Every prospective dog owner has a mental image of his dog fetching for him.  Playing ball in the yard on a perfect spring day with the pet bounding enthusiastically after the bouncing sphere and returning it jubilantly to lay it at his master’s feet.  The hunter envisions his partner leaping into the water to retrieve a captured fowl, gently returning it undamaged to his owner.  There may even be some fantasies in the heads of people getting ready to bring a new canine in their home that involve finding a lost child or rescuing a family member from harm, bringing them back to safety.

And then reality sets in.  My Buddy loved to chase his ball and often would catch it on the bounce.  But then I’d have to chase him down and wrestle the spit-covered toy from his mouth as he clamped down on it.  He seemed to be saying, “Hey!  This is mine!  I worked for that!”  And then there’s Sally.  Since my yard is small, I wanted to get her as much exercise as possible.  With a cheerful “Fetch, Sally!”, I tossed the new orange squeaky ball in her direction.  She watched it roll past her, looked at me, and walked around the corner of the house.  Nuts.

Buddy loved his ball.  Sally did not.  Hunters especially know you have to train a dog to fetch properly whether it’s a ball, a duck, or a family member in peril.  Just like any other training, you need a method with positive reinforcement and a technique that is consistent and continuous.  Sound like the blog I did on getting your dog to come when you call?  It is.  Training is training is training.  There’s a right way, a not so good way, and a wrong way.  As a responsible dog owner, you will find you use the same techniques every time you teach your pup something new and it will get easier.  So let’s teach your dog to play ball!

Warm up your pitching arm and be patient.  You may just be throwing for awhile before Fifi catches on.  You will need a ball or toy, dog treats, a consistent command word like “Fetch” or “Get it!” and also “Drop it,”an optional helper, and a place big enough to play.

I think it’s great if you can get used to using a hand signal with your verbal commands.  For one thing, your dog may start to lose his hearing or be distracted by a noise, but still be able to see a hand signal.  Check out the guy in the video below and his hand signals.

Let’s Talk Toys

Your Best Boy may have one particular toy he likes, or may play with several.  You might think about teaching Fido to play fetch with a number of different toys.  These may include:

  • That disgusting bone that you can’t for the life of you understand why it hasn’t disintegrated by now and must be hard as a rock (like the one that continuously migrates from my yard to my living room even though I keep tossing it outside).
  • A stick or relatives of The Stick which also come into my living room to meet an untimely death.  The nice thing about teaching your dog to fetch a stick is that they naturally like to drag them around and you can find one almost anywhere you are on an outing.
  • KONG toys.  I don’t understand the attraction with these things either, but they are HUGELY popular with canines.
  • Dead tennis balls.  Hang out at any tennis court and ask players for any.  They go too flat to play with pretty quickly on the court, but retain plenty of bounce for your pet.  The size of a tennis ball is about right, too.  Don’t go any smaller because they can travel right down the throat of your excited buddy and this would be really, really bad. 
  • A  “Frisbee” just for dogs.  I’ll bet 90% of the population of the world has seen clips of dogs playing Frisbee.  But a People Frisbee is hard plastic and may chip a tooth on your dog.  Instead, opt for something like the Chuckit! Dog Frisbee.  A word of caution – while it’s totally cool to see dogs jump up into the air to catch a flying disc, don’t do it!  About the time you drop hundreds of dollars at the vet for your dog breaking a leg or worse, playing fetch stops being fun.  Fido can still catch the disc close to the ground and won’t hurt himself.  The man in the video below shows you how to roll your Frisbee.  Who knew there was a technique?
  • Don’t play fetch with something edible like a rawhide stick.  That’s WAY too confusing for your pet.

Once again, hold back.  Sniffing won’t cut it anymore.  He has to mouth the toy.  Use your marker word like “fetch” even though he isn’t really fetching yet.  Yea!  But there’s one more challenge in this step.

Put the toy back on the ground in front of you.  Use your “fetch” word and when he picks up the toy, place your hand under it.  Use your “drop it” word and when he does, give a treat.  Now, this may be a little bit of a problem if he doesn’t want to drop the toy.  Here’s the rub.  He can’t eat a treat and hold the toy in his mouth at the same time.  So here’s where Master coordination comes in – when he picks up the toy, put your hand under it and say “drop it” and give a treat at the same time.  When the toy hits your hand, give praises (he already has the treat!).  Once he has this down pat, start placing the toy further away.  Here’s where a helper may come in handy. 

Now let’s raise the ante . . .

Step Two: Bringing the Toy

You have his attention.  He knows the toy is involved.  He knows treats are involved.  He thinks that’s all there is to it, but AHA!  There’s more to come!  Now, after he picks up the toy, take a few steps away and call him.  If he drops the toy, ignore him and pick it up.  Move it somewhere else (a helper comes in handy here), then repeat the routine in Step One to get him to pick it up.  Step back and enthusiastically call him, bending down and clapping your hands.  It won’t take too long for him to bring it to you.  Good Boy!  Smart Dog!  Until . . . .

