When you're training a new puppy, some skills and behaviors can seem to take an age to teach. Whether trying to train a reliable recall or even just teaching your dog to stay in one spot, you may find yourself pulling your hair out in frustration as your pooch struggles to grasp exactly what it is you want them to do.
But there are other skills that come to dogs naturally, almost as if they were born with the ability to perform that particular task. The ever-popular game of fetch is a perfect example. Many dogs have an inbuilt desire to chase after and retrieve objects — in fact, many breeds were even developed for this specific purpose.
However, not all dogs instinctively know how to play fetch, so you may need to take some time to teach them the basics of this classic canine pastime.
Signs Your Dog Loves Fetch
Most dogs aren't particularly subtle when trying to communicate to you that they're keen for a game of fetch. If you've ever suffered the unexpected pain of your dog dumping a heavy stick (or other object they've found) on your toe before demanding that you throw it, you'll know exactly what we mean.
This is often the first clue many dogs give their owners. They'll find the nearest ball, stick or toy they can wrap their teeth around and deliver it to you. It doesn't matter if there aren't any suitable "fetch" objects around — some dogs will pick up just about anything and encourage you to throw it.
After handing the ball or stick over to you, the dog will usually tense up with anticipation. The look of excitement in their eyes may be accompanied by a loud bark (as if to say "hurry up"), a wagging tail and body language resembling a coiled spring.
As soon as you give into demands and throw the object, they're off as fast as their legs will carry them. Before you know it, they've retrieved whatever you threw and brought it back to you with an adorable look of satisfaction on their face.
Then it's time to repeat the process ad nauseam until your dog grows weary or your arm feels like it's about to fall off.
The Science of Dogs Loving Fetch
Most (but not all) dogs absolutely love playing fetch. However, this isn't a desire that every dog has been born with since the beginning of time; rather, dogs love fetch because we bred them that way.
Many breeds of dog were developed for the express purpose of retrieving items and returning them to their owner. Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Spaniels, Pointers, and Poodles — these are just some of the breeds that were developed as retrievers. A crucial companion on the hunt, these animals were tasked with retrieving ducks, birds, and other game, and humans have put a lot of effort into making them as effective at it as possible.
The dogs that were the best retrievers were used as breeding stock, with the hope that they would pass their skills on to their offspring. Those skills include a strong prey drive, a sturdy body and good physical fitness, a 'soft mouth' (which allowed them to carry the game without damaging it), impressive sniffing ability, an interest in birds, and a desire to please their owner.
As a result, the love many modern dogs have for the classic game of fetch is a matter of genetics. But don't be alarmed if you own a 'retrieving' breed but your dog looks confused by the prospect of a game of fetch, as it's still possible to teach them what to do.
Training Your Dog to Play Fetch
What if your pet is one of those dogs who doesn't possess the natural instinct to fetch and retrieve? The good news is that if your dog is genetically predisposed to retrieving, it shouldn't take too long for them to get the hang of it. You can train your dog to play (and wholeheartedly enjoy) a good old-fashioned game of fetch and the best place to start is with these few simple tips:
- Choose the right object. Experiment with balls and toys to see which object most excites your dog and is most likely to make them want to chase after it and bring it back to you. Sticks aren't recommended as they can break or splinter and become stuck in your dog's throat, or swallowed and lodged in their intestines.
- Start by teaching your dog to come. Teach your dog that coming to you whenever you call is a fun and rewarding thing to do. Not only will this help the stay safe when out and about, it'll also teach them one of the basic skills of fetch.
- Teach them to drop it. Use treats and your dog's favorite toy to teach the "drop it" command. 'Give them the toy and every time they drop it at your feet, they get a treat, then you can gradually phase the treats out over time.
- Increase the distance. Now it's time to try throwing the toy a couple of meters away instead of dropping it at your pet's feet. Keep increasing the distance as your dog improves.
- Repeat. Repeat the process as many times as possible until your dog gets the hang of it. Remember to use positive reinforcement and stay patient at all times.
Of course, there are some dogs that simply won't be fussed with fetch no matter what you try. If that's the case, don't stress. There's no reason to force your dog to play a game they don't enjoy, so relax and find another pastime you can both indulge in together.
By a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Published: 04/16/2018, edited: 04/06/2020