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Fetching 101

Tips for teaching Fido to fetch... and on tossing a great ball!

BY REBEKAH OLSEN

At five-years-old, my mastiff Midas still doesn’t know how to fetch.

Sure, when I throw the ball, he chases after it. But once it’s in his mouth, it’s a new game of keep-away-from-Mom.

Bring it back? No way! Come and get it!

The whole point of playing fetch is so I can stand in one spot while he does the work—us writers are not cut out for exercise. 

But, clearly, Midas has a different idea.

What about your dog? Does he fetch? Or does she stare at you wondering why you threw a perfectly good toy? Or play keep-away like Midas does?

Fetch is a great way to exercise your dog, without any real thought or effort from you. But, how can we teach our dogs to fetch like the pros?

Here are the tips I found, thanks to Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, to teach Midas how to fetch—without expending much energy.

What you need

A tennis or rubber ball (we like these and these!)

Peanut-butter

Treats

Create a positive association with the ball

Before your dog will chase after a ball, he has to be interested in it.

With Midas, I let him play tug-of-war with the ball. I waited till he let it go, then praised and rewarded him with a treat. My goal right now is simply to create an interest in the game.

Once the excitement is there, grab that peanut butter, and place a dab on the ball. Then sit on the floor and hold the ball at nose level—your dog’s, not yours.

Allow your dog to lick the peanut butter off the ball. Praise him or say ‘yes’ to let him know this is what you want.

Teach your dog to touch the ball with his nose

Now your dog’s curiosity is piqued. Grab the treats, and again hold the ball at your dog’s nose level.

Your dog will sniff the ball to see if any peanut butter is left. When his nose touches the ball, reward him with a treat. Repeat this several times until your dog understands that to get a treat, his nose has to touch the ball.

At this point, you don’t want your dog to pick up the ball or grab it from you. Otherwise, you’ll end up back at square one with a game of keep-away.

After about 20-30 reps, take a break.

When you begin the exercise again, lower the ball closer to the floor. Your end goal is to place the ball on the ground, have your dog touch his nose to the ball and then reward him.

Time to pick up the ball

Your dog likes the ball. Awesome sauce!

Now, it’s time to teach her to pick up the ball. Repeat the same exercise above, but only reward your dog when she picks the ball up with her mouth. You may have to do some coaxing, and place the ball in her mouth to get...well, the ball rolling.

Your dog might try to touch her nose to the ball—that worked before, right? But wait till she learns to pick it up.

Once she grabs the ball, she will likely bring it to where the treats are—you! This sets up the foundation of retrieving and returning.

When I used this method with Midas, he dropped the ball before returning to me. Eager beaver... but that’s okay. We didn’t have to play tug-of-war or keep-away, so it’s progress.

I waited until this behavior was consistent before requiring him to return the ball to my hand to be rewarded.

Simply adjust this method to your dog depending on how quickly or slowly she learns the concept. This is more about your dog’s personality than the method.

Add the Cue ‘Fetch”

Once your dog consistently retrieves and returns the ball to you for a treat, add in the cue ‘fetch’. You’ll want to say this right before you toss the ball.

Again, repeat this exercise 20-30 times.

It’s playtime!

If your follow this step-by-step method, your dog should learn how to play fetch in one to two weeks. Midas caught on pretty quickly, but I know I’ll have to re-train him to keep the behavior consistent and reliable.

Prefer a Frisbee? Check out this video on training your dog to fetch one.

What’s your dog’s favorite game? Share with us in the comments below!

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