How to teach your dog to play fetch

Playing fetch is one of the ways many of us like to exercise and spend time with our dogs. Some dogs seem to take to the game in no time. Others lose interest quickly, become distracted, or trot away with the ball once they’ve chased it down. (I have often heard people say, “Well, he’ll chase the ball, but he won’t bring it back.”) And then there are the dogs who bring it back, but won’t let you take it from them.

I recently had a friend’s Golden retriever visiting me. Now, you may think that such a breed would be a snap to engage in a game of fetch. But unless the dog is taught the game, at least the way the human wants to play it, even (some would say especially) a natural retriever can be a real ball hog. This dog would gleefully chase down the ball, and then take it to a nice spot to lie down with it and enjoy chewing on it. So much for exercise and having fun together!boyWithWhiteDog300

Here is the game that I played with her that turned things around immediately. This game is called two-toy fetch. It can hook a reluctant retriever into playing fetch, and even get a ball hog into the habit of dropping the ball at your feet.

Two-toy Fetch

Goal: to teach the dog to race back to you with the ball, quickly drop it, and take off after the next ball

What you need to play: two toys that are perfectly similar, so the dog won’t be able to prefer one to the other. A tennis ball and a squeaky ball are not similar enough. You must play with two identical toys (i.e. two of the very same squeaky balls). Keep these toys out of your dog’s reach until it’s time for fetch.

Rules: dog should sit quietly to start the game. Thereafter, require no more sitting, just play. Game ends when the dog is still eager for you to throw one more time. If that means you can only throw the ball twice at first, so be it. Always leave them hoping for more, and you’ll find you can gradually increase the number of throws.

Critical ingredient for success: you must be willing to make a total fool of yourself. You’ll notice that starts right off the bat…


Excitedly introduce the dog to the two toys by holding them and remarking on how wonderful they are. (Never hold the toys up to the dog’s face; that is a sure-fire way to annoy the dog and convince her fetch is not too great.) If necessary to pique her interest, do this for a couple of days before ever throwing the toys.

Position yourself in the center of a 20 foot area, which could be an indoor hallway if your dog is easily distracted, or in a fenced-in area.

With an underhand motion as though you’re bowling (technique is very important; overhand throws usually cause the dog to utterly miss the toss!), throw the first toy out only 10 feet to your right. The dog will run out to get it. (If you need to, before you play with toys, play this game with food that rolls—-such as tortellini or cheese balls—-until your dog has the hang of it.)

At the moment the dog takes the toy in her mouth, turn your back and run in the opposite direction, whooping it up over the second toy. Toss it skyward, sniff it, and pretend to drop it. Really go for that Academy Award in Keep Away. This is the part that works like magic. I have never, ever seen this method fail to get any dog playing fetch. Some dogs may need a few minutes of you acting like a real noodle, but it always works. Inevitably, the dog will approach you with her ball, fascinated by the “better” one you have, and drop the one in her mouth.

Be ready. This is the moment that counts:

When she drops her ball, you will instantly say, “yes!” and begin the process again by throwing ball #2. Off she’ll go, after ball #2. Quickly step on ball #1 (don’t reach for it), pick it up and reposition yourself in the center so you’ll be ready to run away again. (Note: do not touch the dog, feed a treat or praise her. Say, “yes!” and throw.)

Over the course of a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to throw the ball further, and you won’t need to run away or make such a big production out of it, because your dog will have figured out that the faster she brings the toy to your feet, the faster you will throw the “better” one. From then on, you can play with two toys or just one toy.

When I demonstrate this technique for owners in training appointments they are amazed to see their dog play fetch, but of course the trick is I am quite enthusiastic in my Oscar-worthy performance. You must believe your toy is better, and show no interest in your dog until she drops her toy.

Two-toy fetch can help you achieve fast, enthusiastic, reliable fetch. Before you know it, you’ll be standing with your morning coffee in one hand and tossing the fetch toy with the other.


3 thoughts on “How to teach your dog to play fetch

  1. Hi i have a 6months old gsd , i am playing with him using 2 identical balls , the problem is that he lets go of the ball and comes towards me without it , and if i come towards him he grabs the ball and moves it bit , and if he comes towards me he drops it around 5 meters away ( he doesnt come running )

  2. Great description, I can picture exactly what is happening. Your dog sounds very engaged with you and like he’s trying hard to put the pieces of the game together. Almost there! Just need a bit of help in duration of time he holds it and speed toward you. Here are three tips.

    Important: Whichever tip you use, play at very short distances until you’re over this little learning bump. “Really short” distance means it should feel a bit silly, like a 3-meter toss.

    1. As your dog turns away from you and toward the ball you’ve tossed, go quietly toward him so that you’ll end up very close together as he’s reaching to pick up the ball, at which moment you will turn your back on him and run away. The first thing he’ll see after he’s grasped the ball is you taking off! (This causes most dogs to chase after their person, ball in mouth.) Run just back to the start, but no fake running, really go!

    2. Show only one ball (the other could be distracting). Be sneaky and surprise him with the second ball when he comes within an acceptable distance from you. The short distance and tip #1 make it highly likely he’ll come much closer.

    3. Temporarily stretch the definition of what it means to have brought the ball to you. This will allow you to reward improvement (closer each time!) rather than putting him in over his head. So, suppose you’ve thrown it 3 meters and he brings it toward you with gusto. At 2 meters, before he slows or spits it out, just say, “Yes!” and produce the second ball, throwing it the same direction he was already running (toward and then past you).

    I like to position myself at the center of an imaginary line from which I throw one toss out to the left, the next one out to my right, such that eventually the learning dog is always returning to me at the center. (There is a diagram in Puppy Savvy.) It keeps the momentum flowing and allows me to keep track of how far I’m throwing and how close the dog is returning.

    How to build from here: Increase the distance you throw (half a meter to a meter at a time) as soon as you get a strong response that you like. Going toward him or reaching for the ball will likely sabotage your goals for both speed and bringing the ball to you. (You can teach him to place the ball in your hand separately, but for now just step on the spit out one to pick it up.)

    Best of luck!

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