How to Teach Your Dog to Play Fetch
A positive method for teaching fetch, whether your goal is a formal show ring retrieve or a casual backyard game.
Back in the day, when old-fashioned coercion training was de rigueur, it was generally accepted that if you didn’t teach a “forced retrieve,” you didn’t have a reliable retrieve. Today, as the field of modern, science-based positive reinforcement training has incubated and matured, we know better. While you can still find die-hard trainers who are more than willing to inflict pain on a dog to force him to hold a fetch object in his mouth, you can also find a growing number of trainers who are teaching happy, reliable retrieve behaviors without ever even considering the use of pain.
When you stop and think about it, given the natural propensity of most dogs to want to put stuff in their mouths, it’s pretty absurd to think you should have to force a retrieve. How hard is it to find ways to reinforce a behavior that our canine pals offer so willingly? Of course, back in the day, we used to punish our puppies a lot for putting stuff in their mouths! Maybe that’s why it was difficult, later, to convince them that we wanted them to pick something up.
Fortunately, those days are long gone. Whether you’re training the next flyball champion, working toward your Companion Dog Excellent and Utility degrees in competition obedience, or just looking to play fetch in the backyard, there are fun, happy, force-free ways to teach your dogs to retrieve. Reliably.
Know your goals
Before you can start training your dog’s retrieve, you need to be clear on your training goals, or more correctly, your criteria. If you just want to toss balls and discs for your dog in your backyard, your criteria - meaning how you want the retrieve to look - are a lot looser than the criteria you would set for an obedience retrieve, or flyball competitor.
Let’s compare the criteria of a couple of different backyard retrieves:
• Low-Criteria Backyard Retrieve
1. Throw the ball.
2. Your dog runs and picks it up in his mouth.
3. Your dog brings it back and drops it at your feet.
4. Tell him he’s wonderful, pick it up, and throw it again.
• Medium-Criteria Backyard Retrieve
1. Hold up the ball and wait for your dog to sit (because your trainer told you this “Say Please” behavior was a good thing to do).
2. Your dog sits.
3. Throw the ball.
4. Your dog runs and gets it.
5. He brings it back and drops it on the ground.
6. Tell him he’s wonderful, pick up the ball, wait until your dog sits, then throw it again.
• High-Criteria Backyard Retrieve
1. Hold up the ball and wait for your dog to sit.
2. Tell your dog to “Wait!” and toss the ball.
3. Tell your dog to go get it.
4. Your dog runs and gets the ball.
5. He brings it back and drops it into your waiting hand.
6. Hold up the ball and wait for
your dog to sit again, tell him wait, throw it, and send him to get it again.
Each variety of retrieve has its own criteria. A flyball retrieve looks different from an obedience retrieve, and includes teaching the dog how to properly hit the box that delivers the ball to him. A service dog retrieve is different still, perhaps requiring that the dog be able to identify objects by name, and find them even when they’re not in plain sight. For each specialized type of retrieve behavior, you’ll need to determine what the criteria are and figure out how to apply the principles of learning to make them work for you, your dog, and your training goals.
Let’s look at how you could train the simpler version: the backyard fetch.
The puppy retrieve
Smart puppy owners start reinforcing their pup for picking up things, instead of punishing him for exploring his world with his mouth. Trade your baby dog a treat every time he has something in his mouth. He’ll start picking things up and bringing them to you, instead of running off to chew on them.
If your pup approaches you with something in his mouth that he shouldn’t have, offer him a treat, pick up the item when he drops it, give him his treat, put the item away, and make a mental note to do a better job of puppy-proofing! If it’s something he’s allowed to have, you can toss it for him to pick up again. Keep trading each time he brings it back, and in no time your pup will be a champion backyard retriever. If you make it a point to play the trade game with a variety of different “legal” objects early on - soft toys, rubber, plastic, metal, wood - you’ll have a dog who will happily retrieve anything you ask him to!
If your dog’s puppyhood is long gone, don’t fret. You can still shape your adult dog into a super retriever. If there are some things he’s willing to pick up, start with those. If nothing goes in his mouth except food, you can start shaping from scratch. Remember that this is supposed to be fun, so keep it light and breezy!
Shaping a backyard retrieve
Start by holding up a soft toy. If he looks or sniffs at it, “mark” the behavior with the click of a clicker (or a consistent verbal marker, such as the word “Yes!”) and give your dog a treat. Happy verbal praise after your click and treat helps your dog understand this is a fun game. Repeat this numerous times, until your dog is clearly intrigued by this new game.
Raise the criteria a little; perhaps now you only click and treat if he actually sniffs the toy. Repeat numerous times, until he consistently sniffs it every time.
Raise the criteria again; only click if he lightly bumps the object with his nose when he sniffs, putting a little more intensity into his sniffing behavior. Remember to keep it fun!
