Why Won't My Dog Play Fetch?

If you're enjoying a lazy afternoon, a big part of the fun might be having a dog who will fetch. You can throw your dog a stick or ball and get her some exercise while you enjoy some conversation and a cold beverage from the comfort of your lawn chair.

dog looking up at tennis ball
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But while some dogs love to play fetch, and in fact playing fetch is the ideal dog game in many people's minds, some dogs will go after a thrown toy but won't bring it back, while others still won't give a second look at a ball or stick after it leaves your hand.

There are some major categories of dog breeds, and some are more interested in fetch than others. Some dogs are best at scent tracking, while others are herders. Others are good at pulling (like sled dogs), and still others are best at guarding. As you might expect, there are "retriever" breeds, which, according to the American Kennel Club, were originally bred for the job of helping hunters bring back back birds and other game without eating them first.

The American Kennel Club recognizes six retriever breeds, of which the Labrador retriever is probably the best known. The Labrador retriever is the quintessential family dog breed, and the AKC says that the Lab has been the United States' most popular dog breed since 1991.

Why won’t my dog fetch?

While some dogs, particularly the retriever breeds, do naturally want to play the game of fetch, others do not intrinsically understand it. It could be because they were never taught the game. Preventive Vet says that some dogs might just never show an interest in the game. For some dogs, fetching and retrieving an item can be a skill they are taught, but some digs just might not ever love the game as much as others do.

Adult dog playing catch and fetch with yellow frisbee
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If you find yourself with a dog who gets bored after returning the ball a time or two, maybe you have a dog who would be more interested in agility training or finding hidden objects (scent training a.k.a. nose work). Try interactive toys and puzzles to keep them active, and get them exercise in other ways, like hiking or longer walks.

Teaching your dog to fetch

There are some tips and tricks for teaching your dog to do more than sit and stare once you throw the stick or ball. The first step is to ensure that your dog is comfortable with basic commands such as "stay," "come," and "drop it." Once those are mastered, pick a toy you think your dog would want to go after over and over.

Here's what the American Kennel Club suggests doing when you want to teach your dog a new trick:

  1. Take your dog's favorite toy and playing with it like it's the best thing in the world.
  2. Place the toy on the ground and reward your dog for ANY interaction with the toy, even just looking at it. Continue this reward behavior until your dog reliably associates the toy with a reward.
  3. Hold the toy near your dog's mouth and offer a reward when your dog tries to place the toy in his mouth,
  4. Place the toy on the ground and reward your dog for picking it up (you may have to tell him to do this).
  5. Hold your hand under the toy and reward him for dropping it in your hand.
  6. Take a step back and ask him to bring the toy to you. More rewards! Gradually increase the distance that you are from the toy until your dog will reliably retrieve it for you.

Start with chasing

Dog trainer Cesar Milan has a different way of teaching a dog to fetch. He suggests starting with the skill of chasing rather than retrieving, if your true goal is to get your dog to play the game of fetch. Figure out what motivates your dog (affection, treats, or playtime) and her favorite toy, then go from there.

  1. Encourage your dog to go after the item you want her to fetch. When she grabs it, offer the reward motivator, then take the object away. Repeat this a few times, then toss the object a short distance. When she goes for it, immediately reward her again. Repeat the process until she will reliably go after the ball 9or object) every time you toss it.
  2. Your dog might be even more motivated to go after the object if you hold her back after you throw it. If she's prevented from getting the object she really wants, she might be off like a rocket after it once you let her go.
  3. Your dog might naturally go after the object, but she might not naturally bring it back. Cesar's Way suggests using a second toy. Once she's "caught" the first one, show her the second and throw it in the opposite direction. This could be enough to get her used to the concept of running back in the opposite direction, with or without the toy.
Beagle dog running on a meadow with stick in mouth
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Avoiding "keep away"

Some dogs like to run after an object and then run off with it, as if daring you to take it from them. In this case, Cesar's Way recommends attaching a rope to your dog as you're training your dog to go after the object. You can use the rope to get him to follow you, or prevent him from running off with the toy while you reward him for "dropping it."

Getting the object back

Your dog might also be confused about bringing the object back and might drop it before she gets all the way back to you. If this is what happens, work on a command like "all the way," or "bring it." Once she reaches the spot where you were originally, go to her with praise then toss the object again. If the issue is that she won't release it, show her a treat — most dogs will release any object for a treat they really love.