A Practical Guide on Training Your Dog to Fetch at Your Command
Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
The Merits of Retrieval Training
For many pet owners, fetch is the ideal game to play with a dog. It turns a regular dog walk into something more interesting. The game also makes for a good incentive to take a pet out, especially when one has had a challenging day. The dog gets an adequate workout and expends its energy constructively without taxing the owner or wearing them out. It is a welcome opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, get some fresh air, have fun, bond with your pet, and have a win/win situation.
Still, the benefit goes beyond just having an entertaining trick to pull or impress others with. It is instrumental in developing your pet into becoming a useful member of the family. The reality is that many pets never really come into their full potential. This does not have to be the case. Once adopted by human parents, their lives can and should be much more than what is often seen as the norm—an existential cycle of eating, playing, and sleeping.
Shouldn’t they be much more than domesticated animals for whom we provide food, grooming, and lodgings in exchange for… well, just being around? They are endowed with intelligence that can be tapped into, both for the benefit of the pet and the community at large. They can be trained to become contributors. This type of behavioral development is not just limited to ‘special’ units like police, rescue, security, service, or even hunting canines. A household dog can also be trained to find its place among the ranks of the unique and the masterful!
A dog that has been trained how to fetch can become a trusted helpmate, running errands beyond just retrieving items from the fridge or newspapers from the front porch. Today, we come across stories of owners who have been saved from the brink of death by pets who fetched items that they could not reach themselves. A well-trained pet can prove to be of much practical value, especially to those weakened by age or a debilitating illness.
Your dog can easily learn how to fetch on command. The key is to break down this training into small constituent tasks that it can master quickly and easily. Here is how to train your dog to retrieve at your command.
- Switch to a double incentive
- Adjust space and distance
- Build on foundational skills
- Complete the sequence
- Support the retention
The reality is that many pets never really come into their full potential, but this does not have to be the case
1. Switch to a Double Incentive
While it is relatively simple to throw a ball or other favorite toy and have your dog go pick it up, the challenge usually is in how to make the pet return it back to you. One way to overcome this is to train your dog using two toys instead of one.
Toss the first toy a short distance away from yourself and wait till your furry friend has run toward it and grasped the toy in its mouth. Once this happens, call its name and draw attention to the second toy you have in your hand as though to indicate that the second toy is better than the first.
When the dog returns back to you, reward the behavior with praise and/or patting and offer it the second toy. The idea is that to get the second toy it must let go of the first. After the dog has learned how to return the first toy successfully back to you, you can start phasing out the second toy.
For this training to work, your choice of toys must be of interest to the dog. Preferences among dogs vary. Some prefer toys made out of rubber while others are more attracted to foam. Bear in mind that the toys used for training should not be the same toys the dog regularly plays with.
If you find that you toss the toy, your pet runs after it, but gets distracted by other things soon after and is not able to complete the cycle, use something more appealing. This could be a tennis ball, a frisbee, or a dummy representative of a small creature like a bird. Toys that squeak or make some other noise can be quite entertaining for dogs.
However, the fact that a toy is the dog’s favorite does not by itself make it ideal for this type of training. It has to be a toy that is sturdy enough to bear friction and exertion, light enough to be comfortable carrying about, and one that easily fits in the dog’s mouth. Avoid the use of toys that shred easily or wear out quickly.
Alternatively, if your dog is not interested in going after the toy, you could make the deal more enticing by covering it with peanut butter or chicken soup. In this way, you will be appealing to all the collective senses of the animal, including taste and smell rather than only sight, hearing, and touch. Each time the toy is successfully retrieved and dropped in your hand, apply some more of the tempting substance. Food is a great motivator so the smell and taste of the toy will be an instant attraction.
2. Adjust Space and Distance
Start this training by tossing the toy at short distances relative to your position. As the dog becomes more accustomed, gradually increase this distance so that your pet will have more ground to cover in order to reach the toy and bring it back. Ensure that you keep rewarding the dog each time it makes a successful retrieval.
When using longer distances, take into account the eye level of the dog. Our human vantage point differs from theirs such that though we are able to see objects a long distance away, they are not able to view them unless they are close enough. When tossing an object, it is easy to miss this difference and assume the dog has the same range of vision that we have.
