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As members of the herding group, Australian Shepherds have a very strong drive for both mental and physical stimulation. If they do not have a physical outlet, Australian Shepherds can become neurotic, destructive or even aggressive. Training your Australian Shepherd to fetch will give you a convenient way to make sure she is getting what she needs along both lines to stay balanced.
Luckily, your Aussie is smart – you already know that! Teaching fetch is likely to only take a few quick sessions. Moreover, it will quickly become a self-rewarding game. That is, your Australian Shepherd will probably come to think of fetching that ball as his job and put his whole heart into making sure he does it just right!
This guide will show you three different ways to teach fetch – a game likely to serve you and your Aussie for many years to come.
Here are a few tips to make sure your training sessions go smoothly:
- Start in a low-distraction environment, such as indoors.
- If you use a food motivator to train, be sure you fade the use of food rewards once it is clear he will play the game for the sheer joy of it.
- Never let your Aussie quit before you do. This may seem unlikely given the intense focus and drive of this breed. All the same, quitting first will leave him wanting more--key to building drive in the long haul.
- Progress at her pace. If you set your dog up for success when training, you will have a confident and enthusiastic playmate who looks forward to training and game time.
Although rare, some Aussies are picky about what they like to have in their mouths. If your pooch does not seem interested in a ball, try starting your training with a plush toy, or, proceed to the 'Tug' method if she loves a game of tug already and you want to learn how to turn that into a fetch game.
Keep the mood positive. This should be a fun game. Don’t even bother with any punishments as they will only hold back your training progress. Keep the tone fun, reward often, and ignore failure, especially in the early stages.
If you happen to already have a clicker, then you should definitely use the 'Clicker' method for the fastest possible training of the fetch game.
If you do not have a clicker, you can still use that method. Just use a sound or word unique to your training such as a certain whistle that is always followed by a treat. This will be your “marker” and you will use it to let her know that whatever she was doing when you made the sound is what you are rewarding with the treat.
The Two Balls Method
When to use
Does your Aussie already love to trot around with the ball in his mouth, making sure everyone knows he has it, and delighting in any attempt you make to get the ball from him? Congratulations! Your Aussie has trained you to be the chaser in his favorite game--keep away! If this applies to you and your dog, this is a great method to try for training fetch.
Get two balls handy for this game. Toss the first, knowing he will go after it and get it. As he begins to flaunt that he has the coveted ball, make sure he sees that you too have a ball, and that your ball is oh, so much BETTER! So much better, that you play a little keep away of your own. With the ball cupped in your hands, put it in range for him to give it a sniff. As soon as he drops Old Ball, give New Ball an excited toss.
Chances are good that your Aussie is off to the races looking for the “better” ball. Make sure you get your hands on Old Ball before he gets back (or he will surely try to control both balls – classic Aussie!).
Repeat the last two steps. Over time, you can make less and less of a fuss about the ball in your hand because you will have trained your Australian Shepherd that chasing the ball in motion is really the best part of this game after all!
As with all training with Aussies, expect him to try to make his work more efficient by cutting corners and finding the least amount of work that earns a reward. This isn’t stupidity – it is a sign of a highly intelligent dog. If he starts dropping the ball early or trying to run for ball two before dropping ball one, just stand there and wait until he fixes it before proceeding.
The Clicker Method
Toss the ball a few feet from you with an excited tone. Your Aussie is almost sure to go at least sniff it. Click/reward as her nose is close to the ball.
Repeat the first step 20-30 times. Your goal is to start the bar as low as you need to but raise it ever so slightly until your Australian Shepherd is first nosing, then picking up, then picking up and looking towards you, then picking up and taking a step towards you, and so on.
By slowly raising the bar as instructed in the last step, eventually your Australian Shepherd will fetch then bring the ball to you, dropping it to get her treat. Keeping the tone upbeat and including lots of praise, start to add some distance to the toss.
If your Aussie seems to backslide after she has already been giving you a good fetch and retrieve, then make sure to not reward attempts to test the limits of what will get a reward. This is just your sassy Aussie figuring out the most efficient way to get her reward. Be sure that you just ignore backslides of any kind, such as dropping the ball early, and just wait until that ball is at your feet before click/treating and continuing to practice.
Take the game outside once your Aussie seems to have the hang of the fetch basics. Start with short tosses again just to get her confidence up, moving to longer tosses only as she is ready.
The Tug of War Method
When to use
If your dog already enjoys a great game of tug, then you can use this game as a way to train your Australian Shepherd to fetch a ball. Start by getting a good game of tug going, letting him win a few times before asking him to “drop it” then tossing the tug a few feet away.
It is likely that your Aussie already knows that a tug is lame without the person on the other pulling on the toy. She is likely to bring it right back to you for another tug. Oblige and play, then repeat the last step 10-20 times, adding a little distance to the toss.
Start to add commands to this game: “Fetch!” when you toss it, and “Drop it” when she brings the tug back for a game. Once she has the rhythm of this order, and plays this game correctly and enthusiastically, you are almost there!
Take the game outside, this time with a ball AND the tug toy. Get a good game of tug going, ask for a “Drop it.” Grab the tug and then say “Fetch!” and toss the ball a short distance. Wait for it… Your Aussie is likely to operate on muscle memory, fetching the ball and then retrieving it. If so, reward with a game of tug.
Fetch becomes the reward
Over time, you will be able to play this game without the tug, or with only the occasional tug. Chasing the ball becomes its own rewarding “job” for most Aussies. In fact, in the long run you will be able to use a toss of the ball to reward other behavior such as a great 'down' or 'sit'.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 02/26/2018, edited: 01/08/2021