dog’s teeth over several years of playing with them.
  2. Build the drive to fetch.  Some dogs will have absolutely zero desire to play fetch and many you will be able to build that drive for the ball.  The rules to fetch are:

    1. The fetch ball is yours and you decide when you want to begin.

    2. It goes away when you are done.

    3. Always stop playing fetch before the dog gets bored so that you keep it interesting.
  3. Start off in a corner of a room and get your dog interested in the ball and toss it into the corner of a room where they have no choice but to come back to you.  As your dog comes back you will capture them and take hold of the ball and say “drop it” and take the ball away (if they won’t drop you can use Tug to help train the “drop it” command).  Get them excited for it again and throw it to the corner and repeat.  If your dog may only be interested in 5 throws then you will stop in 4 throws and tease them with the ball a bit and put it back in your pocket and walk away.
  4. To build drive you can also find a room with a wall that you can throw the ball at to play catch with yourself.  Toss it at the wall and do your best to keep it away from your dog but try and make it real close for them to get it.  Many dogs will want to chase it and try to get the ball.  If your dog captures it praise them a lot and get the ball back and keep playing fetch with yourself.  You are showing your dog that this toy is yours and you really like playing with it and if they are lucky they will get to play with it as well.  It may take 2-3 months before you really build that drive to fetch a ball.
  5. Ensure Pack Structure is in place and especially don’t give your dog a ton of free attention.  Give your dog lots of attention and praise (short 5-10 second burst) for getting the ball. We have used this method before where the only way the dog gets pet is if they have the ball in their mouth. If the dog is quite Attention driven it can be a really good motivator.
  6. As your dog gets really good about chasing and picking up the ball you can then use a Long Line and an Anti-pull Harness to practice fetch with a bit more distance (around 5-15 feet). This step is best done inside your home where there aren’t any other distractions. You can then throw the ball and have your dog chase it and pick it up.  Then you will turn away from them and say “Bring it back” and give a tug on the rope attached to your dog.  As they get close to you, you will stand on the rope and walk up to your dog (standing and walking on the rope ensures they can’t get away) and you will take hold of your dog’s collar and then grab onto the ball and say “drop it” and take the ball from your dog.  Get your dog excited again for the ball and throw it.  Repeat these steps and always end before your dog wants to end.  Then tease them a bit with the ball and put it in your pocket and walk away.  If they show real keen interest you can practice tossing it once more and then stop.  You can repeat this several times as well if your dog shows really keen interest to keep playing fetch.
  7. As your dog gets really good about Step 6 you can then practice playing outside in your yard or close to your house where your dog frequently visits.  Ensure this place has very little to no distractions for your dog.  Take your dog to your yard or close by and let them sniff around for 5-10 minutes to wear off the initial excitement of getting there.  Do this with your dog on a Long Line and Anti-pull Harness.  From there you can bring out the ball and get your dog excited for the ball.  You will do the exact same steps in Step 6 where you toss the ball a short distance and then turn away from them as they pick up the ball and excitedly say “Bring it back” and tug on the rope for them to follow you.  As your dog gets close step on the rope and walk up to your dog and grab a hold of the ball and say “Drop it” and take the ball.  Don’t throw the ball a long distance outside.  Only throw it 5-10 feet away.  A little underhand toss works best.  If you throw it too far your dog may catch interest of something else further away and lose interest in bringing the ball back to you.  Always end long before your dog wants to end and tease them with the ball and then walk around with it.  Keep repeating Step 7 and start increasing the distance on which you can throw the ball.  You will want a long enough rope to ensure you can hold onto the end even after your dog runs for the ball so you can tug on it to get your dog back.
  8. Removing the Long Line - You will eventually be able to remove the Long Line for fetch and for this you want to ensure you have taught an excellent Recall with your dog first.  Some of you may be at the stage of using a Remote Collar to help ensure your dog comes back.  If you are, definitely make sure you are using the collar properly and at a low level.  You don’t want to scare your dog with this collar and make them think that fetching the ball is bad.  At the proper level your dog can distinguish that when you say “Bring it back” and if they are not you press the button and your dog comes back.  Then if you say “Drop it” and they do not you can press the button and your dog will drop the ball and be excited to run for it again. Very light corrections are used, many people think you need to blast the dog and this isn’t true at all. 
  9. More Distractions - For some of you this may be very soon with a very ball driven dog and for others of you it may be 2-3 months before your dog has more interest in you than other mild or even heavy distractions.  You may need to use the Long Line again or your Remote Collar to ensure your dog plays the game of fetch like you want.
  10. Safety around distractions - If you are going to start playing fetch around other dogs you will want to ensure you do this safely.  You don’t want to spend all of this time having your dog really learn to like fetch and then go to an area with other dogs where another dog grabs your ball and then attacks your dog for attempting to get their own ball back.  Be careful if you are playing fetch at a Dog Park. Take a read on the article about Dog Parks - good or bad to educate yourself. Bad fights can be triggered over a fetch ball. So for this you will want to teach your dog to be called off of chasing their ball in case you see another dog going for the ball you threw to avoid a dog fight.  Then go and get that dog owner to get the ball back for you.  Once you get it back you should go somewhere else to play fetch. Not everyone is going to be on the same page as you and many don’t have good control over their dogs. With practice, being a good Pack Leader means you should be able to avoid almost any bad situation. In the world of Law Enforcement they call it “Situational Awareness”. There is a saying “Get off the X” which means x marks the spot, don’t walk into a situation where you feel trouble could occur. 
  11. Self-Control - As mentioned above this is for your own dog’s safety to avoid dog fights with other problem dogs.  Only teach this step once your dog is absolutely crazy in love with fetching the ball otherwise you may ruin your fetch training.  For this you will have your dog on a Long Line and Anti-pull Harness and you will stand on their rope within about 2 feet of your dog.  You will then have the ball in your hand and make a slow motion that you are going to toss the ball away from your dog.  This will cause your dog to go to the end of their rope and have tension on it.  You want to ensure your dog has tension on the rope so that when you toss the ball your dog doesn’t go running to the end of the rope and hurt themselves.  If the rope is tight to start with they will try to go but quickly realize they can’t.  Say “stay” and then you will toss the ball and your dog will try to get it and you will just wait a few seconds for them to calm down.  As soon as they do you will say “Fetch” and at the same time you will take your foot off the rope (very important) and have your dog go get the ball that you tossed 5 feet away and bring it back to you.  What you are doing here is teaching your dog self-control. You will practice doing this with further and further tosses to get your dog used to not going for the ball if you say “stay”.  Then you will need to start practicing where you put an inch or two of slack in the line as your dog will think they can only not get it if they feel tension on the leash.  By putting an inch or two of slack you will teach them that they have to remain there even with no tension on the leash. When you first do this a dog will often want to run for the ball and that is why it is important to have only an inch or two of slack so they do not hurt themselves when they go to take off.  Keep repeating this until your dog is excellent about not running for the ball if you say “stay”.  