As he gets more intense about sniffing, occasionally he will open his mouth a little as he connects with the toy. When he’s opening his mouth more and more frequently, raise the criteria again, clicking only if his mouth opens, even just a little.
Eventually he’ll open his mouth on the toy every time. Now raise the criteria again, so he has to open his mouth a significant amount. Resist the temptation to stuff the toy in when his mouth opens, or you might intimidate him and make him back off. Let it all be his effort.
When he’s consistently putting his mouth all the way around the toy, start shaping for “duration of hold.” Raise your criteria just one second at a time; increase the duration of the “hold” only when he’s solidly performing at each new level.
Increase the duration - gradually! - until he will hold the toy for 5 to 10 seconds. If, eventually, you want him to drop the toy into your hand, make it easy for him by positioning your hand where the toy will usually fall into it, but don’t make that a required criterion yet; click and treat even if the toy misses your hand when he drops it.
Now place the toy on the floor and go back to the first step. Click and give your dog a treat for just looking at, then sniffing the toy, then putting his mouth on it, and eventually picking it up and holding it. The previous steps should go more quickly this time, as soon as he realizes it’s really the same game, just with the toy in a different place.
Next, toss the toy a short distance - a few inches - and repeat the previous steps, gradually tossing the toy longer and longer distances, until your dog is retrieving for you. If he starts dropping the toy instead of bringing it back, you may have increased the distance too much too soon. Go back to shorter distances and work on a longer duration of hold. Also, try backing away as your dog approaches; this encourages him to move toward you with more energy.
Finally, if you like, you can start asking your dog to “Wait” when you toss the toy, until you give him the cue to go get it. If you want him to deliver the toy to your hand, incorporate that piece into the shaping procedure early, as soon as he’s solid about holding the toy in his mouth for several seconds.
When the pick-up-and-bring-back behavior is solid and he’s enjoying the fetch game, you can raise the criteria again, and require that he deposit the toy in your hand before he gets the click and treat. Make it easy for him to succeed by offering your hand for the toy, and only click and treat if it hits your hand-target.
If he gets too enthusiastic about fetch and starts jumping up for his toys, put a “Say Please” program into effect; wait for him to sit before you throw his ball, flying disc, or other fetch object.
So there you have it: a decent backyard retrieve. That’s just one way to teach it; there are many others. If you have a dog whose mouthing behavior has been so suppressed he can’t be shaped into picking something up, you may need to start by creating desire for an object (see “Creating Desire,” below).
In contrast, if you have a dog like my Bonnie, who is always looking for the accidental artifact that she can pick up and carry around in her mouth until you trade her for a treat, you can skip all the early shaping steps and leap right to putting all the pieces together for a formal retrieve.
The obedience retrieve
The formal obedience retrieve is a complex “behavior chain,” meaning a number of behaviors are strung together without a separate cue required for each one; completion of one behavior is the cue to start the next behavior in the chain.
For the obedience competition retrieve on the flat (not over a jump), you start with your dog in heel position at your left side, and tell him to “Wait!” while you toss the dumbbell. Then, on the single cue to “Take it!” your dog performs the following behavior chain:
• He goes away from you to the dumbbell.
• Picks up the dumbbell and holds onto it.
• Comes back to you with the dumbbell still in his mouth, and
• Sits in front of you, holding the dumbbell, without mouthing it.
Then cue your dog to “Give” the dumbbell (drop it into your hand) and “Finish” by returning to heel position. Since those behaviors require separate cues, they aren’t technically part of the behavior chain. In fact, obedience competitors have to be careful that their dogs don’t anticipate those two steps and add them to the chain, dropping the dumbbell and returning to the heel position without waiting for the cues to do so.
To avoid these anticipation errors, vary the amount of time that elapses between the “front” (when the dog sits in front of you), the “give” (when the dog releases the dumbbell), and the “finish” (when you ask him to return to heel).
To teach the complete obedience retrieve, you would train separately those segments that aren’t retrieve-dependent: Your dog should already be solid at the “Heel” behavior and thoroughly understand the “Wait!” and “Finish!” cues before you incorporate them into the retrieve.
You can use shaping and other positive training methods to create the precision you’re looking for in a competition retrieve - perfecting the position of the sits, adjusting your dog’s speed as he runs to the dumbbell and back, increasing the distance to the retrieve object, and fading any mouthing or tossing of the dumbbell. When each is perfected, strengthen the chain by practicing the behaviors in order, while fading any interim cues in the chain.
Remember that even if you’re working on a competition retrieve, with serious titles and trophies in your future, the training program should still be buckets of fun for your dog - and for you!
Thinking about a flyball career, or service dog work? Find out what the criteria are for those retrieves, break them down into all the appropriate pieces, and get started! Or find a good positive trainer who can help you with them.
Pat Miller, CPDT, is Whole Dog Journal’s Training Editor and author of many books on positive dog training. Miller lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center.