How to Teach a Dog to Fetch

In this expert guide to how to teach a dog to fetch, we cover all 4 parts of the training process.

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how to teach a dog to fetch
Wondering how to teach a dog to fetch a ball or another toy? The process involves plenty of praise and treats. Photo: Pixabay

When I got my Border Collie, Mack, I knew he loved tennis balls — on the rescue group’s website, he was pictured grasping multiple tennis balls in his jaws.

I quickly learned that Mack’s version of a good ballgame was “Keep Away” after watching him keep a ball away from my younger sister the first night he lived with us.

The funny part? During the game, he doubled back around the hallways and stood behind her, teasing her with the ball while she looked for him. That was also the night I realized how smart he was.

Not being a runner and not wanting to be the continuous brunt of my intelligent dog’s joke, I taught Mack how to play fetch right away.

There are a lot of benefits to playing fetch with your dog:

  • It’s an easy way to exercise your dog physically.
  • It’s a great way to exercise your dog mentally if you include obedience commands in the game.
  • It teaches an essential skill when training bird dogs.
  • You can use it to teach retrieval tricks, such as getting the dog to bring you the newspaper.
  • It helps you bond with your dog.
  • It helps a nervous dog build confidence.
  • It teaches impulse control if you pair the game with obedience commands.

How to Teach a Dog to Fetch

Some dogs are born retrievers (think Labradors and Goldens).

But other dogs need a bit more encouragement. These pups may participate in part of the game but not all of it — such as bringing you the ball but not dropping it for you, or even running after the ball but not picking it up.

We can break fetch training down into 4 basic skills your dog needs to learn:

  1. Running after a ball
  2. Picking it up
  3. Bringing it back to you
  4. Dropping it into your hand

In this expert guide to how to teach a dog to fetch, we’ll cover all 4 parts, plus a few more ideas to take the concept even further.

Although certain dog breeds have a strong chase-and-retrieve drive, they’re not the only dogs who like to fetch. Photo: mintchipdesigns

Part 1: Getting Your Dog Interested in Toys

If you’ve ever said, “My dog won’t play fetch,” what you probably mean is that your dog won’t chase after or pick up toys.

Many dogs are not naturally interested in retrieving toys, but you may be able to teach them to take an interest in toys.

And does it matter what breed is the best dog to play fetch with? Not really — it’s the dogs who naturally enjoy movement and bringing objects to you who’ll love to play fetch.

Retrievers, certain types of sporting breeds and herding breeds usually fall into this category because of their obsession with movement and having something in their mouths.

If your dog isn’t a retriever, a Border Collie or a German Shepherd, don’t worry — you can still them how to fetch. It just means you’ll have more work to do.

How to Get Your Dog Interested in Toys

  1. Grab one of your dog’s favorite toys — choose something that wiggles or bounces.
  2. Go somewhere calm with your dog, such as a fenced-in yard.
  3. Show your dog the toy and play by yourself with it for a bit. Act like you’re having a fantastic time: Throw the toy up in the air and catch it, wiggle it around, run around with it, and be silly and excitable. You want to make that toy look good!
  4. When your dog seems interested in what you’re doing, occasionally toss the toy next to your dog — as if you did it accidentally in your excitement. If your dog picks it up, praise them enthusiastically and see if they’ll play a bit of tug-of-war with you.
  5. When your dog drops the toy after playing with you, or if they didn’t pick it up when you tossed it, pick it up and go back to acting silly with it. When your dog is interested in the toy again, toss it their way a second time.
  6. If your dog never dropped the toy after they picked it up the first time, grab a second toy and play with it until the dog drops the first toy. Don’t worry too much about trying to take the first toy from your dog. You want this game to stay fun and lighthearted.
  7. Repeat acting silly with the toy and tossing it next to your dog — not toward their face at this point.
  8. As your dog starts to get into the game more, gradually toss the toy farther and farther away. Do this until you can toss the toy about 15 feet away and your dog will run after it.
When learning how to teach your dog to fetch, you may wonder, “How do I teach my dog to release toys?” Photo: bhumann34

Part 2: Teaching “Take It”

Once your dog is interested in running after toys, the next step is to get the dog to pick up the object in their mouth.

