After thinking of ways to interact with my dog, I decided to try fetch. I picked up a tennis ball and waved it in my dog’s face. Then, I launched it across the room.
“Go fetch!” I exclaimed.
And my dog’s response?
She sat on her haunches and looked at me like I was crazy. I imagined her saying, “You want me to do what?!”
“Nah, I’m good.”
Then it dawned on me. All dogs aren’t born to play fetch. You have to teach your dog fetch.
Geez. I thought the fetch protocol came pre-installed in dogs.
Shaping Their Behavior
A friend told me once, “Every time I got a dog to do something, I had to give him treats”. This may not be true for all dogs, but I must admit it’s true for mine. Dog training often involves shaping or capturing a behavior. You catch the dog doing something close to what to want. Then you give the dog a cue that she got it right! Along with that cue, you give the dog a high valued reward– usually a dog treat. Over time, you can shape the dog’s behavior until it finally evolves into what you’re after. In the case of fetch, I had to shape her behavior in stages. In time, each stage started to look more and more like the game I intended. And the further along we got, the most enthusiastic my dog became.
The first stage in fetch involves the chase. You entice your dog to chase the object thrown. I grabbed my treat bag and my clicker as I started my first fetch training session. Then I took the tennis ball and rolled it by her. I used the word “fetch” as a command as I released the ball. For a while, she still looked at me like I was an idiot. But with time, she went over to the ball, After that action, I pressed my clicker. The click sound gets her attention. That’s because she associates that sound with rewards. If you haven’t’t used a training clicker before, then you may have some extra work to do. You’ll have to condition your dog before clicker training is useful. I’ll go into clicker that in a future post. If you don’t have a clicker, think about getting one. A clicker isn’t mandatory, but training comes a lot easier in my experience.
So, my dog gets rewarded for going over to the ball after I released it. I clicked, and then gave her a small treat. She looks at me as if to say, “You rewarded me for that?”
Yes I did.
Then I roll the ball past her again. She ignores me. But after a few more times, she goes over to the ball. Again, I click and then reward her with a treat. Soon, she’s chasing the ball. She still seems bewildered that I reward her for this. But, then again, she’s not passing up treats. Soon, she’s consistently going after the ball. I’m also able to get her behavior to generalize from her ball to her plush toys.
Now that we’ve got “chase” down, I want her to return the item to me. This stage was the hardest. But because she’s a wire haired dachshund, she also made it quite comical.
It took a few evenings of playing chase before I could shape her behavior to return items. I finally caught her bringing a toy towards me after chasing it. When she comes in my direction, I’d press my clicker. Over time, she started making the round trip of chasing and returning with the object. Though often, she’d run past me. Or, she’s run towards me and then take a sharp turn in another direction, faking me out. She’d take the ball or her toy away from me and chew it. This stage took longer to shape. But eventually, she started to bring the item past me at least. Now, I could start working on the next stage.
Some dog trainers will suggest that the first command you should teach your dog is drop it. The command instills self-control in your dog. You’re teaching your dog to let go of something that you don’t want damaged or that might be bad for your dog’s health. If you haven’t taught your dog drop it yet, then here’s a good time. I say that because this is the last stage for teaching your dog to fetch. As your dog comes to you with the item, you can grab the item and tell your dog to drop it. This command cues your dog to release the item to you. Some dogs can behave aggressively with their toys. They’ll get into a tug of war with you. Tug of war isn’t always bad. But you don’t want your dog to become possessive over their toys when you pick them up. As with the other stages, you reward your dog for obedience. When teaching the drop it command in general, giving the toy back can be the reward. In the case of fetch, I’ve found that teats work a bit better. That’s because the end goal is for the dog to release the item to you after retrieval.
Once you finally get fetch going, you can play over and over. Now you get the benefits of bonding with your dog. Now when I pick up her toys, she perks up with anticipation. She’s off and running sometimes before I can throw the item down the hallway or across the yard. Your dog gets the benefit of extra exercise. Hunting breeds (like wirehaired dachshunds) can express their instincts in a non-destructive way. That’s always a plus. Also, fetch is a great indoor activity during poor weather.
And, the dog gets to burn off some extra calories for all those treats you had to use to teach ’em fetch in the first place.
But don’t tell your dog that.
Any questions or comments? Want to share any of your experiences teaching your dog to fetch?
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