1. Pay Attention / Find It Continued...

Exercise 1.9 - Shaping a 'Fetch Object' for Field Searches

Most dogs love to run out and fetch a ball for their owner.  Dogs are so renowned for being keen ball chasers that the pet market is full of ball chuckers, ball throwing plastic guns and there so many types of balls that you can buy for your dog; hard balls, soft foam balls, tennis balls, tough balls, balls with holes, giant balls and even mini balls for smaller mouths.  


The majority of dog owners are happy with a dog who dances in anticipation of the ball, chases after it the instant it’s thrown, maybe runs around with it for a bit, then eventually brings it back at and drops it at the owner’s feet.  


This is an informal game of fetch and while occasionally playing fetch with a ball like this isn’t likely to do any harm, repetitively chasing a ball day in and day out is a different matter and can have nasty consequences both to a dog's physical health (especially their joints if they are less than 1 year old) and to their mental well being.  


The top three reasons why ball throwing could be detrimental to your dog are:

  • Physical injuries and joint problems caused by rushing out to grab the ball (e.g. shoulder, neck and spine injuries).
  • Health issues due to over-exertion while ball chasing
  • Dogs becoming too aroused from ball chasing, resulting in hyperactivity or obsessive behaviours

So, we need to be careful but that doesn’t mean fetch games should stop altogether.  On the contrary, I’m a big fan of fetch games but they need to be played in a way that’s controlled, safe and fun.


Hopefully you already know to never play fetch with a stick, vets see many dogs with horrendous stick related injuries.  Chewing on sticks can be equally dangerous as large splinters can lodge in the mouth, causing open wounds that are prone to infection. If splinters are swallowed, the throat or stomach can be damaged.  Do Not Throw Sticks!


How Can We Make Fetch Safe & Stress Free?


  • Did I say already…never play fetch with sticks!
  • Don't use a ball thrower, always throw from your hand.
  • Roll the ball and allow it to come to a stop before you send your dog to get it 
  • Limit sessions to just a few throws (no more than five) and break them up with walking or other games.
  • Don't play fetch every day, this gives your dog a chance to mentally and physically rest from the game.
  • Don't play fetch in hot weather
  • Best of all play hide and seek games with tennis balls or toys, where your dog has to search for the ball and detect it by scent. This has them use their nose and is much better for tiring them out than simply chasing.  This is the topic we’re going to explore in this exercise and the following exercise 1.10 - Field Searches.


Teaching your dog to Fetch a Ball or Toy - Shaping & Back Chaining Method


Whether your dog is a natural retriever or not, the training process is the same.  Since delivering the ball back to you tends to be the most challenging part, I recommend starting with shaping that behaviour and then work backwards (back-chain) to the completed Fetch behaviour.


Remember: you indicate to your dog precisely which behaviour will result in his receiving a treat or other reward by “marking” the moment with a clicker or using a verbal marker (such as the word “Yes!”).  This is super important for shaping exercises.


The marker is a promise that a reward is on the way, and it gives the dog solid, instantaneous information about what behaviour he can repeat in order to earn more rewards.  


  1. Designate your dog’s most favourite toy as his fetch object.  Hold it in both hands and offer it to him, rather than throw it. If he sniffs it, mark that desired behaviour with a click! (or your alternate marker) and give him a reward.  If he merely glances in the object’s direction, mark the glance and give him a reward.
  2. In the beginning, reinforce your dog just for paying attention to the object.  In any series of “attention” trials with the fetch toy, sometimes he’ll sniff or touch it, sometimes he’ll just look at it, and sometimes he’ll put his mouth on it. 
  3. Once he understands the game, you can up the ante (this is called “raising the criteria”); you mark the behaviour and give him a treat only if he touches it.
  4. Then, later, you mark/reward only if opens his mouth (even slightly), and eventually, only if he actually puts his mouth on it, then for longer periods of “mouth on object.” 
  5. Gradually work towards holding the object in his mouth and picking it up from the floor right in front of you.
  6. With the article on the floor, click/treat him for looking at or sniffing the article, and build again from there.
  7. When he will mouth the object, move your hands a few inches away, and have him deliver it to you. 
  8. Next, gradually increase the distance between the article on the ground and your hands until your dog is picking the object up and delivering it to you from a few feet away.
  9. Next, start tossing the article a few feet and letting your dog go get it and bring it back.
  10. After a few successful toss/retrieves, ask your dog to wait (hold him gently if necessary) while you sometimes place, sometimes toss the article a few feet away. Return to his side, wait a few seconds, then release him to retrieve the object. (Vary the duration that you wait before releasing, just as you continue to vary the duration of the hold before you click and treat.)
  11. When your dog is routinely picking up the object, bringing it back to you, and reliably holding it until you click/treat, add your verbal cue of “Fetch,”, “Get it,” or whatever you plan to use. 


Don’t forget to keep it fun! This should be the best game in the world for your dog. If at any time he “quits” – that is, he stops playing the game – you may have raised the criteria too quickly, or you may have trained for too long. 


Remember that it’s always better to stop when you and your dog are having fun and winning, rather than when one or both of you are bored, tired, or frustrated.


We’re going to be using the Shaping technique for some of the activities in Section 9. Scent Detection & Nosework too.