Some dogs will naturally do this after running after a toy. If your dog is one of them, you can skip teaching the “Take it” command and move on to the “Come” section (Part 3 below).

If your dog naturally picks up objects that you throw, you can still teach “Take it” to get your dog to pick up stationary objects.

Telling your dog to pick up an object that isn’t moving is an important part of many fun tricks – such as training your dog to bring you the mail, fetch your slippers or bring you other objects by name.

How to Teach “Take It”

  1. First, grab some of your dog’s favorite treats and hide them in your pocket or somewhere nearby — but don’t let your dog see them.
  2. Show the toy that you want your dog to pick up. Make the toy interesting by wiggling it around in front of them and on the ground. Toss the toy in front of them and up in the air, and catch it again and generally encourage your dog to bite the toy or tug on it. Excitedly tell your dog to “Take it!” while you do this.
  3. As soon as your dog puts their mouth on the toy, praise them and give them a treat or play tug with them — whichever one gets your dog more excited about the toy. Feel free to experiment.
  4. Keep the rest of the treats out of sight while playing so your dog stays focused on the toy.
  5. Repeat enticing your dog with the toy while saying “Take it!” until they bite it again. When they do, praise them and play tug with them or give them a treat. Practice this until you can hold the toy out to your dog without moving it, say “Take it!” and your dog will bite it excitedly.
  6. When your dog bites down on the toy in your hand, toss the toy in front of your dog while excitedly commanding “Take it!” Praise your dog, play tug or reward your dog with a treat when they bite the toy on the ground.
  7. As your dog improves, gradually toss the toy a little farther while commanding “Take it!” Reward your dog when they bite it or carry it in their mouth. Repeat this until they chase after and bite a toy that you toss at least 10 feet away.

Don’t worry about whether they bring the toy all the way back to you at this point — we’ll cover that next.

Watch this smart Blue Heeler fetch a beer from the fridge:

YouTube player

Part 3: Teaching “Come”

A lot of people wonder, “How do I train a dog to come when called?”

“Come” is an important command. Many people would say it’s the most important command because it’s the one that might one day save your dog’s life.

“Come” is also one of the most convenient commands for your dog to know. If your dog knows “Come,” you can trust them enough to take them more places, spend less time chasing after them and play fun games — like fetch — with them.

Once your dog is interested in chasing after toys and will pick them up with their mouth, learning how to come back to you with a toy is the next step.

How to Teach “Come”

  1. First, grab 2 toys your dog loves or 1 toy and some treats. Use treats if your dog is not very interested in toys.
  2. Clip a 30- to 50-foot leash onto your dog (no retractable leashes). If you have a padded back-clip harness, clip the leash onto that instead of your dog’s collar. A back-clip harness will be safer than a collar.
  3. Get your dog excited about a toy and toss it a couple of times for your dog without doing anything new. Praise and reward your dog for chasing after and biting the toy.
  4. Once your dog is warmed up, as soon as they bite the toy, excitedly call “Come!” and run away from your dog. If your dog comes all the way to you with the toy in their mouth, praise them enthusiastically and offer another toy or a treat as a reward.
  5. If your dog drops the ball in their pursuit of you, immediately run toward the toy instead and kick it, or pick it up and toss it a foot away.
  6. Repeat kicking or tossing the toy short distances until your dog picks up the toy again. When the toy is in their mouth again, tell your dog “Come!” and run a few feet away again.
  7. If your dog starts to run away from you, initiate a game of chase by reeling them in with the long leash, but stay positive and fun while you do this so they’ll want to come to you.
  8. Repeat all of this until your dog comes to within 5 feet of you with the toy in their mouth. Praise and reward them enthusiastically when they arrive.

