The time has come to have a bit of fun with your pet. You step out the door, unhook the leash and throw a tennis ball to the other end of the yard... And your dog looks up at you like you just lost your mind. What went wrong? Looks like its time to head back to the training ground for Fetch lessons.
Fetch is a simple command and is taught easily to puppies but is not beyond the grasp of older dogs as well. In this simple form of a rudimentary game, fetch is primarily used as an entertainment with a primary purpose of creating bonding time between dog and trainer. In more advanced forms, it is used in police dog training for such things as weapon recovery and drug location. So how do we go about teaching this behavior?
One of the basic methods of training the fetch command is using two toys in a bait and switch routine. The toys must be identical and something the dog enjoys playing with. Starting with the dog on a leash or a halter, hide one of the toys on your person and throw the other a short distance after showing it to your pet. Release the dog from the leash and say "fetch" or whatever cue word you choose. The dog will chase after the toy and, most likely, will pick it up. When the animal starts to return with the first toy, produce the hidden one.
The animal will likely drop the toy they are carrying in favor of the new toy. When this happens, wait for the dog to return to you and be reattached to the leash before throwing the new toy. After throwing the new toy, say "fetch" while releasing the animal to give chase. While your dog is chasing the new toy, run and retrieve the first toy. Repeat this process several times using the fetch command. For dogs that are not toy motivated, try adding a bit of flavoring to the game by way of some meat spread or some food reward when the behavior is carried out properly. Toys such as the Kong toys are great for this as they can be stuffed with all manner of pleasant surprises for your pet.
Another method is the forced retrieve. This is accomplished by throwing the toy a short distance and manually walking the dog to the object and waiting for them to pick it up. Reward them generously for finding and picking up the object. In further stages, have a partner walk the dog out for the pick up and then have them walked back to you with the item. Again reward them generously for making the retrieve.
A few of the common tips given by many pet trainers are quite useful in this area. One of the first is not to go for long distance throwing. Short throws are easier for the animal to keep a visual on and require less concentration. They also make for less work for the trainer should the dog fail to adequately grasp the concept. Another point is to reserve fetch toys for fetch. If you let your dog play with the toy all the time, they lose their novelty and the dogs drive to chase them will be greatly diminished. If you make the dog wait to play with these toys then they are a special treat and the dog will see the toy itself as a reward.
Another tip is to be certain to hold the animal a moment before allowing them to chase the object. This gives them a moment to clearly focus on the objective and to build a stronger desire to retrieve the object they seek. Thus, when they are released, they spring to the object in a flurry of motion and grasp it up easily. Another wonderful tip is to avoid the use of sticks as fetch toys. They are hard on the animal's mouth and may contain parasites or poisonous substances, not to mention confusing the animal if you play near an area with tree growth.
With these simple techniques and tips mastered, you are ready to take to the park with your Frisbee, tennis ball or throwing dummy and enjoy a great afternoon of exercise and bonding with your pet.