Training rescue dogs to play fetch!
February 18, 2021 12:32 AM   Subscribe

How do you train rescue dogs that have almost no interest in toys, let alone balls, to play fetch?

First time dog owner. We adopted two dogs, each around 2 years old, that were rescued from abroad. Dog Photo Tax

One seems interested in only one game: being chased. The other will spend perhaps 1 minute chewing/tossing around a squeaky toy on a given day. Otherwise they act like they have no idea what toys are. I'm guessing they spent a fair amount of time fending for themselves in their prior lives.

They're both very speedy and agile dogs and I think they'd really enjoy fetch if they could just figure out that it's a fun game -- and that fun is a thing they can have, and games are a thing they can play.

There are a billion YT videos out there but they all seem to imply that the dog will want to chase you, or want to play tug, or have some interest in a ball in the first place. And also there are some that say you shouldn't give treats when playing fetch, because the game itself is the reward, but my pups have zero clue. Roll ball at them, they MIGHT look at it. Typically they look at me like "what did you do that for?" And of course perhaps they just missed the window and I shouldn't force it. But they need better ways to get their energy out!

Any suggestions?
posted by rouftop to Pets & Animals (16 answers total)
Oh so cute!

Give them time. My rescues have all needed time to understand what toys were, and how to play with them. With my dear departed Huggy, I (um) actually did play bows to her and started playing with the toys myself until she got it. It took 6 months, but she ended up toy obsessed, and would arrange and rearrange them in her box.

My two now also needed to learn toys. One of mine is blind and he likes to pick toys up and carry them around, but not really play. He *loves* stinky socks, however. The other one plays fetch and kill enthusiastically and piles them all in his dog bed to sleep on them like a dragon. It took them about four months.
posted by frumiousb at 1:56 AM on February 18 [6 favorites]

Adorable dogs! Ours is still working on fetch 2+ years after adoption. He doesn't understand toys the way some dogs do, and that's okay. He loves treats/food, so we got some balls that hold treats inside that drop out if they roll around. Throw the ball a short distance, point and show him to go that way. If he goes, treat him. Any movement toward the ball is good. Keep working on it until he is interested, then see if he will pick up the ball. (Note - dental issues can be a big barrier to this). Repeat and encourage/treat bringing the ball toward you - ours does it with both his mouth and nosing it forward. It takes a lot of tries and encouragement!

(Our dog doesn't like most toys either. Try different types - puzzles, squeakies, crackles, toys that dispense food. Don't go bankrupt on this. Your pups may get more comfortable and change preferences as time goes on. Yes your own play bows and a little gentle roughhousing can encourage play! Wishing you luck!)
posted by Red Desk at 2:05 AM on February 18

Aw, your dogs are beautiful!
Our girl came to us from the shelter at about the same age. Two years later she totally gets what toys are, but it took a good long while. Now she hoards her toys when other dogs are around, which might be a problem but we’re just happy she has fun.
The first toy she played with was a treat dispensing ball, at first to get the treats, but now just to bounce around the yard and chase. She’s not great at bringing it back but she loves running around with it, even when it’s empty.
posted by third word on a random page at 2:43 AM on February 18

I just Googled [how to teach a dog to play] and got some really promising results, including this one that includes fetch play. A lot of people seem to have dealt with this. Good for you for caring about play -- it's important!
posted by amtho at 2:47 AM on February 18

Agreeing that it can take a good while for their personalities to come out all the way, but it's also the case that toy drive varies.

Among our dogs, Alice has a lot less toy drive than Nina does. We know with absolute certainty that this isn't because of some bad thing that happened to Alice because she was born in the little room behind me, she's spent her entire life with us, and we know that nothing bad has ever happened to her.

If it turns out that they're not very toy-motivated but are food-motivated, that just means it might make sense to switch to games that have food, like the Clicker Training Game. Even though they're not running around for it, using their brains burns a lot of energy. Or the Learning Agility Game with food rewards.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 3:37 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

So cute!

We have a rescue dog from Texas. He has close to no socialization; he will play fetch but not much else.

We found nose work to be good for him: one trainer described how much of a dog's brain is devoted to smell, and how you can engage that to change his behavior. I have been playing a game where I hide pieces of food in a rucked-up blanket for him to find, and it really appeals to him. (If he had been barking out the window at another dog, he will come over to play this and be 100% focused.)

Recently we got a toy with six little compartments for treats that the dog has to figure out how to open. He got it within a few tries, and now he loves just the sight of the thing.

Try some sniffing puzzles or games with them and see if it gets them in the spirit.
posted by wenestvedt at 4:24 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]

What lovely dogs! They might prefer playing with you directly instead of with a toy. As others have said, learning tricks or doing agility games is good for both physical and mental exercise, especially if they have energy to burn. Hide and seek is also good - put them in a sit or wait, then leave the room and hide behind a chair or curtain before calling them to you. Ours think it's hilarious when my husband hides under a throw rug.

Once they get the hang of a wider variety of play, you could introduce a toy and reduce your own involvement. It just might take them a while to realise that some objects are for play. Ignore the "don't give treats" advice - it's appropriate for some dogs but not yours I reckon. Get something healthy but interesting specifically for playtime, like liver snaps or similar.

