How Can I Teach My Dog to Play Fetch?
Q. My dog retrieves the ball, but she doesn’t return it to me. How can I teach her to bring the ball back rather than playing keep-away or running off and chewing on it?
A. Fetch is a lot more fun when you aren’t trotting after your dog and tugging the ball out of her mouth every time she picks it up. Getting your dog to return the ball is a matter of training, but first you need to figure out why she's not doing this already.
Why Does Your Dog Keep the Ball?
There are several possible reasons why your dog doesn't return the ball to you. A Labrador Retriever I worked with would return the ball one or two times and then refuse to give it back. At a visit to the veterinarian, the pooch was found to have hip dysplasia. He wanted to play but was in too much pain, so he kept the ball. A combination of losing weight and getting his hip treated solved the problem and enabled him to happily play fetch with his owner.
For many dogs, there is some other activity that is more fun than fetch. I worked with a Shepherd who loved to chase the ball but wouldn’t return it; to him, getting to gnaw on the ball for a few moments was more rewarding than having the ball thrown again. We solved this by alternating throwing the ball and handing it right back to him to chew on.
Some dogs enjoy chasing and being chased; for these dogs, the best part of the game is when a human runs after them to get the ball. If you want your dog to play fetch — rather than chase — ignore her when she runs away and reward her only when she brings the ball to you.
Some dogs don't return the ball because they perceive having to give it back as a punishment. For the same reason, a dog who is asked to do a sit stay when she returns the ball may see this as a loss of freedom. Keep the game moving to keep your dog happy.
Understanding the Rules of the Game
It is also possible that your dog may not return the ball because she doesn't know how to play this game. Instinctively most dogs will chase after a moving object and grab it in their teeth, but your dog may not understand that she should bring it back to you or give it up when she gets there. If you think this is the problem, take your pooch back to puppy kindergarten and reteach her the different parts of fetch.
Retrieving is actually a series of steps that should be taught separately: running after the ball, grabbing the ball, turning toward you with the ball, carrying the ball and dropping the ball. If there is a portion of the retrieve that’s going wrong — in this case, returning the ball to you — it can help to teach your dog the game in a way that allows you to focus on each action individually. Keep training sessions short, only a couple of minutes on average, to keep your dog excited and interested the entire time.
Teach Your Dog to "Drop It"
Start by teaching your dog to drop an object. Choose an object your dog already puts in her mouth — for example, a stuffed toy. Give her a cue, such as “take it,” and shake the toy around to get your dog excited, then offer it to her. Once she has the toy in her mouth, tell her to “drop it” and put a treat out in front of her nose. As soon as she drops the toy, reward her with the treat and offer your cue to “take it” again. Once she understands the "drop it" command, phase out the treat; give the cue and hold your empty hand, shaped like you are holding a treat, in front of her nose. Reward with praise or the occasional treat.
Gradually increase the amount of time your dog holds the toy in her mouth before you ask her to drop it. If she drops the toy before you ask her to, do not reward her. Ask her to take it again and give the command to “drop it” a bit sooner the next time. You can also make the object you’re using more enticing for your dog. Try using a flavored Nylabone or plain rawhide, but be on the lookout for warning signals of food guarding.
Once your dog has the hang of “drop it,” teach her to pick the toy up off the ground, rather than taking it from your hand; this is the retrieving part of the game. Hold the toy close to the ground and say "take it." Lower the toy to the floor gradually, so that the movement is barely noticeable to your dog. Eventually the toy should be on the floor with your hand still on it when you ask her to take it. Once your dog is successfully putting the item in her mouth and holding it until she is asked to drop it, place the toy on the floor, move your hand away and give the command to “take it.” Repeat the previous steps: Ask your dog to pick the toy up and hold it for progressively longer periods of time before asking her to drop it.
It's Time to Fetch
The last step is to teach your dog to turn away from you to get the ball. Place the toy just off to her side and reward her for picking it up and dropping it in your hand. Once she gets good at this, do a small toss to the side and use your “take it” cue. Toss the toy just a little farther behind her each time and reward her for dropping it in your hand or at your feet. Be patient; it may take her awhile to put all the pieces together. If she stops picking the toy up or doesn't carry it back to you, toss the toy closer to you or lay it on the ground and go from there.
Eventually you want to swap the toy for a ball and start to throw it farther away before asking her to return and drop it in your hand or at your feet. Start with short distances; once your dog is successfully returning and dropping the ball every time, throw it farther and farther away.
Retrieving can be complex, but by identifying the issue behind the unfinished retrieve and retraining as necessary, you should be playing fetch with your dog in no time.