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How to Teach Your Dog to Play Fetch

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David Adams

September 30, 2022

Dog Training

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

It may seem like fetch is something dogs are naturally born knowing how to do. It’s the classic game of chase in all the movies and TV shows — even commercial advertisements can be found showing footage of a person and their dog romping around on a beach or in a field, running after a favorite toy.

If your pup isn’t a fetch aficionado, though, don’t worry. That’s completely normal! Many dogs have to be taught how to play the game before getting into it (and some pets just aren’t excited about it at all).

Here’s everything you need to know to teach your dog to fetch. Build your bond and enjoy spending time together!

What to know before teaching your dog to fetch

Fetch is fun — but it comes with some potential health risks

Health risks of frequent exercise that involves repetitive motion, like fast-paced games of fetch, include:

  • Muscle and tendon strain, soreness, and tears
  • Joint damage and increased chance of developing arthritis
  • Mental fixation (some particularly hyper aware dogs, like herding breeds, might have a genetic predisposition to motion sensitivity that can cause them to exhibit obsessive tendencies over time)
  • Chronic overarousal where your dog struggles to relax before or after the game

You can mitigate these risks by:

  • Helping your dog warm up first before strenuous exercise.
  • Keeping tabs on their health with regular vet check ups.
  • Paying attention if anything seems “off” with your dog (like they start moving stiffly or showing sensitivity to normal petting).
  • Providing sufficient mental stimulation and other forms of enrichment alongside your games of fetch.

Not every dog is going to love fetch games (and that’s okay)

While domestic dogs share many common traits, different breeds are known for having different instincts. A Labrador Retriever, for example, is far more likely to quickly learn how to play fetch than a primitive Shiba Inu.

Breeds who generally love playing fetch:

This is not to say that every dog’s game preferences fall along strict breed lines. Your pet is an individual! It is worth thinking about their ancestry and original breed purpose when deciding whether or not fetch is the best fit, though.

Be patient and remember the goal is to have fun!

Dogs are experts at reading our human energy. If you’re putting too much pressure on your pup — like if you get frustrated that they aren’t picking up on fetch as quickly as you had hoped — they’ll know. What’s more? That stress will only make it harder for them to enjoy playing with you.

Remember that above all, you’re playing with your dog to have fun together. If fetch isn’t their favorite game, that’s okay! Take a deep breath, practice patience, and keep things lighthearted.

Step-by-step process to teach your dog to fetch

While following these steps, remember a few key things:

  • Always start slowly and in an area with limited distractions, like inside a familiar room of your house at a quiet time of day.
  • Keep sessions short and sweet. Your dog will be working physically and mentally. Make sure to take plenty of breaks!
  • Pay attention to your dog’s body language. Stop if they seem uncomfortable or overwhelmed. You want fetch to be a fun game, not a source of stress. This is a key part of positive reinforcement training.
  • Remember every dog is different and learns at their own pace. There’s nothing wrong with taking your time in the fetch training process.

Step 1: Introduce the ball (or other preferred fetch toy)

Decide what you want your dog to fetch. Many dogs are happy to play with a range of toys! Some common toys for fetch include:

  • Tennis balls (beware that the fabric coating of these classic toys can erode your dog’s teeth — it’s best to use them indoors where they can’t collect dirt and other debris that make them like sandpaper)
  • Plastic or rubber balls
  • Frisbees (make sure to limit how often your dog jumps high into the air, especially if they aren’t coordinated at landing)
  • Plush toys (many dogs are more interested in chewing than chasing these toys, but some pups love bringing them back to their humans or even feel they emulate real prey animals)

Whatever fetch object you choose, excitedly introduce it to your dog. Many pets will show curiosity all on their own. If not, you can place the ball, frisbee, or other toy near your dog and reward them (using a clicker or a marker word, such as “yes,” and  some of your pup's favorite high-value treats or other high value food) for getting near it, then for touching it with her nose, and so on.

You can also show your dog how much fun you have with the toy by tossing it in the air and goofing off with it yourself. Keep doing this until your dog is eager to join in!

Step 2: Move the ball or toy around

Once your dog is excited about the toy itself, begin to move your fetch object around in different directions to encourage your pup’s desire to chase. You don’t need to throw it just yet — simply hold it in a range of positions and quickly move it around to create interest. (Most dogs are naturally drawn to fast motion, part of their deeply rooted canine instincts to pursue prey.)

If your dog seems hesitant, reward them each time they look at or start to pursue the ball. Take breaks and return to your fetch process after a short period of time.

Step 3: Teach your dog to grab the ball or toy

Now that your dog is interested in your fetch toy’s movement, you can start encouraging them to actually grab it in their mouth. Place the ball, frisbee, or other object on the floor at arm’s length. Roll or move it around a little towards your dog. If they start reaching for it? Mark and reward with praise (or treats if your pup needs some extra motivation).