If the item is something the dog will have to keep straining to search for, it may find the exercise tedious instead of something worthwhile to look forward to. Anything that makes the learning session less appealing reduces its effectiveness. So the object should not be tossed too far away or beyond the dog’s eye level, especially when your pet is still fresh to the training. Choose an open area, so that your dog will not need to circumvent obstacles like shrubs or bushes. When practicing indoors, make use of a clear space such as a hallway.
If your dog has a tendency to run off with the toy after fetching, consider leashing or tethering it in order to restrict the range of movement, especially for the initial sessions. After the dog has learned its role and is playing it correctly, begin to increase the distance and the level of difficulty in retrieving the object. Eventually, it should be possible for you to conceal the item within the house, or outside among tufts of grass or bushes, and have the dog find it using the seek command.
3. Build on Foundational Skills
It is much more effective to introduce the fetch command to a pet that has completed obedience training. The foundation reduces the time frame required for a canine to learn new tricks.
For example, the dog may succeed in fetching, but then instead of relinquishing the item back to you, it may decide to invent its own game and dash off expecting you to chase after it. The exercise was originally authored by you, but now your pet has introduced its own clever little twist to the mix. Of course, it does not realize that in the process of trying to enliven matters, it has served up a new problem.
However, as the leader of the pack, the dog looks up to you for directions so there is a need to assert your authority and control the game. Taking your cues from the dog will make it start assuming it is the pack leader. So any efforts to spin off new versions or alternatives to the lesson should be disallowed.
This is also where the importance of obedience training comes into play. The process is easier for a dog that is already familiar with other commands like ‘Hold’, ‘Come’, ‘Sit’, ‘Drop’, or ‘Release’. They just need to be used in the correct sequence and then the dog rewarded after completing the entire cycle successfully. By using commands that the dog is already acquainted with, you could make it fetch items by simply adding a few tweaks to produce the desired effect. Prepare the steps beforehand and then have them all linked together to form a complete chain.
For example, when the dog fetches the object, you could use the come and sit commands, to focus its attention on you and prevent it from running elsewhere as you encourage it to release the object from its mouth. This will also ensure its attention will still be on you as you toss the toy once again. A dog that is already used to looking up to its master for directions will not simply run off into some other activity in the middle of a session.
Your choice of verbs does not really matter, as long as their application is consistent. ‘Bring it’ can be used instead of ‘Fetch’ and ‘Give it’ can be used instead of ‘Drop’ or ‘Release’. Each member of the family will need to know the importance of using the exact same words to reference the exact same actions in order to have consistency.
Also, note that in the beginning, it is easier for a dog to follow instructions when a command is accompanied by a physical hand gesture showing the direction of the action to be performed.
4. Complete the Sequence
One way to prompt the dog to release when it returns to you is to use a tug or bungee toy, or basically a toy that has an attachment that can be held on one end. You could also improvise on toys the dog already has in order to produce the desired effect, provided there is a distinction between the toys you use for training and the regular toys the dog plays with. In this way, you will have a part of the toy that you can reach out and hold in your hand as a way of indicating to the dog that it should release the toy.
The toy’s attachment should not be too lengthy or cumbersome for the dog when going through the sessions, but it should have an extension that can be held without coming into contact with the dog’s teeth. Encourage the dog to release it by stroking its back while holding the other end of the attachment. Avoid yanking the toy from the dog’s mouth, but do it as gently as possible using the drop or release command.
After succeeding in this step, the next stage is to make your dog release the toy without your having to tug at the attachment, but by simply extending your hand. By this time, it will have picked up the fact that your intention is to have the toy in your hand after each successful retrieval. Position your hand in such a way that the dog will not have to strain or crane its neck when releasing the toy, but keep it at the mouth level. The more comfortable each stage is for the dog, the higher its chances of retaining the lessons. Remember to always reward the dog for its efforts.
Tossing the toy again after you have received it is in itself an incentive for your dog to release the toy back to you after the next round. If your dog does not drop the toy as soon as it comes back, improve on the incentive.
One effective way of doing this is to offer the dog a treat. Since it cannot hold onto two items at the same time, it will be forced to drop the toy in favor of the treat. Your dog will eventually learn to release the toy when it returns to you in the expectation of receiving something better. Your conditioning process should be such that the ultimate goal is for the dog to drop the object by default without any intervention or compulsion on your part.
