A cute little bundle of fur, Fflash came home in the summer of 2015. At this point in time, I had been playing freestyle canine disc competitively for 5 years now. Fflash’s dad belonged to a friend of mine and was the dog that made me fall in love with border collies. His skill at catching discs, his dashing looks and his natural ability to retrieve just about anything had me in awe. So when the opportunity came to take one of his puppies home, I just couldn’t say no.
Some dogs—like Fflash’s dad—are just born with it. They don’t need to learn how to fetch, it’s something they do naturally. Bird dogs are a prime example of this. Without that willingness to retrieve our beloved Labradors and Goldens retrievers wouldn’t exist.
As a puppy Fflash was….difficult. Don’t get me wrong, he was (and still is) sweet as pie, goofy, and so, so, smart…but he was not his dad. Not by a long shot. He wasn’t a huge fan of toys, let alone fetch. What on earth was I going to do? How was I going to play frisbee with him? Compete? I was rethinking my plans.
A few months later, at the National Dog Show in Philadelphia, I met someone who changed my outlook on things. Lisa was a friend of a friend. She told me that there was no need to fret—there were other ways to teach fetch—even for dogs that didn’t like toys! This literally blew my mind. How could this be possible? Looking back on it now, I can’t believe I hadn’t realized this before.
Fetch is an iconic canine pastime. It’s a great time to bond with your dog and you both get a little exercise (ok, maybe Fido more so than you). Some dogs are naturals at fetch, whereas others—like Fflash—need a little more help to succeed.
Before we dive into the specifics of fetch for dogs who don’t like toys, let’s start with those who will maybe chase a toy, but absolutely will not bring it back. Maybe they like to grab the toy and play keep away, or perhaps they’re content to take it away to a secluded corner of the yard. Either way, there’s an easy way to get started. I always play with two toys for this one. It helps if they are exactly the same, that way your dog isn’t playing favorites. Hook your dog up to a 15’-30’ leash and gently toss one of the toys a few feet away. If your dog chases the toy, immediately call him back to you. Praise him and offer him toy #2 for returning to your side. If he is hesitant to come, you can use the leash to encourage him to come back to you (and check out Nicole’s recall videos this month if your pup needs a refresher). Using a second toy teaches him that this game is fun and there’s no need to play keep away.
If your pup needs a refresher on come, check out SpotOn trainer Nicole’s video series on Come:
If your pup is a little like Fflash, and couldn’t care less about toys, the approach is a little different. I like to start by gathering my supplies. For this one, it usually means going shopping. Head to the pet store and get a selection of dog chews and toys. There are no rules here, just make sure that each toy/chew is roughly the same size and shape. Some good choices for this include antlers, small bully sticks, or other edible chews. We want to find something your dog is interested in picking up, but not so interested that he wants to run away and eat it.
Once you’ve selected the right chew or toy to work with, it’s time to grab some tasty treats and start training your dog! While sitting on the floor, place the toy/chew down in front of you. When your dog picks up the toy/chew, say “yes,” grab the other end of the toy/chew with one hand, and offer him a treat with the other hand. By doing this, he’ll drop the toy/chew in your first hand for the treat. If he doesn’t, try different treats! It’s very important to make sure the treats you have a more exciting than the toy/chew you are using. Saying “yes” is important too! If you haven’t already, check out our training video, The Magic of Yes! for more information on teaching your dog a reward marker. Once your dog knows this word, it is an easy way to communicate with him and teach him tricks faster.
When your dog understands that he is expected to put his mouth on the toy chew, try asking him to “touch” his nose to your hand with the toy in his mouth—this is the beginning of your retrieve.
If your dog doesn’t know “touch”, SpotOn trainer Nicole has a videos series here as well:
Be sure to always praise your dog and give him a treat for a job well done. As your dog becomes more proficient at touching your hand with the toy/chew in his mouth, slowly up the ante—increase the distance between you and the toy/chew and maybe try giving it a little toss! Once he’s mastered that, try a different toy!
Sometimes this process can take a little while to teach, but I promise it’s worth it. Due to the time we put in and the patience I had training Fflash, fetch is now one of his favorite games. I wish I had taught all of my dogs with this method! Fflash will fetch literally anything, from my keys, to my phone, to a penny I dropped on the ground. Want to try it with your pup? Check out my video series on Fetch and let us know how it goes!