If they fully pick it up in their mouth, encourage them to celebrate by talking in an excited happy voice, gently clapping your hands, or engaging in whatever behavior you know makes your individual pet feel happy. You want them to know that you’re thrilled by their interest in the game so far!

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 and reward them for interacting with it. Repeat this process until your dog is eagerly going for the toy as soon as you toss it.

Once your dog has mastered picking up the toy after you throw it, encourage them to bring it back to you.

  • Don’t force your dog to give you the toy. Reaching directly for their face or prying open their jaws can scare them or even create resource guarding behaviors. You want the game to feel fun and cooperative!
  • If your dog is hesitant to let go of the fetch object, spend a few minutes just sitting near them and offering affection while they hold it. If they eventually drop it, take the opportunity to quickly move the toy around to create excitement and throw it again.

If your dog brings you the toy and drops it for you? Click or use your marker word, praise, and reward them heartily! Note that this is probably going to be the most challenging part of the process — don’t beat yourself up if your dog doesn’t get it right away.

Step 5: Begin to throw the toy farther

As your dog understands what you want from them, you can up the ante by throwing the toy farther and farther away. Make sure to mix in shorter throws here and there too, though, to keep up the excitement and interest. The last thing you want is for your dog to get bored! Keep up the same process of rewarding them generously and make sure the focus is on having fun.

Step 6: Add words (if you want to)

You don’t have to add any words to your game of fetch, but you can if you want to! Many pet owners who decide to teach a formal retrieve (a slower, more measured picking up and returning of an object than a classic game of fetch) will assign the behavior cue words like “fetch” or “get it”.

If you want to name your pup’s fetching behavior, choose your word and begin saying it before you throw the toy. When your dog successfully fetches the toy, mark, praise, and reward!

Step 7: Take it outside around other distractions

Now it’s time to work around more distractions! If possible, 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 area and time of day to start.

Once you’re outside, play fetch in the same way you were in step five. Throw the toy gradually farther and farther away. Don’t be afraid to run around, make noise, and show your dog how much fun you’re having with them! Many pups will take their cues from you and match your level of excitement as long as they’re feeling comfortable in the space.

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

A Labrador Retriever, a breed known for its love of fetch, swims through the water after chasing a ball

Troubleshooting problems when teaching your dog to fetch

What to do if this fetch training process isn’t working

First things first: Get a full vet checkup

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 for dogs who used to fetch but won’t anymore (more on that in the next section).

Try a different type of 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 a couple different toys and see if your dog likes one more than the others!

Play around with more than one toy at once

If your dog is picking up the toy but not bringing it back, you can try “the two toys game” where you use two identical objects. Throw one, and when your dog picks it up, show them the second toy in your hand. Many dogs will run to you in pursuit of the “new” toy. At this point you can throw it, pick up the first toy, and continue repeating the process until your pup starts to understand that coming back to you (and dropping their fetch object) is what keeps the game going.

Alternatively, you can use treats instead of a second toy, and reward them when they bring you the toy. Both methods help your dog feel like they are “getting something” instead of merely giving up their prized toy.

Another tip here: Avoid ending the game immediately after your dog performs a perfect drop. You don’t want to teach them that releasing the toy to you stops the fun — you want to teach them it’s what creates it! If you want to be done playing, simply sit down near your dog and pet them calmly instead of asking for the toy right away.

Consider if other games are a better fit for your dog

Some dogs just don’t care about fetch. That’s okay! If you feel like you’ve tried everything with consistent practice 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

Health problems, like arthritis or vision loss, are a likely cause

As we mentioned above, your dog losing interest in fetch might be due to arthritic or other pain, especially if they liked playing fetch when they were younger. It’s a good idea to take your pup to the vet to see if anything is wrong. If they do 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. This might cause trouble hearing you tell them to fetch or seeing the ball. Again, a vet visit is warranted to narrow down what’s wrong and rule out more serious health concerns.

Your play might have gotten too repetitive or boring for your dog

Some dogs might “get over” playing fetch if it’s just not fun 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.

Alternatives to playing fetch

If fetch isn’t working out for you, don’t fret. There are lots of other things to do with your dog! Here are a few:

  • Dog agility courses: Basically an obstacle course for dogs that can be done outside or inside if you have enough room
  • Hiking, bikejoring, or skijoring 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 or you’re able to set up safe socialization scenarios)
  • Playdates with other dogs (if your dog isn’t reactive to other dogs or has a circle of trusted friends)
  • Interactive toys or treat puzzles
  • For more ideas, check out our ultimate guide to canine enrichment.

Happy fetching!

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:

Alex Walker
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

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David Adams photo

David Adams

September 30, 2022

Dog Training

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