Teaching “Come” while playing fetch can feel a bit hectic, but the more you practice it, the better your dog should get at bringing a toy straight to you without dropping it or running away with it.

For much more on this critical command, see “How to Train a Dog to Come When Called: An Expert Guide.”

When your dog can bring the toy straight to you consistently, it’s time to teach “Drop it” instead of just offering another toy or a treat to get the first toy back.

Training your dog to “Drop it” is the final step in how to teach a dog to fetch. Photo: Didgeman

Part 4: Teaching Your Dog to “Drop It”

At this point in the training, you’re probably wondering, “How do you get a dog to drop something in their mouth?” or “How do I teach my dog to release toys?”

The “Drop it” command is another important part of fetch, but it can also come in handy in everyday life.

For example, if your dog picked up a dead bird on the sidewalk today, how would you get it out of their mouth? That may sound gross, but I’ve been there, and I was grateful my retriever knew “Drop it” right then.

“Drop it” is especially useful for puppies and dogs who like to carry things around in their mouths or chew on household objects.

How to Teach “Drop It”

  1. Once your dog has learned “Come,” when they arrive with a toy in their mouth, place your hand under their chin, command “Drop it!” and show them another toy or touch a treat to their nose.
  2. Wait patiently for their desire for the treat or new toy to outweigh their desire to hold on to the current toy.
  3. When they let go of their toy, praise them and give them the treat, or throw the other toy for them. The throw doesn’t have to be far if they’re still learning to bring toys back all the way.
  4. Repeat “Drop it” with a second toy or a treat until your dog quickly releases the toy in their mouth as soon as you put your hand under their chin, say “Drop it” or show them the other toy or treat.
  5. When your dog drops the toy quickly, hide the treat or second toy in your pocket, put your hand under your dog’s chin, tell them to “Drop it” and hold out your other hand — pretending to have a toy or treat in it.
  6. If your dog drops the toy, praise them, reach behind your back, and produce the second toy or a treat for them as a reward.
  7. Repeat pretending to have a toy until your dog consistently drops their toy.
  8. If they won’t drop the toy because they don’t see a toy or a treat, briefly show them the toy or a treat, put it behind your back again and wait. Repeat this until they get bored of waiting and drop the toy in their mouth.
  9. Next, place your hand under your dog’s chin and command them to “Drop it,” but don’t show them your other hand this time. They should be on their long leash from practicing “Come” earlier, so they won’t be able to wander off with the toy if they get bored.
  10. Keep your dog close by with the leash. Keep your hand under their chin and wait for them to drop the toy.
  11. When they drop it, praise them enthusiastically and immediately give them a treat or throw them the other toy that was behind your back.
  12. Practice the training until they immediately drop the toy into your hand when you say “Drop it.”
  13. When your dog drops the toy immediately, briefly put that toy behind your back and produce it again — as if it’s a new toy. Excitedly throw the toy for your dog again.
  14. Practice this until your dog drops their toy immediately and you can simply re-throw the same toy without having to hide it behind your back anymore.

Part 5: What Else Can You Do With Fetch?

Now that your dog knows how to fetch, you might be wondering what else you can do with fetch.

Teaching your dog to fetch is the first step in teaching your dog how to bring you other things, too. These basic skills can lead to:

  • How to teach a dog to fetch a Frisbee
  • How to train my dog to bring me things
  • How to teach a dog to retrieve birds
Teaching your dog to catch a Frisbee is generally easier if you’ve already taught them how to fetch. Photo: Kinseykick

How to Teach a Dog to Fetch a Frisbee

Teaching your dog to fetch a Frisbee is like teaching them to fetch any other toy.

The main difference is teaching them how to catch the Frisbee.