He wants to play Catch Me If You Can with it.

But KC!  What if he doesn’t want to come back with the toy?  Well, my friend, I have an answer for that, too.  Run away.  No, really.  Dogs love to play chase.  So as soon as he picks up the toy, smile and start to run away while calling him.  You have a 50/50 chance of him dropping the toy to chase you.  Slam on the brakes, ignore him, get the toy, and start over.  Believe me, it won’t take long for him to catch on to what you’re asking.

You have a 50/50 chance of him dropping the toy to chase you.

Then there will be the occasional canine that drops the toy too early.  Don’t go and get it.  The very first time he does this, give your “fetch” command and back up a few steps.  He may pick up the toy and he may just come.  Remember, he’s a dog, not Einstein.  Back up and start again.  Don’t worry.  He’ll get it.  If he doesn’t, you are either being inconsistent somehow or your treats aren’t good enough.  Consider that he may also be tired.  Don’t train your dog so long that he has trouble concentrating.

HOW TO TELL IF YOUR DOG’S TEETH ARE BAD

How do you know if they have dental disease?  THEIR BREATH STINKS!  And I don’t mean the usual bad breath from eating things you don’t even want to think about.  I mean turn-your-head-away-good-grief dog bad breathe.  If Fifi’s mouth smell offends you, it’s time to see the doc.  The teeth will be yellow (check out the gross photo below) and maybe even be loose or fall out.  Also, your dog may not want to eat anything she has to chew or show discomfort when she does eat.  Don’t put off visiting the vet, because a disease process could be already started that could take your guy out of your life way sooner than you ever wanted.  Plus, she may be suffering!

If you would rather have your pet put the toy in your hand so you don’t have to bend over, have a command word such as “give it”.  Again . . . dog, not Einstein.  Try to keep from using complete sentences.  If you say, “Give Mama the ball, Jax,” he will hear “ball” and “Jax” and the “give” will get lost in all those other words.  KIST (Keep It Simple, Trainer).  I personally prefer to bend over because that gives my pooch a chance to put his nose next to my face, which Jax in particular just loves, and I can pet him while I pick up the toy.  The other hand can also dispense the treat.

NOTE: I want to interject here something I have discussed in Teaching Your Dog Not to Jump.  Dogs communicate with their mouths and their noses.  It took me about a week to realize that Jax of the Cold Nose smells my face.  He will stick his nose close and just stare at me for no reason.  He comes into my office, touches my arm or leg with his nose and leaves.  He’s not really asking for anything – he’s just checking things out.  This is one reason dogs lick your face and not other parts of your body.  It’s because that’s where your nose is.  I really hate dogs licking my face because they eat poop and clean their butts.  However, when we are riding to the park and Sally gets really excited, she wants to thank me and I let her lick my ear.  Still gross, but I love her.  It’s the only time she does it.  This is the kind of paying attention that changes a Dog Owner to a Dog Whisperer.  Be the dog.  Try to understand how their minds work, and everyone will be happier.

One problem you may run into is that when you reach for the toy, your pet will run with it.

Breaking Bad Habits

One problem you may run into is that when you reach for the toy, your pet will run with it.  This is actually a pretty easy one, particularly if he knows “No!” or “Sit!”  He will immediately understand things just quit being fun.  Tell him to sit until he gets bored and drops the ball.  He may have made the association that he needs to hang onto the ball until that treat comes out.  Say “drop it” and wait until he does, and then slip him a yummy.  I think all dogs should sit when they drop the ball.  Many trainers have their dog lie down after fetching.  Some of these obedience dogs are really amazing!

If he tries to grab the toy as you’re picking it up, give a sharp “No!” and put it back on the ground.  Again, he’ll get the drift.

And Finally

Keep your exercise sessions to about fifteen minutes.  Play on soft surfaces and away from other dogs and people that might end up getting caught in the action.  Fido may charge right over a toddler in pursuit of a poorly thrown Frisbee or bouncing ball.  And a dog fight over a toy can escalate to something really scary.

Sally has this really disgusting toy I bought for her that was originally a bird or chicken or something.  The squeak is pretty much gone and the feathers were history the first week.  But she loves that thing.  I always double-take when I turn on the lights and this nasty body is lying in the middle of the room.  I wash it every time I do laundry.  Keep in mind that your dog’s toys get in the dirt and poop and bugs and God knows what else is in your yard, so every so often you should think about washing them.  Just soap and water in the sink is fine.  Even The Bone gets cleaned when I think about it and it evidently doesn’t make it any less attractive.  So grab your sticks and balls and Kongs and other toys and GO PLAY FETCH!

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