How to Teach a Dog to Fetch

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on March 06, 2023
4 min read

Playing fetch is fun and healthy for both you and your pet. But not all dogs learn it immediately. Some dogs don’t understand fetch at all, while others instinctively love to chase things, or your pet may love to chase but not retrieve. Teaching them to fetch may take some time and care, but it can lead to more exercise and bonding between you and your dog.

When you’re purchasing a toy, consider your dog’s age, size, and ability. If your dog is older or younger, pick a toy that is easier to grasp with their teeth. If your dog is a whiz at fetch, pick a toy that poses more of a challenge. 

Some popular fetch toys include:

  • Standard tennis ball
  • Squeaker footballs or tennis balls
  • Retriever plastic or rubber bumper
  • Discs and flyers made of soft, flexible rubber — especially those that are extra-soft for sensitive mouths or designed to remain flexible in colder weather
  • Rope toys, with rubber attachments
  • Plush dog toys in animal shapes

If your dog doesn’t understand fetch or seems disinterested in retrieving toys, begin with a few basics:

  • Introduce the toy with a tug-of-war game
  • Put treats inside of a toy to make it more enticing
  • Tease your dog with a toy to gain his attention

Once the dog is interested in the toy, it’s time to start the game of fetch. Start out by throwing the toy a few feet. As your dog catches on, be sure to show your enthusiasm so they want to please you by playing more. Gradually increase the distance you throw the toy until your dog understands the fun of chasing after something.

It’s important to be patient during the learning process. If your dog doesn’t understand the game as quickly as you want, hide any frustration you feel. Don’t be discouraged if you have to pause and try again another day. 

If your dog loves to chase the toy but won’t return it, try a game that can get dogs accustomed to bringing a toy back. Keep two toys in hand. Throw the first one. Once the dog reaches the toy, use the second toy to tease them.

At this point, the dog may run back with the first toy. But even if the dog drops the first toy, go ahead and throw the second one in another direction. Then go pick up the first toy as they retrieve the second one. Repeat the pattern of throwing one toy then teasing with another. Chances are, the dog will quickly become too excited to drop the toy they’ve retrieved and will run back to you with it.

Play this game over and over until your dog is bringing one toy back to you in anticipation of chasing another. Once that happens, they may be ready to play fetch with one toy at a time. Slowly you can introduce commands like “drop it” and teach your dog what you want them to do. 

Use the power of language. Dogs have a great ability to build comprehension of your words. When you use specific phrases and actions together consistently, your dog will quickly learn what behavior is desired with each command.

Beat boredom. Remember, even fetch gets boring after a while. Try introducing new challenges like holding your dog’s collar as you throw the toy and making them wait to retrieve it. You can even introduce the command “wait” to let them know when it’s time to make a retrieval. 

Rewards are great. Treats and hugs are great ways to reinforce a behavior you want to encourage. Reward your dog for chasing after a toy and bringing it back to you. Take time to hug and pet your dog so they know how much you love playing fetch, too. Keep treats in your pocket for a nice surprise.

Run with your dog. If your dog isn’t a natural runner, take off after the toy when you throw it. They may not be able to resist running alongside you. Praise the effort and keep encouraging them with positive affirmations. 

Get the toy back. Some dogs will fetch and even retrieve the ball but then won’t let you have it back. They may be trying out a different game, hoping you’ll chase them. If this happens, use the “drop it” command, so the dog makes a connection between specific words and what you want them to do. If you offer dogs a treat to drop the ball, they’ll often catch on.

Train with a ball in hand. You can use playing fetch to take your dog’s training one step further. Introduce an additional command like “give it,” so your dog will put the ball in your hand and not just drop it on the ground. You can also use this as an opportunity to teach your dog “bring it,” especially if they’re naturally dropping the toy part of the way back to you. If they drop the toy early, start to move further away from the dog before they drop it. Then motion them to follow you and say “bring it.” Doing this consistently will help teach them that command.

Leave them wanting more. If you end a fetch game before your dog loses interest, it keeps them from getting bored with the game so they'll be excited to play again next time.