Dogs can learn to fetch anything

It's a great skill to teach your dog as it has so many uses. Although it may just be about play, and helping them to get rid of a bit of energy, dogs can be taught to retrieve a long list of things including: balls, toys, dummies, slippers, lost phones and keys, bags of medication, cans of beer from the fridge, and family members. But the most common item to start with is a ball or tug toy.

Natural for some, strange concept for others

All dogs (any age, any breed, any ability) can learn to fetch items on cue, but where some will do this immediately because it's part of their genetic heritage (such as retrievers, spaniels, and poodles) others will need a longer training process to convince them it's a fun thing to do. And even if they do find it fun naturally, that doesn't mean they will be able to complete all the stages to make it into a game humans can enjoy as well. Many dogs learn to grab something, and not give it back!

The 4 main elements to fetch are:

  • The send out/ search/ chase – the dog runs to the intended item and picks it up.
  • The pick up and hold - the dog confidently picks up the intended item in their mouth, and holds onto it.
  • Recall - returning to the start position without dropping the item.
  • The drop or give - the dog drops the item on the floor or in a specific container, or places it in someone's hands. This might involve sitting in front or to the side of the person doing the training.

My dog won’t pick up the toy!

If this happens, you could play tug instead, and encourage them to have fun. Then throw the tug toy away from you so they have to fetch it to resume the game of tug.

Or you could use a special toy with a hidden treat. Join them in the chase/ hunt for the toy, and give them the treat when they get there. Once they are finding it by themselves, gradually encourage them to hand you the toy so you can pull out the treat for them.

You can use more movement, to increase the excitement. Use a flirt stick/ pole (a toy tied to a rope so you can make it dart around in a circle), or simply chase after the toy as well – add in a bit of competition! Praise lots when they become interested in the toy.

My dog won’t come back!

If this happens, forget fetch for a bit, and concentrate on recall. Reward your dog for coming back, even if they’ve dropped the toy or have stopped looking for it. Use tasty food treats to reward the recall. Once that's looking better, add in the chase/ grab element and see if they can add the two parts together.

My dog comes back, but won’t drop the ball!

Either use food as an exchange - reward with food as soon as they’ve dropped the ball. Or use another ball as an exchange - only throw the second ball once they’ve dropped the first one. You'll need to be patient. Only resume the game when they've dropped the ball within your reach.

My dog keeps jumping up and barking until I throw the ball again!

Only throw the ball when they're still, and are quiet. The reward is the game starting again. It may take a while at first, but once they've realised what's happening, they will stop jumping and barking.

My dog is obsessed with their ball, and wants to play for the entire walk!

Make sure you have lots of breaks during play, so you can practise heelwork or stay-recall or tricks (using food rewards). Teach them that it's possible to change their focus away from their toy, and still have fun!

(c) Sarah Crockford 2024