There are a couple of things you can do to make catching a Frisbee easier for your dog:

  • Use a floppy Frisbee at first. KONG makes a durable, floppy Frisbee for medium to large dogs and a smaller red one for puppies and small dogs.
  • Toss the Frisbee short distances at first.
  • Throw the Frisbee right beside your dog at the height of their head, rather than straight to them — which could hit them in the mouth if they miss it.
  • Practice the game often and cheer your dog on. This skill takes time to develop for most dogs. Your dog must develop coordination and good timing to be able to catch a Frisbee.
  • Be patient and know that not all dogs will catch a Frisbee like a pro. You can still have fun if they sometimes miss the Frisbee because they aren’t as coordinated as that superstar Border Collie on TV. Be patient and practice to improve.

How to Train My Dog to Bring Me Things

Training your dog to bring you things is similar to teaching your dog to play fetch.

The main difference is that your dog will have to bring you things that are typically not moving. The lack of movement makes the training a bit harder.

Generally, you can teach your dog to bring you items in 2 different ways: You can teach your dog to bring you an item when you point to it or to bring you something by name.

To teach a dog how to bring you an object by name or when you point to it, practice these steps:

  1. Show your dog the item that you would like them to bring to you. Tell them to “Take it” and toss or roll the item toward them a bit. If you’re using a beer for this, start with an empty bottle with a koozie on it.
  2. When they pick up the item, praise them and tell them to “Come.” Because you’ve already taught your dog how to fetch toys before starting this, this process should go quickly.
  3. Praise your dog and give them a treat when they bring the item to you and drop it into your hand.
  4. After practicing for a bit, instead of tossing or rolling the item on the ground, place the item in the same spot that you rolled it toward before. Do this while your dog is watching you.
  5. Point to the item or say its name and then tell your dog, “Take it!” If your dog grabs the item, then great. If they don’t grab it, practice rolling the item a few more times.
  6. As your dog improves at picking up the item while it’s stationary, gradually add more distance between your dog and the item.
  7. When they can handle bringing you the item from the other side of the room or even another room, add a second item and reward your dog only if they bring you the correct item. If your dog brings you the wrong item, ignore the wrong item, walk them over to the correct item and encourage them to bring you that one instead.
  8. As your dog improves, gradually make the training harder by placing other things around the item that your dog is supposed to bring you, or by hiding the item somewhere and showing your dog where it is — which teaches them where to find it or how to look for it.
Curious about how to teach a dog to retrieve birds? Start by teaching them to fetch first, and don’t forget to socialize them. Photo: Ndine11

How to Teach a Dog to Retrieve Birds

Initially, training a dog to retrieve birds is like teaching a dog how to fetch a toy.

Early bird-dog training also involves encouraging the chase-and-retrieve drive, and teaching your dog the “Take it,” “Come” and “Drop it” commands.

Most hunters and trainers teach their hunting dogs to retrieve bumpers instead of balls because bumpers more closely resemble a duck’s body shape and because they don’t want their dog getting too interested in balls — or else they may not want to retrieve other objects as much.

Although the ins and outs of fully training a duck-hunting dog are too complex to cover in this article, there are a few things you can begin working on to get started in training your bird dog:

  • Follow the steps for teaching fetch above and teach the fetch commands “Take it,” “Come” and “Drop it.”
  • Carefully introduce your young dog to dead birds to prevent them from being afraid of them later. Start with wings and smaller birds like pigeons, and transition to dead ducks with their feathers on.
  • Introduce your dog to water, swimming and other environments they’ll encounter while hunting.
  • Socialize your dog around other dogs and people.
  • Practice general obedience — especially “Heel,” “Sit” and “Come.”
  • Let your dog play with bumpers during fetch training — but don’t let them use the bumper as a chew toy.

Final Thoughts on How to Teach Your Dog to Fetch

To sum up this expert guide to how to teach your dog to fetch, teach the necessary skills your dog needs to successfully bring you a toy:

  • Develop an interest in toys.
  • Learn “Take it.”
  • Learn “Come.”
  • Learn “Drop it.”

Also, have fun with fetch, and remember this special playtime actually has many benefits.

In addition to being a great way to exercise your dog both mentally and physically, fetch can also increase the human–animal bond and pave the way for other fun tricks and more advanced training.