Troubleshooting Fetch

Fetch is probably the most well-known game when we think of playing with dogs and it’s usually the first game we try to play with puppies. Some dogs understand and enjoy playing fetch as soon as they can hold a ball in their mouth, others do not take to it so easily, looking with a blank expression as you excitedly throw the ball or chasing the ball but running straight over it or even refusing to bring it back.

Breaking down fetch into parts such as chase, hold, come and give will help you to determine exactly what aspect of fetch your dog has trouble with. Take a look at some of the most common fetch problems below and find out how to develop aspects of fetch that your dog may be having trouble with.

No interest in the article 

This is usually a dog who has an underdeveloped play drive. Lack of play drive can occur for a number of reasons such as the dog never having been played with, the dog being frequently chastised for picking things up, easily distracted young dogs, or dogs who lack confidence or are stressed.

Dogs in this category will need lots of praise as soon as they show any sort of interest in a toy. The best time to develop play drive is in puppyhood but failing this any time your dog is prone to any sort of excitement or urge to interact with you should be seen as an opportunity for toy play. Carrying the toy during greetings with your dog will also create a positive association with toy play. Any sort of tug and ‘chase me’ games (with a toy in your hand) and ‘chase the toy along the ground’ games are great for dogs who lack confidence. Working with these kinds of dogs will require that you spend a large amount of time simply playing any toy games your dog seems to love and rewarding with praise the moment they engage in play.

If your dog is easily distracted start developing fetch in boring places. Over time and with some maturity your dog will start to engage in fetch at the park, however these dogs often have a limit to the amount of times they will bring the toy back even after maturity, so fetch should always be limited to intense, short and fun times with these dogs.

A good fetch is only as good as your dog’s motivation to interact with you and the toy, play drive is the foundation for fetch so take your time developing this.

Runs away with article/Not giving directly to hand

Dogs who run away with a toy will generally need work on their recall and/or more time to develop an enjoyment of tug.

Tug creates an urge to interact with you through the toy, a game of tug cannot exist without your dog bringing the toy directly back to you. Start to develop tug by playing it with a long rope toy in a small and boring area. Be active with your tug play by leading your dog around the room, jerking the toy backwards and forwards and from side-to-side. Play tug whenever your dog is excited such as when you arrive home, this will create a positive association with tug. Use tug as a reward if your dog brings you a toy.

If your dog loves the chase aspect of fetch use this as a way to reward bringing the toy back. Only throw the toy again if your dog has brought it back to you and start this game in a small boring area. If you are consistent your dog will soon cotton on to the game, this game is great brain work for smart dogs because they have to work out what behaviour is going to get the toy thrown again, a perfect indoor rainy day activity.

You should also revisit your recall and start using tug as the reward for a good recall. Please see my article Breaking Down The Recall for help with this.

Does not give article up 

Your dog brings the toy back but refuses to let go of it for you. This is the easiest problem to fix. 

Have some dry food in your pocket and as your dog is tugging at the toy take the food out of your pocket and offer the food directly to his nose. Say the word ‘give’ as soon as he lets go of the toy and give him his food reward, play tug again and repeat this process as many times as you like. Your empty hand next to your dogs face and eventually the word ‘give’ will be all you will need to gain control of the toy again. This is the only time I would advocate the use of food in teaching fetch because often food overtakes the drive for the toy.

Remember to have fun, dogs will sense pressure and shy away from it so just laugh and play, the best times with you should happen when the toy is brought out.

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