    Important: Some dogs you can practice “stay” a lot and others you will want to practice it short amounts so they don’t lose drive for fetch. It is very important that the game is always ended with the dog still really wanting to play fetch.
  12. Calling Your Dog Away From Their Ball - For this you will use your dog’s Long Line and Anti-pull Harness.  You will toss the ball away from your dog while you have a hold on the rope.  Say “Fetch” after tossing the ball and let the rope run through your hands with gloves on (very important as rope burn sucks).  Then you will say “Hold up” just like in your Recall cues and start gripping the rope to give your dog a gentle stop and then say “This way” and tug them back on the rope to come back to you.  Praise your dog and then say “Fetch” and let them go and get the ball.  Keep practicing this until your dog will call off the ball no problem.  If necessary you can use your Remote Training Collar for this as well and again ensure you are using it at a low level so that your dog does not associate bad things with fetch. Be extremely careful as it wouldn’t take much to train your dog not to fetch. The correction has to be super light and used with a long line to start.

    Important: It often takes months to train the “hold up” (or “stop”) command. The reason why is you can often only practice it one time during your fetch session and sometimes you have to skip it for a few sessions of fetch. The reason why is that the dog may start running very slowly for the ball as their are anticipating you telling them to “hold up”. If you are never around anything that could be dangerous you don’t really have to train the “hold up” command. We will do a video in the future to show how to train this as you can ruin fetch very easily if it is not done properly if you are using the Remote Training Collar. Some dogs will learn it just fine using the rope and there is no issue there.

Now you have graduated to a dog that loves fetch and you have excellent control over your dog around this game.  This ensures that you will minimize any dog fights over a prized fetch ball.  You should make it all the way to Step 12 before you ever consider going to an Off-Leash park (if you even want to risk it in the first place) so that you can keep your dog safe from other problem dogs.