Teach Your Dog to Fetch

Plenty of dogs like to chase the ball, but then don’t bring it back for you to throw again. Here’s how to teach a “keep-away” dog to play fetch instead.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #161

Teach Your Dog to Fetch

“The ball, the ball, the ball! Throw the ball, the ball, the ball!”

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

So says your dog. And you throw the ball, and she chases it down and grabs it, and then she … doesn’t bring it back for you to throw again. Instead she prances around for a few seconds and then drops the ball in favor of shrubbery investigation, or maybe she just hangs on to it basically forever. There goes your dream of a long, relaxing game of fetch.

Today, how to make your dream real. I warn you, there will be some training slog involved.

The method you’ll use to teach your dog to fetch instead of keep-away is called “backchaining.” That’s trainer-speak for taking all the steps in a series of behaviors and teaching the last one first, then the next-to-last-one, and so on till you get to the first behavior in the “chain.” (Backchaining is used to help people learn complex sequences, too.) For a fetch, the backward series might look like this:

5. Dog drops ball into your hand (or on the ground right in front of you).

4. Dog approaches you, carrying the ball.

3. Dog picks up the ball from where it landed when you threw it.

2. Dog chases the thrown ball.

1. Dog waits for you to throw the ball.

You’ll teach #5 first, then #4, and so on. Every step is taught with rewards – this is essential. When your dog is performing the whole sequence from 1 to 5, start to finish, every step in the sequence is rewarded by the chance to perform the next step. The reason each step functions as a reward in itself is that it has been heavily rewarded during your teaching, and the dog has good associations with it. The reason Step 5 is the most rewarding of all is that it’s had the most practice and the most rewards. Your dog’s reward for giving you the ball is a chance to get hold of it again – just what she wants the most.

Step 5: Teach Your Dog to Give You the Ball

Since our whole premise here is that your dog hangs on to the ball, Step 5 is probably the one you’ll need to practice most patiently.

Stand on Dogalini’s leash but make sure she has room to move a couple of steps. Now hand her the ball. Once she’s got it in her mouth, put your cupped hand under it. Don’t ask her to do anything and don’t try to get the ball away from her; just wait her out. The instant she drops the ball (even if she doesn’t drop it into your hand), give it back to her. Better yet, toss it right into her mouth if she’s a good catch.

The last step – giving you the ball – is the most rewarding.With some dogs, you’ll have quite a little wait for that first drop of the ball. You can grease the skids by offering a treat in exchange for the ball during the first few reps, but you may want to phase the treat out quickly; usually, a ball-loving dog’s big reward for giving back the ball in a game of fetch is the chance to get hold of the ball again. On the other hand, the Training Police will not come get you if you stick with treats forever. The real point is for you and your dog to have fun and to succeed. How you work that is your call.

Every step in teaching fetch is rewarded by the chance to perform the next step.

Break up the training into a couple of sessions if your dog seems frustrated or bored, or if you are! End each session by giving Dogalini the ball and letting her hold it as long as she wants. You’re ready for Step 4 when your dog is spitting the ball out as soon as your hand is ready to catch it.

Step 4: Teach Your Dog to Approach You While Carrying the Ball

You already know that if you toss the ball any distance, your dog will pick it up and keep it. Now she’s learned how to drop it when she’s right in front of you, but she still doesn’t know to bring it to you first. She needs to learn that a little at a time, as well. So begin Step 4 by standing on her leash again. Toss the ball lightly to the ground just one pace away from her. When she picks it up, hold your hand out for it and encourage her in a happy voice to come closer. Again, the distance between you should be only what she can cover in a pace or two.

If you practiced Step 5 enough, your dog should happily bring you the ball and drop it for you. Immediately toss it for her just as you did the first time. You can change the direction you toss the ball in, but keep at that same tiny distance for at least a dozen reps. As with Step 5, you can break up the training into as many sessions as you need to keep Dogalini interested and in the game. End each session by giving her the ball.

Take your time building up the distance you toss the ball for Dogalini to pick up and bring to you. The longer your dog has had the habit of chasing the ball and not bringing it back, the more reps you should do at each distance and the smaller each increase in distance should be. It’s reasonable to spend a dozen training sessions or more to teach your dog to bring you the ball over gradually longer distances.

When you’re tossing the ball far enough that Dogalini can’t reach it with you standing on her leash, let the leash hang loose for a few sessions. The reason not to take the leash off entirely right away is that each change in the training situation has the potential to change the picture enough for your dog that she’ll start making mistakes. Take the leash off completely once Dogalini has done a few dozen successful reps with the leash dragging free.

If your training falls apart at any stage and your dog hangs onto the ball instead of bringing it to you and dropping it, go back to a point where Dogalini was getting it right every time. Work your way back up from that point, but progress more slowly than you did before.

Steps 3 and 2: The Easiest Part!

Chasing the ball and picking it up are the steps your dog was so good at in the first place. Now that you’ve got her fetching, the pitfall to look out for isn’t underpracticing but overpracticing. Some dogs will play fetch forever – they’ll play through injury, or in hot weather they’ll play themselves right into heatstroke. Other dogs enjoy a few rounds of fetch but then get bored or distracted.

Either way, match the length of your game to what’s fun and safe for your dog. If she’ll fetch the ball a dozen times and then bail out, limit your fetch games to 10 throws and leave her wanting more. If she’ll play till she drops, end the game when she’s pleasantly tired and relaxed.

Step 1: Teach Your Dog to Wait for You to Throw the Ball

If you find you’ve created one of those fetch maniacs who barks and leaps impatiently until you throw the ball, lower the temperature! Ask her to sit, or wait for an instant of quiet, and only deliver the goods when you get that sit or quiet. It’s worth your while to reward polite behavior in this context, as in any other.

To see backchaining in action, visit YouTube and use “backchaining” as your search term. Now, throw that ball already!

For more tips and tricks on teaching and living with your dog, check out my book, The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I really appreciate your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for dropping by!

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).