How to train a dog to fetch?
June 29, 2005 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Dog behavior question: My friend recently adopted a 3-year-old dog from a shelter. It doesn't seem to "get" the whole idea of fetch and retrieve.

If I throw a tennis ball, the dog will usually go to retrieve it, but then drops the ball halfway back to me, and returns without it. How can I train the dog to bring the ball and drop it in my hand?

I have tried throwing the ball repeatedly (and retrieving it myself), hoping that on a fluke the dog would drop it in my hand, so I could then offer positive reinforcement--this didn't work because the dog never caught on to what I wanted. (She gives the ball up without a fuss when I get it myself)

On another occasion, I tried ignoring the dog when it returned to me without the ball, but the dog didn't get the message (at least not right away). The dog likes to play with the ball a little bit at a time, so if I suddenly stop playing the game with her, she doesn't seem to miss it. This dog is a Chihuahua mix.

What do the dog behaviorists recommend?
posted by Brian James to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
See if you can find the book "Culture Clash" by Jean Donaldson. She discusses this very issue.

Unfortunately, I can't remember what she suggests.
posted by luneray at 4:23 PM on June 29, 2005

This is a good question and I'm sure it's annoying. If you've ever seen animal trainers, nearly ALL of them use food/treat rewards in training. With my dogs I've always started with treats but after a while they are no longer necessary as the dogs realize what fun their having.
posted by snsranch at 4:34 PM on June 29, 2005

We have a very fearsome 7 month old havanese dog. She would bring the fetch object about 3-4 feet away and drop it, or play with it by herself. This is what I did, YMMV.

When she brings it not quite to me, I give her the command "Molly, Bring it" , with a hand gesture (mine is a hand pointed towards teh ground), when she doesn't respond, I give her a firm "NO", then I go to her, pick her up and the object, bring them back to the spot I was at, and then praise her like crazy.

Seems to work. She understands the concept of bring it well. However, when she gets tired, she won't bring it (either run into her kennel to rest, or just not bother with it), basicaly tell ing me she's too tired to fetch, which is fine.
posted by eurasian at 4:37 PM on June 29, 2005

Some dogs are more inclined to fetch than others. Our dog, a German Shepherd/Rottie mix, also adopted from a shelter, won't. If we throw something for him to retrieve, he may go get it and bring it back, once. After that, it seems that he decides we don't *really* want the thing, because we keep throwing it away. Or at least that's how we interpret his response.

He will, however, chase another dog that is chasing after a ball, so our solution has been to buddy up with an easygoing golden retriever.
posted by ambrosia at 4:39 PM on June 29, 2005

You might look into clicker training. I'd never tried it with my dogs and the fosters I've had, but we just took on a stray pit bull mix and needed to have a much more structured environment for him. The sound of the click (clickers are $1.29 at PetSmart, in a fishbowl on the table where you sign up for training; we have 10) apparently triggers good feelings in the amygdala.

The little beast began responding to the clicker after 10 minutes of "charging" it (click-treat, click-treat, click-treat over and over until he understood they went together), and it took only a few minutes to get a reliable sit out of him. With a clicker, you can reward the tiniest bits of behavior, so to train a fetch you might click your dog every two steps back to you with the ball, working her up until she comes all the way (and you can start degrading, only clicking when she comes halfway, then 3/4, then all the way). Even my ancient retired racing greyhound knows what the clicker means and will respond to it.

I believe the best book on the subject is called "Don't Shoot the Dog", but there are a number of other clicker books out there that will get you on your way. Show handlers can use clicker training to train behaviors as small as holding the tail at a certain level or stopping with a certain foot forward, so it appears to be a really powerful positive method of training behaviors.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:58 PM on June 29, 2005

Oh, and the treat that dogs will learn to drive, skydive, or ballet dance for: Bil-Jac liver treats. For training sessions, I use a sharp knife to slice them into tiny wheels, because you only need a tiny treat with the click lest you end up with a pudgy puppy, but the Bil-Jac in the purple milk carton are probably the end-all be-all of dog treats.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:02 PM on June 29, 2005

I second the "some dogs do some dogs don't" point of view, and suggest not forcing it. We had an awesome cairn terrier/jack russell mix that was preternaturally intelligent, capable of stunning tricks (including climbing trees), but he wouldn't fetch a stick for any reward. He'd *chase* whatever you threw, and run right past it and into the distance. Never stopped to bring it back.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:17 PM on June 29, 2005

My dog will run into the water to retrieve a thrown stick, then leave it at the shore on her return and run back to you. She will do this fo hours. We did not teach her this and we never tried to teach her the "right" way, this is just her trick and she seems to enjoy it.

You could try borrowing a dog that can fetch and teach by example, rewarding the new dog every time he brings you the stick. Monkey see, monkey do.
posted by Yorrick at 6:26 PM on June 29, 2005

It took a while for my dog (also a pound puppy) to get fetch as well. Now we can't stop him. He wants to play long after my arm has given out. Be careful what you wish for.
posted by FlamingBore at 7:23 PM on June 29, 2005

After that, it seems that he decides we don't *really* want the thing, because we keep throwing it away. Or at least that's how we interpret his response.

My interpretation is that the dog simply doesn't believe that it's an important job.

I'll state upfront that I generally don't like dogs. There have been perhaps three in the past twenty years I felt I could, if forced, accept as a pet. So it's entirely possible that my dog-theory is bunk:

I think the happiest dogs are those with a job. In my experience, dogs want to do something for their master. They mostly seem to need to feel that they're a valuable and valued contributor to their family. (Dogs are bigger than breadboxes in my world. Anything smaller is a punt-dog; I don't think those fuzzy footballs have much desire for a job.)

