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Teaching Dogs to Fetch
Some fetchers are made, not born

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. Fetch provides the basis for some of the most amusing tricks, such as teaching a dog to go get a tissue when he hears someone sneeze or to grab a beer from the cooler when told that someone is thirsty.

Unfortunately, many guardians expect their dogs to play fetch without any training, and they are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. They assume that their dog just isn’t into fetch. That’s a shame because many dogs who aren’t naturals at the game love to fetch once someone has taught them how to play.

When teaching a dog to fetch, do what you can to get off on the right paw by choosing your dog’s favorite toy, whether it’s a ball, a plush squirrel, or something squeaky. Begin inside the house where the distractions are fewer and less intense than outside and it will be easier to keep your dog’s attention. In the early stages, the farther you throw the ball, the less likely your dog is to go after it, so start with short tosses of 10 feet or less. Use two or three toys so that you can throw one when your dog comes back to you even if he doesn’t want to let go of the one in his mouth.

After throwing the ball, either make rapidly repeated high-pitched noises such as woop-woop-woop (pup-pup-pup is also good) or clap as you run away from your dog to encourage him to run towards you. Change the throwing direction with each toss to keep it unpredictable. It’s the unpredictable that makes much of play so fun. Another way to keep it fun, so that your dog will want to keep playing, is to throw the ball the microsecond he comes back to you. It’s more natural to stand there holding it (your dog thinks you’re hoarding it) as you praise him, but that may bore your dog and cause him to lose interest. Finally, quit before your dog wants to. “Leave’em wanting more” is a great strategy when teaching fetch.

As wonderful as fetch can be, it’s not the right game for every dog. Dogs who become aggressive either because they become too aroused or because they are possessive (defending their toys with threatening or even injurious behavior) should not play fetch.

Any dog who is physically capable of playing the game can learn to fetch, and many dogs from a huge variety of breeds love it. It is true, however, that fetch is often picked up fastest by dogs who have a natural tendency to chase after things or are toy-motivated.

If you teach your dog to play this wonderful game, you will have a dog who is fetching, in every sense of the word.


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

photo by saidinjest/Flickr

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