As the early morning mist circles around your ankles and the long grass in the meadow tickles your knees, you admire the sleek form of your dog as he bounds after his ball. He pivots on the spot while grabbing the ball in his mouth, a look of sheer joy in his eyes as he races back to you. Jumping back and forth, he teases you with the ball, ‘talking’ the whole time before happily dropping the ball on the ground before you…
At least this is what you imagined when you first brought your bundle of fur home from the shelter. Instead, you have a silly and obnoxious ‘teenage’ dog in front of you playing keep away and thinking this is the best fun ever! So what went wrong when you were training your dog to fetch?
Nothing really but let’s go back to the beginning on how to teach a dog to fetch and retrace our steps.
Dogs are hunters and they have a strong instinct to chase anything moving even as young pups. It is very rare to find a dog that will not run after a ball, stick or the neighborhood cat given half a chance. The hard part is teaching them to return the ball, stick or cat once they have caught it!
Is it surprising to learn that even retrieving breeds like the Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever must be taught to retrieve the duck or play fetch? The instinct is there to chase and grab but not necessarily to gently return with the prey and place it in their handler’s hand. That must be taught preferably from an early age.
Teaching a young pup is a little different then teaching a young dog in that first you have to attract the pup’s attention. The first few times you toss the ball for a young pup they will probably not even notice – their eyesight is not yet fully developed nor do they think that the object in your hand is about to be tossed.
Play with the pup for a few minutes so their attention is focused on you and not their littermates, a toy or the neighborhood cat. A pocket full of some really yummy treats is a must for this exercise and a great way to attract his interest in the first place. Once their attention is on you, hold the pup in one arm and let him sniff the ball. First thing he will do is try to bite it, encourage him with a ‘good boy’ in an excited voice and let him gnaw on it for a few seconds. Then, gently take the ball out of his mouth while saying ‘out’ and then ‘good boy’. Keep his attention on the ball and gently roll it across the floor so it stops a few feet away from him. He should struggle to get out of your arms. Place him on the floor and as he dashes in his cute little puppy gait, encourage him with ‘good boy’ and just general excited noises. When he grabs it give him an extra special ‘good boy’.
Now comes the tough part - getting him to bring it back. Encouraging him any time he has the ball in his mouth will help and when he walks with it, even better. As he starts waddling around with it in his mouth, encourage him to come back to you by making your typical ‘here, puppy’ noises. As soon as he gets near you, show him a treat. If he is hungry, he probably will drop the ball where upon you say ‘good out’ and hand him the treat. Pick the ball up while he is distracted and get ready to do this all over again.
Because ‘fetch’ is supposed to be fun, you always want to leave him wanting more and with young pups, a few tosses should suffice. Leave him with a ‘good boy’ and a ‘good fetch’ and let him go back to being a puppy. A few hours later, however, you can try another session of training him to play fetch.
Within a few days he should begin to get the idea and the first time he returns the ball to you without needing to be encouraged, give him the biggest ‘good boy’ you can muster! Always reward him when you take the ball away or when he drops it on his own by your side or in your hand. This is very important. He must know there is something in this game for him otherwise he will quickly learn the ‘keep away’ game because it is more fun to be chased by you then to chase a ball! Never run after him or play ‘tag’ – it will only teach him a new way to drive you crazy and as he matures, there will be no way you will ever catch him unless he decides to let you!
Teaching an older puppy or dog is a little easier in that he has already learned that paying attention to you can have its benefits. The principles are the same – start with short distances and always reward him for returning to you with something more valuable (by his doggy standards, not yours) then the ball.
As soon as he becomes ‘ball happy’, it will be tough to find something that is actually a reward besides to toss the ball again. If he does not want to relinquish the ball to you because of this, try using another ball so that when he returns to you, you immediately reward him with another throw. He will drop the ball that is in his mouth and chase the new one.
Once you have trained him to fetch and he becomes ball obsessed, a good portion of his exercise will come from the game. A word from the wise - buy a ‘Chucker’! These simple devices let you throw the ball farther without actually touching the goopy, dripping ball or bending over to pick the ball up off the ground. An amazing invention that hopefully is making someone a millionaire!
Good luck on training your dog to fetch. For most dogs it is an easy thing to learn that they enjoy. Remember: always leave them wanting more and always reward them when they return the ball to you. Soon, you will be the guy in your imagination with the happy, fit dog bounding through the meadow.