If there were a People's Choice Award for games to play with dogs, "Fetch" would win in a landslide. Even non-dog people seem unable to resist tossing a ball when propositioned by a retrieving fiend.
The shared joy of play, along with the proclivity to play with thingamajigs, is one of the reasons we humans have bonded so thoroughly with dogs. A visit to any dog park or beach will confirm: people and dogs have a mutual appreciation for balls, discs, sticks, and squishy, squeaky toys. While many dogs are natural chase-and-getters, almost all will benefit from a little coaching to ensure that you are the retrieving Trainer not the Trainee.
To Teach or be Taught
Note: You and your dog may have drastically different interpretations of "Fetch." Humans love to watch dogs chase the ball and bring it back. Dogs love to chase the ball. And once Buddy has the item in his hot little jaws, he'd love nothing more than to prolong the thrill of the chase by luring you into a robust game of keep-away.
The cardinal rule of fetch is, once you've thrown the object, promise yourself that no matter what, you will not take even one step toward the dog. Your best move is backward, tapping into that love of chase and working it to your advantage. Clap your hands, walk or run away and make smooching noises to "pull" your dog toward you. Imagine an invisible bubble between you and the dog - if you step forward, the bubble will push him away.
Armchair Dog Training
Some of the most effective fetch trainers are the least mobile. My Boston terrier, Butch, was one of the best retrievers I've ever seen, having lived his first 11 months of life with an elderly gentleman who didn't move much. The man played fetch from the comfort of a favorite chair and Butch learned that the toy would only be thrown if he delivered it to the man's hand. The reward for bringing the toy back was the opportunity to chase it again. Butch, the scrappy little obsessive that he was, never even considered playing keep-away during fetch.
All Brawn, No Brain
Playing fetch with your dog is a wonderful way to exercise her body, but don't forget about her brain. Once she's reliably retrieving and relinquishing the toy, you can introduce basic obedience cues to make the game more interesting. If you're playing fetch as a way to expend some of your dog's excess energy, you might be surprised to find that a diet of straight, adrenalized exercise actually pumps the dog up, causing her to act more "hyper." For a mellow and content dog, toss a little cerebral activity into your game of fetch. To a retrieving fanatic, the best reward in the world is the opportunity to chase a favorite toy. Capitalize on this enthusiasm and turn training practice into fun.
Fetch as a Training Reward
- "Sit" - Everyone benefits from a dog with a reliable, instantaneous "sit." Teaching your dog to Sit for Attention gives him an attractive alternative to jumping up. Perfect your retrieving zealot's sit by rewarding him with a toss of the ball for sitting on the first cue or holding the position for a certain length of time.
- "Down" - For many dogs, "down" is a bummer. Turn it into a thrilling exercise by letting your dog chase the toy after he hits the deck. Fine-tune the cue by only rewarding for Academy Award performances such as immediately responding to your first request and holding the position for over a minute.
- "Watch Me" - It's darn near impossible to train a dog who won't look at you, making "watch me" an important cue to teach and reinforce on a regular basis. Is Spike fixated on the item in your hand and not your eyes? Wait him out. Sooner or later, he'll look up at you to ask, "Hey, what's the holdup?" Refine the task by setting time goals, only launching his prize after he's held uninterrupted eye contact with you for 5 seconds, then 10 seconds, 20 seconds, and beyond.
May the Fetch Be With You
Fetch is a compelling game, but as Spiderman knows, "With great power comes great responsibility." Not to overstate it, but "Fetch" is too powerful a bonding and training tool to waste. As your dog's benevolent leader you can take control of the game to elevate your status as the provider of all things fun. You can enrich your relationship and turn your dog into a Rhodes Scholar in the process. What could be better? Now, go outside and play!
Carla Jackson is a certified pet dog trainer who has Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training/behavior consultations. Check out Cari Bowe's and Carla's DVD, "Your Family Dog, Leadership and Training," an interactive DVD featuring over 60 locally owned dogs learning new behaviors in beautiful Shasta County locations. The DVD is available at many local veterinarian offices and through dogwise.com or jacksonranchfordogs.com.