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Labrador Retriever retrieving a blue frisbee from the yard

Go fetch! Teaching your retriever to retrieve

One of the best things about owning a dog is having someone to play with. If you have a retriever or sporting dog breed, then you have a high-energy athlete! One of my favorite things to teach them is fetch; and this behavior can be instinctual, so there isn’t much training that is involved. 

If you want the very best fetcher, here are some tips to help you have the best experience possible.

  • Make coming back to you rewarding. When you’re teaching this behavior at the beginning I would recommend using some high value treats. Throw a toy and if your dog naturally brings it back, give him a treat. If your dog is having a little trouble bringing the toy back to you, try to get a little closer to your dog and make sure they know you have a treat. They should bring the toy back to you and drop it at your feet to get that tasty hotdog (or whatever reward you are using).
  • Try changing up the toy. A different toy might hold their interest more effectively if your dog is dropping the toy before coming back to you or not interested in the toy you are throwing. Tennis balls seem to work the best, but use anything that you know your pup will love. Trial and error is the best method. Bring out multiple toys and see which one works the best.
  • Teach the “drop it” command. There is nothing worse than a dog that loves fetch, but is too excited to drop the ball when they return. This is something you can practice in the house. Give you dog a toy and then trade him for a treat. Say “Drop it” after he opens his mouth. Your pup will learn that when you say drop it, it means he is supposed to open his mouth. Once your dog seems to get it, you can trade two toys instead of using food.

If your dog is getting this behavior completely you can start to phase out the treats. Though I recommend keeping a few treats on you at all times, at this point, the fetching is the rewarding part. Reward your dog for bringing the toy back to you—maybe two or three times during your play session—just to keep him engaged.

If your dog performs “drop it” solidly, but is having trouble dropping the toy after some time during play, it’s time to end the play session. Likely, your dog is becoming too amped up to play, and this is a great place to pack up the car and go home.

Remember the more excited you are, the more your dog will enjoy himself. Now go out there and have some fun with your pup!

Jaime Migdal, CPDT KA, is the founder and CEO of Fetchfind, a talent recruitment and services organization dedicated to the pet industry.


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