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QUESTION: Joan asks: How can I teach my dog to fetch?
ANSWER from: Bill Mayeroff of FetchFind
In this edition of Ask the Dog Trainer, we’re talking fetch. Our question-asker this week is Joan. She wants to teach her dog, Ladybug, to play fetch. Joan says Ladybug is an energetic pup who is having some trouble figuring out fetch and tends to get distracted, but is great with other behaviors.
Joan adds that she just had knee surgery and can’t take Ladybug on walks to burn off her energy. She wants to be able to play fetch with Ladybug as an alternative energy-burning activity to walks.
ASK THE DOG TRAINER
Joan, your question is a challenging one. Playing fetch isn’t just one behavior. Instead, it’s a series of behaviors. So let’s break fetch down into its key components:
- The dog has to know to pick up an object.
- The dog needs to know to follow the object.
- The dog needs to know to bring the object back to you.
- The dog needs to know to give you the object once she’s brought it back (also known as “drop it”).
That’s an oversimplified version, but it gets the point across. To teach Ladybug to fetch means teaching her a few different things, which means it could be a lengthy process.
But it can be done. The way I’d suggest teaching fetch involves what trainers refer to as “shaping.” Shaping is when you teach a dog each piece of a behavior and gradually build up to the full version of it. It takes time and patience, but it’s effective.
To shape fetch, I’d suggest starting by taking a ball (or some other object), holding it in front of your dog and rewarding her for touching it with her nose. Do this a few times and then start putting the ball on the ground in front of her and rewarding her for touching it on the ground. Then you can toss the ball a short distance and reward her for touching it a short distance away. From there, you start to reward her when she brings it back and finally when she brings it back and drops it.
It’s a long process and you have to make sure each piece is well established before moving on to the next one. It helps if you have an object she already likes to pick up. But it’s not totally necessary.
I do want to add this caveat: Some dogs are much less likely to fetch than others. Retrievers were bred to, well, retrieve and so they’re more predisposed to the behaviors that make up fetch. Terriers, on the other hand, are more likely to try and “kill” a toy rather than bring it back because historically, they were bred as vermin hunters (my terrier, Chester, who is fantastic at retrieving games like fetch and Frisbee, is the exception, rather than the rule. Yes, that was a humblebrag about my dog).
I’m not sure what kind of dog you have, Joan, but it’s possible that no matter how much you work with her, she’s just not going to take to fetch; some dogs just won’t do it. And that’s ok, because I’m going to give you some other ways you can help her burn off energy without walking her while you recover from knee surgery.
One of the most wonderful things about dogs is that when they work their brains, they actually use up physical energy. Think back to when you were in school and you had a really important, difficult test; maybe a final exam or something. Did you feel tired or like you’d just finished a long session at the gym after it? That’s what happens to dogs after they do something that really works their brains and gets them thinking.
So my first suggestion for helping Ladybug burn off some of her energy is to get her brain working. Get her some puzzle toys, which are toys in which you can put small treats and let your dog figure out how to get them out. Chester’s favorites are the Kong Wobbler and the Game Changer, but there are tons out there. Or teach Ladybug the game “find it.” This is the most simple thing you can teach her. You toss a treat on the ground near her, say “find it” and she picks up the treat. Once she gets the hang of it, you can start putting the treat behind your foot or in an open box or something and saying “find it.” If you work it long enough, you can eventually graduate to putting the treats in hiding spots around your house and letting her use her nose for a bit.
You know what another great brain activity is? Training. Teach Ladybug a new trick or behavior. If you train her for 15 minutes two or three times a day, she’ll sleep like a rock at night. If you’re really feeling ambitious, get her into a class, though that might be difficult for you, given your surgery.
Puppy Pushups: Another one of my favorite activities combines both physical and mental work. They’re called “puppy pushups” and if Ladybug knows “sit” and “down,” she can do them. And if she doesn’t know those things, teach them to her and then she can do puppy pushups. Puppy pushups are basically getting your dog to move between standing, sitting and laying down.
Start easy: Have Ladybug stand, then put her into a sit. Follow that by putting her into a down before getting her back up into a sit and then back into a stand. Repeat that pattern – stand, sit, down, sit, stand – a few times before changing the pattern. This accomplishes a couple things. First, it really works her brain. She will have to really start listening to you intently because she won’t know what you’re going to ask for next. But it also gets her moving and is physically demanding.
You also mentioned that Ladybug is easily distracted and the best things I can suggest for that are focus exercises. Behaviors like “touch” and “watch me” are great for helping your dog to focus when the world is being distracting. Even “find it,” the game I talked about earlier, is great for focus.
So let’s recap, because I know I gave you a lot of information:
- Fetch is a series of behaviors, rather than a single behavior.
- The best way to teach fetch is by “shaping,” which means teaching Ladybug each component of fetch individually before it turns into the full thing.
- BE PATIENT! Teaching something like fetch takes time. Move slowly and don’t get frustrated with it.
- Some dogs just don’t take to fetch, but there are alternatives to help burn off energy.
- Brain work uses as much energy as physical exercises.
- Focus exercises like “touch” and “watch me” are great for dogs who get distracted by the world around them.
Hopefully this helps. I know you really want to teach Ladybug to fetch, and I really hope you can (a good trainer might be able to help with it, which we can help you find by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org). But as I said before, some dogs just don’t take to it and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with her or that you’re doing anything wrong as a puppy parent. It just means that fetch isn’t her thing.