AKC GoodDog! Helpline Trainer Erin Rakosky tells us how to get any dog interested in picking up and retrieving toys – a great game to play with your dog and also a good way to exercise your pet!
Playing fetch with your dog is a great way to burn off extra energy and bond with your pet. Some dogs naturally pick up fetch while others may have no interest. Some dogs like the act of chasing the ball but then, won’t bring it back. This article will help you teach your dog how to play fetch. We will also discuss how to help prevent your dog from chasing the ball but not returning.
For training fetch, the tools you will need are an appropriate amount of tasty treats a clicker or marker word, and plenty of fun toys. For teaching fetch we are going to use what trainers call “shaping,” that is, allowing your dog to figure out how to perform a behavior with minimal help from you.
First you want to initially pick a toy that your dog is willing to put in their mouth. Some dogs have preferences for plush toys while others like balls. After they learn the behavior, you will be able to ask them to retrieve anything you ask.
For the purpose of teaching, we will use the case in which your dog has no interest in playing with toys. For now, place the toy on the ground. Initially, you will be marking any sort of interaction with the toy. This may be your dog just looking at the toy. When I talk about marking, I am referring to using a clicker or marker word to mark the exact behavior you want and rewarding after with a treat. So, you will wait for your dog to look at the toy. As soon as they do, click and reward. Make sure to use a treat your dog will love.
Continue doing this until your dog is reliably looking at the toy for a reward. Once they have this down, it is time to hold out and ask them to do something else with the toy. This usually comes from the dog getting frustrated that their reward is not coming. Most dogs at this stage will nose the toy or touch the toy with their paw. When this occurs, mark it and reward. This is now what you require before they are rewarded.
Now I hold the toy in my hand and place it near their face. If they weren’t previously touching their nose to the toy, this is when you will require it. Wait until the dog sniffs the toy and then mark and reward.
For the next steps you are going to continue to grow from here. Again, once your dog is nose touching the toy hold out on the reward. Your dog will then get frustrated and try and mouth the toy. Immediately mark and reward this.
Once they are mouthing the toy, I will put it back on the ground in front of me. I will ask them to pick the toy up and then I will place my hand under the toy and mark and reward when they place it in my hand. From here you are ready to start increasing the distance that you place the toy from you. Remember to do this gradually and keep your requirements for getting the reward. Eventually, your dog will be willing to pick up anything you ask and place it in your hand for their reward.
Returning with the Toy
The main goal of this exercise is to show your dog that fun comes from playing with you with the toy – no matter what type of toy!
Get four to five toys that your dog enjoys playing with and set them in a circle. Outside, in a fenced area is best for this. But if you don’t have access to an enclosed outside area, then a large space inside will work too.
Start playing with your dog with one of the toys. Act very excited, like this is the best game in the world. When your dog is really into the play, you should take off running to the next toy.
If your dog follows you, start playing with the new toy with them, again remembering to be super excited. If your dog stays playing with the first toy, then you should start playing with the new toy by yourself. This is when it is really important to act like you are having the best time playing with this toy.
Eventually, your dog won’t be able to stand it and will come join in the fun. Continue this exercise, running from toy to toy. If you do this exercise a couple times a week, your dog will learn that you bring the fun and not the toy!
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