Evan’s dog Cassie loves playing “go fetch!” so much that, if it were up to her, she would keep Evan throwing the tennis ball in the backyard for hours. “Go fetch!” is high on the fun list for many dogs and their pet parents. When it’s taught the right way, even some of the more reluctant dogs can learn to enjoy it. You just need some time and patience. Oh, and treats!

Here are some tips on how to teach your dog to play “go fetch!”. 

Why Do Dogs Like to Play “Go Fetch!”?

Natural Behavior

Fetching is consistent with a dog’s prey drive, mimicking their instinct to hunt, chase, and catch food.

Benefits

There are several benefits to playing fetch:

  1. Your dog gets a lot of exercise.
  2. The game provides mental stimulation, as the dog has to pay attention and follow the toy.
  3. It’s always something fun and interesting to do!
  4. Fetch is a great bonding activity for you and your dog, and it’s an excellent way for you to decompress after a long day at work. 

How Do You Teach Your Dog to Play “Go Fetch!”?

How Does Fetch Work?

Fetch is a simple game with just a few moving parts:

  1. You throw a toy.
  2. Your dog chases the toy and picks it up.
  3. Your dog returns to you with the toy.
  4. Your dog gives you the toy.
  5. Repeat the activity.

Using a gradual approach, you teach your dog each step so that when they chase after the toy, you don’t end up chasing after them to get it back. That’s a whole different game! 

Operant Conditioning

Teaching fetch is a good example of operant conditioning, a system of reinforcement, either positive (reward) or negative (punishment), to teach the dog to do what you want. We don’t use any punishment here, though! Instead, you use praise and treats (positive reinforcement) when the dog approximates and eventually matches the behavior you want. For example, when you want the dog to return to you with the toy, you can first reward looking in your direction, then moving toward you, then reaching you. 

Toys and Treats

Choose a toy your dog really likes and will want to chase. Have more than one ready to use to keep things interesting. Here are a few that work well for a lot of dogs

  • Tennis balls;
  • Squeaker toys;
  • Soft, flexible discs and flyers; 
  • Rope toys;
  • Plush dog toys in animal shapes.

While your dog is learning, have plenty of treats on hand. It’ll take a while for them to understand what you want them to do. Be ready to immediately reward them when they get it right. In fact, you may want to start with a toy that dispenses treats.

Steps for Teaching Your Dog to Fetch

There is more than one way to teach your dog the actions required to play. You can use a set of commands, a marker or clicker, toys your dog is particularly fond of, plus lots of praise and treats. The common element among all methods is gradual progress, and each little step toward that goal should be rewarded. 

“Hold!” Command

Your dog will have to hold the toy in their mouth to return it to you. Start by holding the toy in front of them. Praise them first when they show interest, then when they sniff, then when they hold it in their mouth for more extended periods. Next, teach them to take it from your hand, then the floor, then on the floor from gradually longer distances, then after you throw it at longer and longer distances. 

Marker or Clicker

You can use a clicker or another signal (marker) to tell your dog they’ve done something right. After the signal, immediately follow up with a treat. As you place or throw the toy further away, use a click/signal and treat when they get closer and closer to returning to you while holding the toy. 

The Hard Part: Returning the Toy

The trickiest part of the process may be convincing your dog to return the toy and give it to you. After all, they already have the prize, right? You can use a second toy to load more prey drive. When they come back, the second toy goes into play. You can use a long leash and give them a gentle pull to reel them back in or push the toy with your foot to make it move and regain the dog’s interest. If the dog tries to rope you into chasing them to get the toy back, stop them with a “Drop it!” or “Leave it!” command

Once you’ve put all these pieces together, you can play “go fetch!” with your dog!

What If Your Dog Won’t Play?

Not all dogs like to play fetch. Their drive to play with that toy may be lower than following the smell of a rabbit that was in the field earlier. The breed is a possible factor. A retriever may live up to their breed’s name and happily retrieve that toy, but a hound might prefer to run around the yard sniffing the ground. Some shelter dogs rescued from difficult situations may not know how to play with toys, let alone fetch them. 

One other factor to consider is medical issues. For example, older dogs or dogs with arthritis find fetch too painful. Take your dog to the vet if you’re concerned about physical problems. 

And if your healthy dog simply doesn’t like the game, there are many others to choose from that are just as much fun!

A Parting Reminder

Playing “go fetch!” with your dog is a great way to spend time with them and give them some beneficial exercise. Once they know what to do, many dogs love it and can’t get enough. They may even approach you with the toy they want to play with! 

Your time and patience will pay off in a big way when you take a gradual approach to teach them a new game. Go outside. Throw the toy around. Have fun with your dog