Why Doesn't My Dog... Fetch?

Golden Retriever Brody not fetching
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang
Brody, Dr. Vogelsang's Golden Retriever, loves his toys but rarely follows through with fetching them.

Growing up on a steady diet of Lassie and Benji may have helped fuel my lifelong love of dogs, but it also gave me some rather unrealistic expectations of what a dog does on his own. For example, after living with lots of different dogs over the years, our family has come to the conclusion that we are Retriever people. Our dogs, who have arrived in our home from a variety of life circumstances, fall all over the spectrum when it comes to the one thing you’d think they would excel at: fetching. After all, it’s in their blood, right?

Well, kind of.

While we all know someone with an amazing dog who has always loved to go grab the newspaper off the street, most dogs don’t arrive on this planet with an instinctual understanding of the whole “go fetch that item and bring it back to a human nice and unchewed” thing. It’s a behavior we teach our dogs with varying degrees of success, largely depending on their motivation and our patience level. So if you’re wondering why your dog doesn’t fetch, and never has, it is entirely possible he simply isn’t aware of (or you haven't given him) a compelling reason to do so.

How Both Nature and Nurture Factor in

It’s easy to fall into the mythology that dogs, and Retrievers in particular, were born to fetch things. And it’s true that their physical characteristics have been bred over time to enhance certain attributes essential to a good hunting dog: a sturdy body with good endurance; a highly efficient nose; an interest in birds; and an affable, people-pleasing nature.

Even so, any experienced Retriever enthusiast will tell you that even the most promising puppy who seems to love to run and fetch might not inherently go and bring you things unless you spend some time reinforcing the behavior that you want: both getting to the item, then bringing it back. Many dogs will happily chase down a ball or a toy, and then, once they’ve located their quarry, leave it exactly where it landed as you grumble and go to retrieve it yourself. My Golden, Brody, will chase a ball, bring it to me and as soon as he has my attention, go tearing off with it hoping I will chase him. We work on " drop it" regularly; though, clearly, it’s still a work in progress.

And if that’s the case with Retriever breeds, it makes it even more of an exercise in patience with other breeds who were bred for a different purpose. My vet school dog, a Redbone Coonhound named Nuke, who I adopted from the radiology department, would watch toys fly over his head with a detached bemusement before turning to me as if to say, “What was that for?” I’m sure I could have eventually taught him how to fetch, but given the fact that potty training was a six-month endeavor, it just wasn’t worth it to me.

Speaking of training, there are some tried-and-true techniques for teaching a dog to fetch if you want that to be part of your relationship with your dog. Vetstreet’s own Mikkel Becker takes you through the process in her Q&A on the topic. As she notes, a dog who seems particularly reticent to take on a physical activity should be checked out for an underlying physical problem causing discomfort in movement. In Nuke’s case, a full workup showed he was in great health — he simply didn’t care to fetch things.

When a Former Fetcher Refuses to Retrieve 

Now, if you have a dog who has always been happy to fetch and is now no longer interested, we’ve entered a different conversation.

A dog who no longer exhibits an established behavior is different than one who never learned it in the first place, and it’s in your best interest to talk to your vet and see why. Perhaps the dog is arthritic, injured or in some other manner of pain. It might be that his hearing is impaired and he missed you calling him to come play in the first place. Or maybe his vision is not so great and he can no longer track an item that you’ve thrown. In any case, there’s often something more to it than a disaffected ennui, so it’s worth bringing up to the veterinarian.

I admit I feel a pang of jealousy when I see the dogs at Dog Beach running back and forth with their fetched toys and my dog is just loping along doing his thing, but I know I have only myself to blame and getting him to learn the game is a decision I can make at any time. I may not really need a slobbery tennis ball brought to me anyway, but I’d sure love a dog who could bring me my slippers on command.

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