Another incentive is to start the session by playing a game the dog enjoys. For example, if the dog likes tugging, you can begin the training with this game. After playing for some time, grab the tug toy and toss it away. The immediate inclination on the dog’s part will be to go find the toy and bring it back so that the game can continue. Reward your pet when it returns with the toy and then continue playing the game. When you have repeated this sequence a few times, begin to toss other toys in the same manner, and reward the dog each time it brings them back to you. This process will build an association between the act of retrieving an item and receiving a reward. A clicker could also be used to simplify the lesson by connecting sound with each specific response.
5. Support the Retention
There are five principles you can use to support your pet’s learning and retention of skills, namely: focus, consistency, automation, balance, and graduation.
During the initial stages, distractions could easily divert the attention of the dog. There should be no other noises or movements in the training area from people, pets, or objects that could break its concentration. If there is no backyard or lawn sizeable enough for the sessions and the local park is too distractive or crowded, the training can be done indoors.
Set aside some space in a room or along a hallway or corridor where the sessions can be conducted manually, or through an automated device. Limited space also prevents your pet from taking off elsewhere in the middle of a session. Moreover, the dog is kept from overheating if it is sunny outdoors. With practice, your pet will be able to perform well in areas with higher levels of distraction.
Once you have established a routine for this training, you need to be consistent. With patience and persistence, your dog will pick up the sequence involved in retrieving items. As noted before, use the same cues, words, and hand gestures each time in exactly the same way. If a family member or anyone else takes over the training in your absence, they must follow the same script to avoid sending mixed messages to the dog.
This training is reward-based. To receive a treat or other reward in this training, the dog must first successfully complete the required stage. For example, if your dog was able to fetch, return and release the item to you, but then in the next sequence it comes back without the item, there should be no reward or compliment. Rewarding non-performance strengthens the possibility of an error reoccurring because the dog will conclude it is being compensated for the wrong behavior.
There are devices on the market that can help solidify the conditioning process especially for pet owners who have busy schedules and may not have enough time for repeat sessions. For example, iFetch is a simple device that automatically launches a ball for a dog to retrieve and either bring it back to the owner or drop it into the receptacle of the device.
The dog soon learns that the only way there can be a second launch is if the ball has been brought back to the device. The device settings can be adjusted to make a launch distance of up to 30 feet. The training can be done indoors or outdoors and there is little distraction because once launched, the ball will always fall in the same predetermined area, so there is no risk of anything in the home being broken or the dog injuring itself whilst retrieving it.
Though playing fetch is an exciting activity, be sensitive to your pet’s exertions and don’t press the dog beyond its limits. Give it a period to rest and unwind if you observe it overheating or panting wearily. Avoid overworking the dog to get the quickest results. At the same time, the sessions must not be too long, as this could wear the dog out and turn it off from future training. If your pet is still a puppy, too much exertion can strain its joints and muscles and this can lead to developmental problems later on.
Also, ensure the dog is adequately prepared for this training by not giving it a heavy meal just before you start. When a dog is too full, it may be lethargic and unable to cooperate properly. Conversely, the dog should not be too hungry, as this will make it unmotivated or disinclined to engage in spirited activities.
We’ve already touched briefly on the suitability of the toys to be used for the training. It suffices here to mention that any items that are too heavy, hard or bulky, should be excluded. If your dog is a beginner, it should be trained using objects that can be transported with ease. One advantage of using such objects as bungee toys is that they require little effort on the part of the canine and are comfortable for its jaws and neck muscles. Once progress has been made and lessons mastered, the dog can be introduced to items of varying shapes, weights, sizes, or firmness.
Handling non-toy items is the next phase of this progression. However, ensure that none are likely to injure the pet or put its health at risk. The following items should be off the list when the dog does fetching errands around the home: small items that can be accidentally swallowed, fragile items including those made out of thin glass, containers with toxic substances which may not be properly sealed, and sharp-edged items that can cause lacerations.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Liz Westwood from UK on March 17, 2021:
I have heard of dogs in the past who would fetch the newspaper or slippers for their owners. I sometimes wondered how they were trained to do these tasks. Your article explains a lot.