Most dogs seem to think that going for walkies (and having to heel), playing fetch, and guarding the house are Very Important Jobs.

So maybe it's a matter of either your attitude (ie. you haven't made Fetch a V.I.J.) or your dog is too smart for his own good and has figured it out for himself.

My advice: find another important job for it.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:23 PM on June 29, 2005

Clicker training is the shizzle. I got my dog to turn off the lights (via a wall switch) on command with it when I ran out of "normal" tricks. Don't Shoot the Dog and Culture Clash are indeed great books.
posted by dobbs at 7:43 PM on June 29, 2005

Train in reverse.

Start with just putting the ball in the mouth, then prompting to drop it into your hand. At first, every little success is rewardable, but get more discerning over time. Your goal is to have the dog hold it for as long as you wish, then on command drop it in your hand. Forget the whole throwing thing.

Once this is perfected, start working on picking it up. drop the ball, and when he/she touches it with nose, reward. Again, get more discerning, until he/she will pick up the ball on command.

Then combine them. Toss the ball at increasing distances, and give the "get it" command. As soon as that happens, give the "give me" command.

I've seen this work on a few dogs, but my collie just never liked fetching. Certain breeds probably do not have the disposition required to have fun playing fetch.
posted by clord at 7:51 PM on June 29, 2005

and only train as long as you're both having fun. As soon as the dog starts wanting to go do something else, stop, and call it a day/session. If you keep hammering after it stops being fun, the dog will associate the behaviour as a chore, and will probably not learn it.

Hammering is the biggest mistake people make. Bad people. Go lie down ;)
posted by clord at 7:56 PM on June 29, 2005

Heh. And it doesn't apply just to dogs, eh?
posted by five fresh fish at 8:40 PM on June 29, 2005

In my admittedly limited experience with Chihuahuas, I have found them to be far less trainable than the average rat, and far less than a large dog. They just aren't very bright. If you can get one to sit still for a moment you're doing pretty well.

Dunno about your mixed breed dog, though.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:54 PM on June 29, 2005

Think of pitching a baseball, or writing code, or any other human activity that involves both interest and innate skill. (Or skill and innate interest, however you want to break it down.) And think about how bored and frustrated and annoyed you'd be if you were a born programmer shoved out to the mound day after day. Or vice versa. Or (most likely) not particularly gifted in either area but relentlessly pushed one way or the other.

Some dogs fetch, some dogs don't. As others have pointed out, you can use training techniques to refine the behavior but you can't teach the basic skill, and you shouldn't try. Play with the dog, not the dog-fantasy.
posted by vetiver at 9:01 PM on June 29, 2005

Could the tennis ball be too big for the dog's (presumably) little mouth?
posted by amro at 5:20 AM on June 30, 2005

Another suggestion - you'll need two identical balls or throw toys. Our Heeler loves Air Dog barbells. The idea is to throw one, and after she retreives it and starts running back to me, I'll take the other from behind my back and pretend it's the best toy ever. Much cooler than the one she has in her mouth. So she'll drop the one she has, I throw the one in my hand, and when she takes off after it I lean over and grab the just-dropped toy.

Repeat until exhausted.

But it sounds like you'll first have to get her really interested in a toy, since you say she drops it half way to you. You really want her to bring it all the way back, so you don't have to run after it. Try experimenting with different toys, textures, shapes, and remember your dog really admires you. So if you show interest in a toy, let her know you think it's cool and fun, she'll want to as well.

Apologies if your dog is a boy; I used the female pronoun throughout here.
posted by tr33hggr at 6:52 AM on June 30, 2005

Oh, and what others said about only doing it if you're both having fun, and in the end of it all she just might not like that particular game.
posted by tr33hggr at 6:56 AM on June 30, 2005

Oh, and I'd recommend the greatest dog ball on the planet, the orbee. It's the only ball my dog really cares about and the only one he hasn't destroyed.
posted by dobbs at 8:42 AM on June 30, 2005

Well if dobbs is gonna recommend toys, I will too: when I was down in Vancouver last, I saw some people using this wicked ball-throwing device. It was like the scoops-and-wiffleballs things in elementary school, but with a longer scoop and a hard ball.

The owners were tossing those balls unimaginably far. Good way to get the dog super-exercised, without tiring oneself out.

Hell, I wanted one myself to exercise my friend's smaller kids.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:49 PM on June 30, 2005

Well, I love dogs, and was raised with them, and I can say that FFF is spot on.

I think the happiest dogs are those with a job. In my experience, dogs want to do something for their master. They mostly seem to need to feel that they're a valuable and valued contributor to their family. (Dogs are bigger than breadboxes in my world. Anything smaller is a punt-dog; I don't think those fuzzy footballs have much desire for a job.)

We had a retriever mix who could not stop retrieving. This was hard when we were stacking the wood pile. It was his instinct and thus his job to fetch. We actually had to chain him up. He would also heard us when we swam and walked. He was a great dog.

Now we have a lab/ mutt mix. She's a much smarter (and equally great) dog, but just doesn't fetch unless directed, and even then, with no real sense of satisfaction. We actually prefer this. Her jobs are getting my parents out of bed at the prearranged time (6 for dad, 8 for mom), guarding the house and car by running around the perimeter of the property whenever she is let out.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:44 AM on July 1, 2005

fff: like jai-alai equipment, or less crazy than that?
posted by mosch at 1:05 AM on July 3, 2005

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