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Fetching is what Labradors do, right? After all, “Retriever” is in the name! Fetching should be a no-brainer.
The problem with Labradors fetching is not usually that they won’t go get the item tossed, or even return to you with it, it’s that they might not want to release it to you now that they've gone to all that work to get it! Also, believe it or not, some Labradors don’t fetch naturally. A Black Lab named Bella who was acquired by her family as a two-year-old never did get the hang of fetching. Her owners think she may have been punished in her previous home for taking things in her mouth and this soured her on playing fetch. Nobody could believe her family had a Lab that did not fetch--while their little poodle-terrier cross fetched great, Bella would just stand and watch. A bit strange, really!
You can teach your playful Lab to fetch properly and release the fetched item or even teach a Lab that does not fetch how to play the game. As strange as that may seem, they do exist!
Most Labs are more than happy to chase a tossed item anywhere, any time. A stick in a lake, a ball in a field, a frisbee, or a toy, anything you can throw, really. The issue will be teaching your Lab to bring the item back to you and drop it, or release it to your hand so you can throw it again. Although it is rare in, in some instances you may even have to teach a reluctant Lab to chase the item thrown. Although most Labs are naturally motivated to play fetch, shaping the behavior to ensure that your Lab plays with you and does not just take off with his prize is usually the main challenge when teaching your buddy to fetch.
It is very helpful to have two identical items when teaching your Labrador to play fetch, to encourage your dog to release fetched items. Using multiple toys can also help teach your dog to release fetched items so the game can continue. Treats may help teach your Labrador to fetch if he is having trouble understanding the game or is reluctant, due to negative experiences or punishment with previous mouthing of items. If your dog is reluctant to play fetch you may need to show patience and understanding to counteract previous negative experiences. Reassure your dog that playing fetch is OK and he won't get in trouble for picking up the fetch item in his mouth.
The Teach to Release Method
Place several toys out
Place several toys in a circle in an enclosed area. Pick up one of the toys and play with your Lab.
Move to next toy
After a few minutes, pick up the next toy and start playing with it, ignore the first toy.
Ignore first toy
If your dog does not drop the first toy and come jon you, keep playing with the new toy, ignoring your Lab and the first toy until your dog releases the first toy and comes and joins you with the second toy.
Establish yourself as focus of play
Play with the new toy for a few minutes and then move onto the next toy, repeat with each of the several toys, on multiple occasions, until your dog learns that releasing a toy does not mean play ends and to focus on what you are doing and not the toy.
Transfer to fetch
Start playing fetch. When your Labrador returns to you with the toy ask him to drop the toy. If he doesn't release the toy, pick up another toy until the first one is released. Then pick up the fetch toy and continue the game. Practice often until your Lab learns that releasing the fetch item results in continued game of fetch.
The Bait and Switch Method
Use two toys
Obtain two identical fetch toys.
Throw the first toy
Throw the first fetch toy and allow your Lab to go get it.
Throw second toy
When your Lab picks up the first toy, call him back to you and show him the second toy. Throw the second toy in the opposite direction. When your Lab drops the first toy, go and grab the first toy. Continue the game, switching identical toys with each retrieve.
Delay next toy
Wait for your dog to return the fetched toy and do not produce the next toy. Call your Labrador over and say “drop it”. When he complies, produce the other toy. Your dog should drop the toy he is holding, now that he understands you are going to throw the next toy.
Switch to using single item
Eventually you will be able to switch to just using one toy. When your Labrador returns the fetched item to you, say “drop it”.
The Shape 'Fetch' Method
Use a clicker and have treats available. Place the item to be fetched on the ground and click and treat when your Labrador investigates the toy.
Hold the toy out to your Labrador, require your dog to nudge the item or mouth the item before clicking and treating. Gradually require your dog to take the fetch item in his mouth before clicking and treating.
Reinforce picking up
Place the toy on the ground and wait for your Labrador to pick up the toy, click and treat. When your dog goes to take his treat, reach out your other hand under the toy so your dog drops the toy in your hand while he takes his treat.
Toss the toy a few feet for your dog to retrieve. When he picks up the toy, call your dog back to you and hold out your hand. When he touches your hand with the toy, click and treat. Eventually require your dog to release the toy to your hand to receive a click and treat.
Toss the toy farther and farther, and continue to reinforce returning the toy to you. When your Lab has the hang of the fetch game, start reducing reinforcement as your dog learns to enjoy playing fetch and the game becomes its own reward.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 02/27/2018, edited: 01/08/2021