* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *
Does your dog know how to fetch? It may seem like it’s just something dogs just know how to do, but that’s not the case! Most dogs have to learn how to play fetch. Once they learn, it’s a fun game for you and your dog to play together.
Step by Step Guide to Teaching Your Dog To Play Fetch
Tip: do steps 1-6 indoors, where there are fewer distractions.
Step 1: Introduce the ball (or other fetch toy)
Decide what you want your dog to fetch (a tennis ball or similar ball is a good option), and introduce it to your dog. Preventive Vet advises teaching your dog that the fetch toy is something to be excited about: put the toy near your dog and reward her (using a clicker or a marker word, such as “yes,” and some of her favorite treats) for getting near it, then for touching it with her nose, etc. Keep doing this until your dog is very fond of the ball or toy!
Step 2: Move the ball or toy around
Begin to move the ball or toy around so that your dog has to get to it. Don’t throw it yet, that will come later. Just hold the ball or toy in some different positions and move it around without throwing it. Each time your dog looks at the ball, click (or say your marker word), praise, and give her treats.
Step 3: Teach your dog to grab the ball or toy
For this step, you’re going to start rewarding your dog when they grab the toy. Preventive Vet suggests you “watch your dog’s behavior and reward when it starts to look like the behavior you want.”
Place your ball or toy on the floor at arm’s length. If your dog begins using their mouth on the toy at all, click (or use your marker word), praise, and give them a treat. Continue rewarding this way each time they get a bit closer to biting the toy. If your dog picks up the toy using their mouth, click or use your marker word, and give them a huge amount of praise and treats. You should let them know that you are thrilled by this behavior, so act like it’s really great!
Step 4: Teach your dog to pick up the toy after you throw it
While you’re still indoors, throw the ball or toy a few feet away from you. When your dog picks it up (even if this takes a while), click or use your marker word, praise, and treat. Repeat this process until your dog understands what you want from them. (Note: this is probably going to be the most challenging part of the process, so don’t beat yourself up if your dog doesn’t get it right away. It may take a few tries, but hang in there, they’ll get it!)
Once your dog has mastered picking up the toy after you throw it, encourage them to bring it back to you. Once they do, click or use your marker word, praise, and treat heartily!
Step 5: Begin to throw the toy further
If you’ve gotten to this step, your dog should have realized that getting her toy and bringing it back earns her treats. Now, you’ll want to practice throwing the toy further and further, and having your dog repeat this behavior. Every time your dog does this successfully, click or use your marker word, treat, and praise. Then, throw the toy a bit further, and keep repeating.
Step 6: Add words (if you want to)
You don’t have to add any words, but you can! If you choose to, this is the time to do it.
Choose your word (“fetch” is a good choice), and say it before you throw the toy. When the dog successfully fetches the toy, mark, praise, and treat!
Step 7: Take it outside
Now it’s time to take things outside! Bring your clicker and your treats with you.
Remember that outside is generally a lot more distraction-heavy than the inside of your home. You’ll want to start in a secure, fenced place, like a backyard. (If you don’t have a backyard, this is the perfect time to book a Sniffspot.) Try to choose a relatively quiet space and time of day to start.
Once you’re outside, just play fetch in the same way you were in step 5. Throw the toy gradually further and further away, and mark, treat and praise when she brings it back to you.
Troubleshooting when teaching your dog to fetch
What to do if it isn’t working:
- Try a different toy or ball. Some dogs have strong preferences about what they’ll play fetch with. If a classic tennis ball isn’t doing the trick, try a different kind of ball, or switch to a Frisbee or another kind of toy. Experiment with different toys and see if your dog likes one more than the others.
- If your dog is picking up the toy, but not bringing it back, dog trainer Penny Leigh recommends “the two toys game,” as she told American Kennel Club: when the dog picks up the first toy, immediately show them that you have a second toy, so that they want to return to you to get that toy. Alternatively, you can have treats instead of a second toy, and reward them with the treats when they bring you the toy. Either way, it ensures that the dog feels like they are “getting something” instead of giving up their prized toy.
- Take your dog to the vet to make sure they don’t have any health issues, such as arthritis or other pain that might interfere with the game. This is a good idea in any situation, but especially with dogs who used to fetch, but won’t anymore (which we’ll cover below).
- Some dogs just don’t care about fetch. If you feel like you’ve tried everything and your dog isn’t into it, don’t beat yourself up. Check out some fun alternatives to fetch at the bottom of this article.
What to do if you dog used to fetch, but won’t fetch anymore:
- As we mentioned above, this might be due to arthritic or other pain, especially if your dog liked playing fetch when they were younger. It’s a good idea to take your dog to the vet to see if anything is wrong. If your dog does have arthritis, your vet can teach you how to manage it and possibly prescribe medication.
- Similarly, an older dog may have diminished hearing or vision, and might have trouble hearing you tell them to fetch, or seeing the ball. Again, a vet visit is a good idea if you have an older dog who doesn’t like fetch anymore. Your vet might be able to help you narrow down what’s wrong, or rule out health concerns.
- Some dogs might “get over” playing fetch if it’s just not fun enough or rewarding enough for them. Try the “two toys game” we mentioned above, where you reward your dog (with either treats or a second toy) every time they bring back their fetch toy.
- When building a new skill, try to keep the sessions short and fun for both you and your dog. End the fetch session before your dog ends it—this builds on the fun and makes sure neither you or the learner grows bored.
Alternatives to fetch: Some dogs just aren’t into playing fetch, and that’s ok! Don’t worry, there are lots of other things to do with your dog. Here are just a few:
- Dog agility courses—basically an obstacle course for dogs that can be done outside or inside (if you have enough room)
- Hiking with your dog
- Scentwork (also called nosework): a sport or game in which your dog finds different scented things, such as a cotton ball soaked in essential oils.
- Group walks (if your dog isn’t reactive to other dogs)
- Playdates with other dogs (if your dog isn’t reactive to other dogs)
- Interactive toys or treat puzzles
For more ideas, check out our list of 9 unusual enrichment ideas for reactive pups.
Trainer that reviewed this article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Professional Canine Trainer – Accredited / PCT Level 2
Courteous Canine/DogSmith of Tampa
AKC CGC® and STAR Puppy Approved Evaluator
Licensed Pet Dog Ambassador Instructor/Assessor