Training a dog to play fetch may be as easy as pie or it may feel like an overwhelming task especially when Oliver doesn’t feel much enthusiastic about it. There are several tricks of the trade to make training fetch easier. Regardless, consider the fact that there may always be some dogs who just seem to think that going after a ball and bringing it back is a pointless activity or perhaps a mere waste of time. The good news though is that if you’re able to instill enthusiasm into the game and your dog takes a liking to it, you’ll have a wonderful opportunity to have fun with your dog while keeping him exercised.
Picking a Favorite Fetching Toy
Some dogs such as golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers are naturally drawn to play fetch and may be happy to fetch just about anything. In other cases, dogs may care less about retrieving certain toys, but may be more enthusiastic about others. It’s worth the time to experiment with different types of fetching toys so to see what your dog likes best. Generally, dogs with high prey drive are quite entertained by the erratic movements of bouncing tennis balls. Terriers may love squeaky toys. Other dogs may prefer a Frisbee, a rubber bumper or a plain old stick.
Your dog will likely tell you what objects he’s more excited to retrieve. Just watch him as you wiggle and toss the toys and observe his expression and response to it. Does your dog seem attracted to the object? Does he follow it? Does he pick it up? Or does he just look at you wondering why on earth you keep on tossing stuff around? Once you find a safe toy that he seems quite interested in, you can start teaching him the game.
Training Through Back Chaining
So you found a toy your dog seems interesting in, therefore now it’s time to make the game extra rewarding and fun. Not many are familiar with the training technique known as back chaining. In simple words, this training technique consists of training a series of behaviors in a backward fashion, teaching the last behavior first, then the next-to-last-one and then chaining the remaining behaviors. This may sound a bit confusing, but it really is not once you’re more familiar with it.
Normally, in the case of fetch there are five steps of behavior expected by your dog:
- You toss the ball
- The dog chases the ball
- The dog picks up the ball
- The dog brings the ball back to you
- The drops the ball in your hand.
In back chaining, you’ll work backwards, and therefore, you’ll first train the dog to pick up and drop the ball in your hand and you’ll heavily reward him for that. Repeat this several times. Afterward, you’ll train the dog to pick the ball, bring the ball to you and drop it and you’ll heavily reward him for performing that sequence and so on until the dog completes the whole sequence. Following is a step-by-step sequence for training a dog to fetch through back-chaining.
Step-by-Step: Training a Dog to Fetch
- Entice your dog to take the fetching toy by wiggling it around and getting him enthusiastic about it. Reward your dog for getting it. Repeat several times.
- Once your dog is good in picking up the item, add the cue “give” and hold your hands under the item until your dog releases it. When he does, be ready to lavishly praise and reward giving several treats in a row. Repeat several times. (Read also the “drop it” command)
- Next, entice your dog to pick up the item again, but now take a few steps back, so he’ll have to move towards you to drop it in your hands. Reward lavishly when he drops it in your hands by giving several treats in a row.
- When you have the item back, wiggle the item and then toss it saying “fetch.” When he picks up the item, entice your dog to come back to you. Say “give” and heavily praise and reward giving a jackpot of treats.
Training a dog to fetch isn’t the easiest task as it’s a combination of different behaviors. It’s quite normal therefore to encounter some challenges on the way. Please be patient. For dogs not eager to pick up objects, there are several tricks of the trade. Some like to soak tennis balls in chicken broth or put a bit of peanut butter on a fetch toy to make it more appealing. The moment the dog picks up the item he is rewarded with high-value treats. Clicker trainers may click and treat the moment the dog shows interest in the fetch toy and will therefore shape the retrieve.
Some dogs do well picking the item, but they want to keep it for themselves running away with it or trying to entice you to chase them in a game of “keep away.” Don’t chase your dog to try to get the item! Instead, call your dog and show him another enticing toy. Your dog will likely come running towards you and will drop the toy in his mouth in hopes of getting the other one. Toss the other toy and continue swapping between different fetching toys your dog likes so to keep his interest alive.
What if your dog comes running towards you and drops the toy too early? In this case, make sure you’re not keeping treats in view otherwise your dog will drop the toy at their mere sight so his mouth isn’t busy. Walking in the opposite direction may entice him to keep his focus on you. On other hand, there may be dogs that will come back to you after tossing the toy and they’ll carry the toy in their mouth, but right when they’re near you they will be reluctant to give up the item. In such a case, it’s not a bad idea to use a treat to train him to drop the toy, but you’ll need to be careful in gradually removing the treat from plain view, otherwise you’ll be stuck with a dog that’ll drop items only if he sees a treat in sight.
The Bottom Line
Why does back chaining work so well? This training method instills enthusiasm and a will to perform the whole chain of behaviors because every step in the sequence is basically rewarded by the opportunity to perform the next step. Because the last step is the most heavily rewarded one, the dog is strongly motivated to perform the whole chain of behaviors that leads to it, in anticipation of the final reward.