Our rescue thinks toys are treasures to be admired then put in a safe place, not for mere amusement! The non-rescue only likes teddy-bear style toys (and one very stinky cricket ball). They're both playful, but not in the traditional way. Some dogs just express themselves differently. As long as you find what works for your two, you'll be fine.
posted by harriet vane at 5:02 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]

You need to demonstrate the game of fetch for them if you have not already done so. Take them to the dog park and allow them to watch other dogs playing fetch. Borrow a couple of six year old kids and play fetch with the kids, while the dogs are in the yard with the opportunity to observe and participate. You could also demonstrate the game by playing with other dogs, but the six year olds follow commands better. Start with one kid, and then if you can move to two kids so the dogs get the idea that others can participate. People closest in size to the dogs are better at providing examples and demonstrations than larger people; your dogs will identify with them and be more likely to imitate them. Six year olds will have much more patience with playing puppy, complete with scampering, panting and getting head rubs than an older person. If no four year old or six year old or twelve year old is available to meet you a few times for a rousing game, do it yourselves, taking turns being the puppy or being the human yourselves. Taking the puppy role yourselves is the least effective way to do this, as your dogs already know that you do lots of things they are not allowed to do and are more likely to ignore you demonstrating it at it than to ignore a visiting kindergarten student

Overpraise the dogs when they drop balls so that they know that the act of dropping a ball near you will get you over excited and affectionate. Once they figure out that dropping a ball makes you happy with them they will be willing to drop the ball over and over while you sit there beside them, which will lead to them finding balls and carrying them to you in order to drop it for you. Training them "drop it" is good training anyway.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:24 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]

We use a flirt stick with our rescue dog. This looks like a pretty good overview of how to play with them with it. Think giant cat toy.

We've had her for three years, she still won't fetch, but will play with our (cheap, improvised) flirt stick until she's so tired she'll sleep like the dead and it fits a lot of the same feelings for me (I'm outside, playing with my dog, she's super active, I'm not having to keep up with her)

We made ours by tying a thin rope through a dollar store broom handle and tying some bits of fabric to the other end. It doesn't need to be fancy or expensive AT ALL.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 7:25 AM on February 18

My dog never got her mind wrapped around fetching. Didn't care about the toy/stick/ball to begin with, didn't know how to follow it with her eyes, couldn't be fucked to chase it, never would have brought it back. Just not a fetching type, it happens. She wasn't toy or food-oriented but she liked playing with other living things, being chased or just running in a pack, so playtime was focused on that.
posted by Freyja at 7:55 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]

Would it work to take them to a small outdoor space, keep them on a leash, and have them watch a friend's dog play a very small game of fetch where the ball is only thrown a few feet? Seeing another dog enjoy the game might inspire your dog to try?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:22 AM on February 18

Have you tried throwing a stick rather than a toy? Sticks seem to naturally appeal to a lot of dogs. Maybe they are thinking of toys as human objects.
posted by Comet Bug at 11:33 AM on February 18

"Fetch" is a retriever skill. Breeds that are specialized for hunting birds and rabbits are "sight hounds." If your dogs aren't excited about chasing a ball, you should identify another game. Scent games are fun-- hide a scented article and have the dogs track it down. Perhaps some agility skills-- jumping over a bar, walking on a balance beam.
posted by ohshenandoah at 11:54 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]

Have you done any clicker training? If you're willing to put some time into it, you can clicker train fetch with a dog that has no natural interest in it at all. I found a series of videos that looks good: Teaching the Retrieve from Scratch. (From the description: "Created for dogs who don't want to pick up a toy or dumbbell at all or who have no drive to chase at toy.") This series does assume you already understand the basic idea of clicker training. If you don't, there are a zillion online sources that can fill you in.
posted by Redstart at 12:42 PM on February 18

Our rescue - about 7 years old, with us 6 months - also seems uninterested in balls and playing with toys. We’ve had some luck with treat dispensing toys and hiding food in/around toys, but she’s really just not into it if it doesn’t involve food. We did find that she likes shredding kleenexes and cardboard tubes, so we let her do that every once in awhile under supervision to make sure she doesn’t eat them.

Instead we toss kibble indoors for her to chase, let her sniff the ground a lot on walks, and make her do tricks for part of her dinner to tire her out.
posted by A Blue Moon at 3:33 PM on February 18

hi! do your very cute pups have good food drive? how comfortable do you feel about training/shaping behaviors? i taught my cattle dog to fetch by free shaping it as a trained behavior (you can start by rewarding any interest in the ball -- including simply looking at it! and then increase the criteria slowly, like if they go closer to the ball or touch it, but think tiny tiny incremental steps). in the beginning she always did it as a trained behavior and i rewarded her with a treat, but eventually she started to like it on its own! i still reward her with food a lot -- and i think you absolutely should not shy away from using treats to shape interest unless you have a very specific reason not to (like if you're training for dog sports that won't let you use food on the field). you can also look up videos on how to play with dogs -- it's not as intuitive as it seems! the short version is to be interactive and fun -- pretend the ball/the tug whatever is prey -- and ease up on the pressure (if you're too intense about trying to play if the pup's not into it, they might get overwhelmed and not engage).

also, i don't support fenzi academy because of racism, but check out the free sample lecture from this play class: to get some examples/context on flirt pole stuff to build drive! the flirt pole drives my dog nuts (to the point where we couldn't really play because she could never release in the beginning) but it can get dogs really excited.

good luck! it can be a lot of fun teaching/training your pups to play but just don't be afraid to experiment and reward generously and not listen to all the dog training advice out there -- some of it can get a little excess unnecessarily!
posted by lightgray at 5:38 PM on February 18

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