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If you happen to have a Labrador, then you have a natural “fetcher” on your hands. Training your Labrador Retriever to fetch is usually quite simple as these enthusiastic dogs were bred for retrieving. In fact, once you give your Lab the basic understandings of fetch, it is likely that the game will quickly become self-rewarding. You could quickly have a ball obsessed dog on your hands!
Not only is fetch a fun game to help your Labrador burn off some extra calories, it also provides some mental stimulation. It is a game that travels very well since all you need are a few tennis balls that you have stashed in the car. In addition, fetch is something everyone can play, giving new folks an “in” to bond with your Lab.
In most cases, it will only take a few 10-20 minute sessions to fully train this trick. We offer three different methods in this guide, all of which will quickly produce results.
If you are starting from scratch with training your Labrador to fetch, it is best to start indoors where there are fewer distractions, moving the game outdoors to a secured area only after she has the hang of it and seems to be fairly interested in it.
Quit Before She Does
One of the tricks to getting a dog to be very enthusiastic about any game, including fetch, is to make sure to quit the game before she does. This will leave her wanting more so she will be excited the next time you play.
Fading Food Rewards
In 98% of cases with Labrador Retrievers, training how to play fetch is mostly showing them the mechanics of the game. Using food rewards to do initial training works best because you can repeat them quickly, making lots of training progress fast. However, it will not be long before the game of fetch becomes its own reward. Once you see your Lab enjoying the intrinsic value of fetch, start to decrease the rate of reward until the next toss becomes the reward for each retrieve.
Choose the Right Ball
Most Labs take nicely to tennis balls. If you find that your pooch turns his nose up at a ball, try teaching fetch with a favorite plush toy, or squeaky ball instead. Once you get the basics of the game down, chances are good that you will easily be able to switch to a tennis ball later without much fuss.
Reward Success, Ignore Failure
There is no reason to punish your dog if he fails to retrieve. All you will do is make him associate the game with bad stuff, decreasing his ability to enjoy it. The best way to handle failure to retrieve? End the game, walk away, ignore your Lab for a minute or two, then start over. If it continues to happen, your dog is bored. Start over a few hours later and bring more enthusiasm to the table.
Clicker and Treats
For the 'Clicker' method, be sure you have your clicker and treats ready. Labradors are usually so food motivated that you can train them with their regular kibble rations. If you have a clicker, then you know that you will click to mark the behavior you want, followed always by a reward. If you do not, then just make a sound like “YEEESSS!!” that you reserve for training sessions, always followed by a food reward.
The Clicker Method
Start from scratch
This is the easiest and fastest method to train your Labrador to fetch if he is starting from scratch. Start with a tennis ball if he seems to have an interest in it. If not, use a plush toy he enjoys.
Toss the ball on the floor nearby, if your Lab goes over to sniff it, click/reward. If he goes over to sniff it again, click/reward. If not, toss it again and click/reward for any investigation. Repeat 10-15 times in rapid succession.
Raising the bar
Your Lab will soon be “expecting” a treat for checking out that ball or toy. Now start to delay the click/reward, hoping for a more aggressive touch of the ball, or even a pick up by the mouth. Click/reward and continue to try to push in the direction of a fetch by raising your criteria over time until he is reliably picking the ball up where it lands.
Over time, continue to raise your criteria, making sure you are not moving too fast. Start to expect him to take a step towards you, then two, then soon she will be coming right to you, dropping the ball to get her reward. Repeat 20-30 times, keeping the tone fun.
Add distance indoors until it seems your Labrador understands and enjoys the game. Then you can take the game out to a fenced-in area. Start with very close tosses such as 3-5 feet, building the distance of the toss over time.
The Two Balls Method
When to use
Some Labrador Retrievers already love picking up a tennis ball, chewing a tennis ball, or running away from you with a tennis ball. Meanwhile, dropping the ball is not on their agenda! If that is the case, give this method a try. It does not require any food rewards, it just uses the fact that she loves that ball already as a means to train her the fun game of fetch.
Get two tennis balls handy and start indoors in a place where she feels comfortable. Toss a ball, she will go get it. Then grab the other ball and pretend it is the better ball.
Best ball in the world
Clearly, this ball in your hands is the best ball in the world! Dogs are very susceptible to this game. Hesitantly let her give that ball in your hand a sniff, which will cause her to drop the ball that was in her mouth. Immediately toss the new ball excitedly!
Old ball in hand
Be sure to get the old ball in hand before she gets back! Repeat the last step, making sure to keep things entertaining and fun. Use praise when he goes to get the other ball, and let the new toss be the reward for dropping the old one.
Take the game out to a fenced area and continue to practice this fun game. You should soon have a dog that comes to you and drops the old ball on the way, in anticipation for the toss of the new ball. Make sure that you stand there and wait or say: “Where is your ball?” until she drops the old ball in range before tossing the new one!
The Tug Method
When to use
It is a common myth that playing tug with your dog will make him aggressive. As long as you make sure he always follows the rules (no teeth on skin, no tugging uninvited, and to follow the 'drop it' command), then tug is great motivating game to play. You should let him win about half the time or even more if you want him to continue to love this fun game.
This method to teach fetch is perfect for Labradors that show no interest in balls but enjoy a game of tug and already know how to play it. Go ahead and initiate a game of tug with his favorite toy inside. Let him win several times, then ask him to “Drop it,” then give it a toss.
Tug to fetch
Chances are, he will run to get that tug. Once he has it, he realizes he can’t play tug by himself so he will bring it in range of your outstretched hand, ready for another tug. Go ahead and play with him, repeating the last step 10-20 times.
Once you are reliably getting a fetch and retrieve with the tug, you can add verbal cues. Say “Fetch!” as soon as you throw the tug and say “Drop it” as soon as he brings it back, waiting patiently for a drop then playing a quick game of tug before tossing again. Repeat 20-30 times over several sessions.
Take this tug/fetch game outside. Start trying to get him to fetch the ball, and when he brings it back, reward him with a tug. Once he gets the hang of the game, it is unlikely you will have to continue to reward with a tug for long, the toss of the ball will soon become its own reward. Once you train your Labrador Retriever to fetch, it will be a game that you can count on for hours of fun and exercise for the rest of is life!
Written by Sharon Elber
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 02/26/2018, edited: 01/08/2021