The fetch command, also known as retrieve, is one of the most popular commands that people want to be able to teach their dogs. A quick game of fetch is a fantastic outlet for a dog’s natural prey drive and knocks the edge off even the most energetic of dogs. Plus it’s one of the few interactive games you and your dog can play together – it’s a brilliant way to strengthen the human-dog bond.
Most dogs love to chase a ball and return it to you, but many dogs need a little guidance to get the behavior up to a satisfactory level. You’ll find your dog to be a natural or reluctant retriever at first, but after a while most dogs love playing a game of fetch. Why wouldn’t they? It’s great fun!
Teaching a rock solid and reliable retrieve takes a few separate steps to get just right. The following steps will teach your dog to be interested in an object, charge after it when it is thrown, pick it up, return it straight back to you and drop it at your feet. All without any skylarking, sniffing, hesitation or detours!
Let’s start out by playing a simple and fun game. In a small room free from any distractions, sit down on the floor with your dog. Have a small squeaky toy in your hand and some tasty treats in your other hand. Ideally the toy will be one that your puppy has shown interest in. Now toss the toy a small distance (still within your reach) from yourself and let your puppy pounce on it – you can encourage your puppy if need be. When your puppy grabs the toy you should reach out and take it from his/her mouth while saying “good puppy”. As soon as you have hold of the toy you need to replace it by feeding a treat to your dog.
If your puppy won’t let go of the toy, simply use the treat as a bribe. Hold the treat just in front of his nose and wait for him to drop the toy – praise your dog and give him the treat as soon as the toy drops from his mouth. Practice this simple game in 5 minute blocks at least a couple of times a day. This is the crucial first step towards developing a solid and reliable fetch or retrieve in your dog.
Now we will continue the game we played in Step 1 but this time we will add a release word or cue to the exercise. As you are taking the toy from your puppy’s mouth (or when he drops it in your lap) say “thank you” or “thanks” and immediately give the treat and praise – just as you did in Step 1. Repeat this process many times, you are building an association in your dog’s mind between your “thanks” cue and the act of him giving the toy to you. After plenty of practice and continual reinforcement (the treats) you will not have to grab the toy from your dog’s mouth, he will give it to you upon hearing your cue word. Now we have got the basic fetch behavior we are trying to shape – we just need to build on it a little more.
Now we can slowly (very slowly) increase the distance of the retrieve. Start out by throwing the toy a couple of meters from you – hopefully your dog will continue to pounce on the toy and bring it back to you for his treat. Continue just as you have been, say your release cue “thanks” and give the treat for every successful retrieve. Important: If at any time your dog does not bring the toy back to you do not chase him or make a fuss. Simply sit and wait patiently until he brings it back to you – then treat as normal. Your aim is to make it clear to your dog that in order for the fun and games to continue he must bring the toy back to you. If your dog doesn’t bring the toy back to you, finish up and try again later on – next time go back to the shorter and easier retrieve game as in Step 1.
Continue practicing this game of fetch over and over. Repetition and positive reinforcement are the keys to building and strengthening a solid retrieve. You can now mix up the distance you throw the toy and take your training sessions into different rooms within the house. When you introduce a new object such as a ball (which is what you will use for a game of fetch at the dog park) to the game you need to start out again at a short distance and increase the distance slowly. Remember to only ever treat and praise your puppy when the retrieve object gets delivered directly to you.
That’s pretty much the retrieve behavior built in 4 steps. If you like you can now add a cue at the start of the exercise. Simply say “fetch” or “get it” just before you throw the ball. After a while when you say your “fetch” cue your dog will look straight up at you in anticipation of a chase.
You can also gradually fade the treats now. The game itself will be reward enough for your dog. Instead of a tasty treat being your dog’s motivation, the next throw of the ball will be enough of an incentive for him to bring the ball straight back to you.
The retrieve is a great exercise to teach most dogs and it will only take you a couple of days to work through the 5 steps outlined above. Pretty soon you will have an eager dog who drops the ball at your feet at any opportunity!