Jump to section
Training your puppy to fetch a tennis ball is one of the
tricks that should definitely be on your priority training list for the first year
(or earlier!). It is a trick that will give you a way to wear your puppy out so
that you can count on them to take a nap or be a bit more relaxed in the evenings.
This will definitely come in handy from 12 weeks to year 3!
Fetch is a game that also stimulates your puppy to learn in a way that is structured around a fun game. It gives you both a chance to experience “training” as a playful experience where the goal is to enjoy each other while focusing on success and reward.
Puppies as young as 2-3 months are ready for their first fetch training. If you start this early – expect to have a ball obsessed dog later in life. Luckily, dogs that are enthusiastic about fetch can actually be trained using fetch as a motivator!
First things first, let’s get the basics down. This guide offers three different methods for teaching your puppy to fetch a tennis ball, all without using a single punishment!
Choose a size and texture-appropriate toy to start training with.
It is certainly possible that your puppy has no interest in tennis balls because they are too big for their mouths, or just not a texture they are very interested in at their age. You can use just about any non-food toy that is safe for puppies to train fetch.
Later, after your pup is a little older and has the hang of this game, you will be able to switch to tennis balls (or mini tennis balls for toy breeds) without any problems. Examples of good starter toys are soft plush toys, smaller foam balls, or denim strips tied into knots.
Keep training sessions age-appropriate in length.
At around 12 weeks your puppy is likely to be able to focus on training for no more than 5-10 minutes before getting distracted by something else in this big and exciting world. Keep sessions short, and plan on doing several training sessions throughout the day. The sooner you start training with your puppy, the longer his attention span will become, and the more trainable he will be for the rest of his life.
Always start training in a low-distraction, indoor environment.
Your puppy should always get the benefit of a familiar environment to learn new behaviors. Once she has mastered a trick, you can start to work on it outside as long as you have access to a safe place to play, such as a fenced yard.
Focus on rewarding success.
Teaching fetch is no time for punishment. Focus on rewarding what he is doing right. If he fails to meet your expectations repeatedly, then you are failing to set the bar low enough. Progress only at a pace that keeps your puppy excited to learn, with a rapid rate of reward.
Fade food rewards over time.
Using food rewards for training is a great idea because you can repeat the act of giving a treat over and over without disrupting the flow of training. However, playing fetch is a behavior that eventually becomes self-rewarding. That means you won’t need to reward your puppy for playing this game because it is fun all by itself!
The Mark and Reward Method
How to mark and reward
This training method is similar to clicker training. In fact, if you already have a clicker, you can substitute it for the “mark” in this method. The point here is that you will have a unique sound that you only use for training sessions. You will make this sound, or “mark,” the instant you get what you want from your puppy, followed ALWAYS with a small treat or piece of kibble.
Start by getting her interested in the ball or whatever else you are using to train fetch. Wiggle it around, do a little keep-away, then toss it a foot or less from her on the floor. She will probably go over to investigate. As soon as her nose is very close to the ball, mark/reward. Repeat 10-20 times.
Raise the bar
By now she is expecting a mark/reward when she goes over to the ball. If she does not get it and you just stare at her waiting, she will likely try again, this time harder. Mark/reward. In this way you can start to get more aggressive touches, and eventually she will pick it up with her mouth. Mark/reward.
Starting to retrieve
Gradually, as your puppy is ready, use this method to increase your expectations. She will pick it up for an instant, then turn to you, then take a step to you. Continue to mark/reward several times before expecting more. Look for success to reward, and progress at a pace your puppy can keep up with.
Once you have trained your puppy to fetch a tennis ball using this incremental mark/reward method, you are ready to add some distance to the game. Keep things fun, exciting and positive. With enough practice, you are ready to move the game outside for even more throws and retrieves.
The Ball on a String Method
Probably the most hilarious way to train your puppy to play fetch with a tennis ball is this method. It all starts with a tennis ball (appropriately sized). Punch a hole on opposite sides, string some yarn cut to about 8’ through both holes, and tie knots in the ball end to secure the ball on the rope.
With the ball now securely attached to the rope, get your puppy interested by sitting on the floor with her and tugging it around so that she can’t resist checking it out. Keep enticing her with the moving ball on the floor until she tries to bite the ball. At this point say “YAY!!” in an excited tone and give her a treat. Repeat 10-20 times.
Raise the bar
Your goal is to keep playing this game until your pup grabs the ball confidently, then takes a step towards you. At this point, that will become your new reward criteria. Continue to give a happy “YAY!” followed by a treat for this new level towards your ultimate goal.
Fetch is on!
Proceed with raising the bar as your puppy gets more confident. Soon she will be bringing the ball to you each time, waiting for her reward. At this point (if you haven’t already), you can dispense with the yarn, she is ready for “Big Girl” fetch!
With plenty of practice under her belt, your pup will soon be able to play this game outside in the yard. Congratulations! You have given her a lifelong passion for a fun game that will keep her fit and happy.
The New Ball, Old Ball Method
When to use
If you have a puppy that already loves the game of keep-away with his ball, carrying around the ball like a little trophy and defying you to take it from him, this is definitely the quickest way to teach your puppy to fetch a tennis ball. Since he already has most of the game down, the only trick now is to show him to drop the ball he has at your feet.
For this training method, get two identical balls. Toss one for your puppy knowing he will go get it and try to keep it from you. When he is on his way back, make it clear that you have in your possession – A BETTER BALL! This ball is sooooo good that you don’t want him to get it, in fact, you’re not even sure you want him to SEE it! But then you decide to show him the better ball ever so slightly, at which point he will drop the old ball to give it a good sniff.
Toss new ball
Immediately throw the new ball and your puppy will race after this very new and interesting ball! Be sure you regain possession of the old ball before he gets back. Repeat the process.
You are playing fetch
Odds are your puppy will continue to be fooled by the “better ball trick” long enough that you will soon find yourself playing fetch. At this point, you can hold off on the toss until the old ball is dropped at right at your feet in anticipation!
Once your puppy has perfected the New Ball, Old Ball game, then you can take it outside. If you make it a requirement that the old ball is dropped at your feet before the new ball is thrown, eventually you will be able to play this game like a regular game of fetch: with a single ball.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 02/27/2018, edited: 01/08/2021