By Linda Cole
Playing fetch is a great way for your dog to get some beneficial exercise and mental stimulation, and it’s good for you too. Some dogs are naturals and race after a ball or Frisbee with gusto. Others have no idea why you show them a toy or ball and then repeatedly toss it away. Their confused look tells you that “fetch” means nothing to them and they don’t know what you want them to do.
Some dogs might understand half of the concept and chase a ball down, but drop it before coming back to you or simply run off with the “prize” in his mouth. It is possible, however, to teach your dog to play fetch and return to you with a toy or ball. Once he understands the concept, the door is open for him to learn to retrieve a newspaper or anything else you want him to fetch, as long as he can comfortably carry it in his mouth.
Arm yourself with plenty of CANIDAE treats and your dog’s favorite toys. It’s important to note that the toys you choose can make or break training sessions. Your dog’s preference could be anything – from plush toys or balls, to a Kong or a Frisbee. As long as the toy is something he’s comfortable putting in his mouth and isn’t small enough he could accidentally swallow it, any toy will work.
Begin by placing the toy on the ground in front of you. Before you start, decide how you are going to mark his interaction with the toy. Marking is indicating with a clicker or word the behavior you want him to learn at the exact time he does it. For example: wait for your dog to look at the toy and then mark it with a click or word like “yes” or “good” and immediately reward with a treat. Continue practicing this exercise until he reliably looks at the toy to earn his reward. Be consistent, positive and patient.
When your dog has the “look” down, you can move on to waiting for him to do something different with the toy. Most dogs will show some frustration because in their eyes you are holding out on giving them a treat. Wait for him to nose or paw at the toy and then mark and reward. You’ve just moved the goal posts to require a touching action before he can earn his treat. When your pet masters this behavior, it’s time to up the ante again.
Pick up the toy and hold it next to your dog’s face. At this point, the behavior you want is to have your dog nose the toy in order to earn a treat. As soon as he sniffs the toy, immediately mark and reward.
When he consistently sniffs or noses the toy, hold out giving treats until he tries to take the toy in his mouth. Say “take it” before he grabs the toy, mark and reward immediately after he takes it. Continue practicing until he is taking the toy in his mouth on command.
It’s much easier to play fetch if you’ve already taught your dog the “drop it” command. At this point you want to return the toy to the ground and then ask him to “take it.” When he does, mark and reward, then hold your hand under the toy and ask him to drop it. Wait for him to put the toy in your hand. Immediately mark and reward when he complies. Now you are ready to slowly increase the distance of the toy from you.
Each requirement must be met before rewarding with a treat. Once your dog has mastered the technique of picking up a toy and giving it to you, he’ll be ready to retrieve objects and bring them to you.
Now that your dog knows what to do with the toy or ball, the next step is chasing after it and then returning it to you to keep the game going. Get five or six toys and lay them out. Pick up one of the toys and start playing with it like you’re having the best time ever and really excited about that toy. Your excitement should entice your dog to join you. When he does, leave that toy and move on to the next one. Continue doing this when your dog joins you. The idea is for your dog to learn that the great thing about playing fetch is the interaction he has with you is what’s exciting – not the toy.
Practice playing fetch several times a week, and always make it a positive experience. It may take some time for your dog to learn how the game is played, but it’s well worth the effort. Playing fetch with your dog is lots of fun for both of you!
Read more articles by Linda Cole