Sassafras Lowrey, author of Chew This Journal, has written two new articles- one for AKC on teaching your dog to fetch and one for Dogster on helping a reluctant dog swim.
How to Teach Your Dog to Fetch
While some dogs love to play fetch, and for dogs like retrievers the game comes very naturally, other dogs may find the idea of fetch foreign. Some dogs don’t have much interest in toys or aren’t naturally inclined to bring toys back after being thrown. Similarly, some rescue dogs may not have had experience playing with toys as puppies and just don’t know what to do with a toy. Fetch is a game that most people want to play with their dog and it can be frustrating if you throw a toy and your dog just sits watching you or goes and gets the toy but doesn’t bring it back. Although fetch doesn’t come naturally to every dog, it is a skill that can be taught!
Supplies Needed to Teach Fetch:
Toys – When teaching a dog to fetch, I like to have an array of toys available. This will let you get a feel for what kind of toys your dog is going to like. Some dogs are ball lovers while others prefer plush toys. If your dog is really not toy motivated especially if he is a rescue dog who didn’t have a lot of exposure to toys as a puppy it can help to find toys that have a velcro compartment to put food in can be very helpful. I’ve even used fun fur pencil pouches filled with smelly treats for teaching fetch to dogs who are especially reluctant to put something in his mouth.
Treats – For teaching your dog to fetch you want to have a lot of small pieces of high-value treats.
Clicker – if you use a clicker to train your dog, have it ready. Clicker training can be especially useful to help you communicate with your dog in the early stages of teaching the trick.
Step 1: Teaching Hold
The first step to teaching your dog to fetch is to teach hold:
- Sit on the floor with your dog facing you, while holding a toy show it to your dog.
- When your dog goes to investigate the toy praise/click and treat. At this stage, you want to reward any interest in the toy.
- Next, increase the criteria slightly. Wait until your dog sniffs the toy click/praise and treat. Next wait to praise/click/treat until she puts her mouth on the toy.
- When your dog is regularly putting her mouth on the toy, start building duration into the trick by not immediately clicking/praising the instant she puts her mouth on the toy and wait a moment, and while her mouth is still on the toy click/praise and treat. Build up very slowly, adding just a half-second and then a second before you praise/click and treat. Going very slow here will pay off later. When your dog is constantly keeping her mouth on the toy for a couple of seconds before you click/praise and treat you can begin introducing a verbal cue like “hold.”
- Once your dog is keeping their mouth on the toy until you click/praise and treat you can start adding in more time. Again, go very slowly building with fractions of a second of time you are asking your dog to hold. You can also begin moving your hands off of the toy, then quickly put your hand back on the toy before your dog drops it. Praise, take the object, and give her a treat.
- Keep your dog successful by working at her pace building the length of time she’s asked to hold very slowly. It’s much better to do many repetitions of short holds then asking for one very long hold.
Step 2: Teaching Fetch
Once your dog has mastered “hold” it’s time to start teaching fetch!
- Hold the toy out to your dog in your outstretched palm and ask her to “hold.” if your dog takes the toy click/praise and treats. If she doesn’t take the toy that’s ok, just practice the above “hold” skills a little more.
- When your dog is successfully taking the toy from your outstretched hand place the toy on the floor in front of her. Ask your dog to “hold” the toy and when she picks it up immediately praise/click. This is where having gone slowly with building understanding with your “hold” cue will really pay off with your dog being able to generalize the skill to a new location. At this point, you can start to introduce your new verbal cue like “get it” or “fetch.”
- When your dog has been consistently successful picking up and holding the toy, start moving the toy slightly further away from you. Start with the toy right next to you
- Start to very slowly increase the difficulty/distance away from you the toy starts just a few inches at a time. The goal is to break down the retrieve into very small behaviors so your dog can be successful instead of starting with the toy next to you and immediately moving it across your yard (which will be too much for a dog just learning the skill.)
- Continue increasing the distance you ask your dog to go to get the toy. As your dog gains understanding in the game, you can begin to alternate between asking your dog to get a toy that you have placed away from you and throwing the toy. It’s a good idea to also vary the toy you are asking your dog to fetch so practice with balls, plush toys, rope toys etc.
- By continuing to build distance very slowly and keeping your dog’s rewards very high value, you will be building a lot of value in the hold/retrieve game.
With a little patience and consistent practice, the finished skill will be a smooth cued retrieve of any toy. Just remember that for dogs, you teach to fetch the reward isn’t the game itself and you want to be sure to continue to reward the fetching behavior with treats.
How To Encourage A Reluctant Dog To Swim
Swimming and playing in the water comes natural to many, but not all dogs. Some canines are uncomfortable or even nervous about being in the water. You can help to encourage your dog to swim with planning and lots of patience.
Finding the right location to teach your dog to swim is key. Make sure that any water you bring your dog to is clean and safe. Look for locations that have calm water free from strong currents and waves, such as swimming pools (with shallow steps or ramps dogs can access), lakes, quiet streams and calm rivers. Seek out areas with a gradual entrance into the water and a shallow area instead of a steep bank or drop off into deep water as this will help your dog build confidence in the water.
Finally, check park or local notices for any warnings about local water. Pay special attention to warnings about blue-green algae because exposure to the algae blooms can be fatal.
While even dogs that are strong swimmers can benefit from a life vest when in the water, for reluctant swimmer’s life vests are good for safety, and confidence-building.
Life preservers are essential if you are going to have your dog out on a boat and if you will be taking your dog to swim in water that does have more current or waves. In addition, puppies, senior dogs and any brachycephalic breed of dog should wear a life preserver anytime they are in or near water for safety. Make sure that the life vest is approved for your dog’s size and weight, is well fitted so it will keep their head above the water.
How to build your dog’s confidence in the water
If you have a dog who is a reluctant swimmer, the key to building confidence and enjoyment with swimming is to go at a pace that your dog is comfortable with, and not push or pressure your dog into swimming. Old-fashioned approaches of forcing or throwing a dog in order to teach them to swim are not only cruel but also dangerous. We want our dogs to feel safe and in control over when and how they enter the water. By working at your dog’s pace, you will be helping your dog build positive associations with swimming and playing in the water.
Step 1: Start by using high- value treats to reward your dog for being near the water. A long-line leash clipped to a back-clip harness is helpful to keep your dog with you but also giving them more freedom to go in and out of the water. Stay at the distance your dog is comfortable with, for some dogs that will be at the edge of the water or pool and for other dogs that might be several feet away. It’s ok if your early training sessions don’t actually involve your dog swimming! Taking the time to help your dog build confidence near the water is the primary goal at this stage.
Step 2: As your dog becomes more comfortable, move closer to the water continuing to reward your dog. Have lots of high-value treats and/or high-value toys for your dog. If your dog is toy motivated, floating water-safe toys can help to build confidence as your dog plays with them in shallow water.
Step 3: When your dog is comfortable playing at the water’s edge move into the shallow water and continue to offer treats and/or to play with toys. Don’t pressure or coerce your dog into deeper water. Keep interactions fun and playful. If you have multiple dogs, or if your dog is dog social and has canine friends that like water, it can help for your dog to watch other dogs enjoying swimming in the water.
Step 4: Gradually increase the depth of water your dog is playing in. This is why finding a pool or natural water location that has gradual slope into the water is very important especially for dogs who are new or nervous about swimming.
Step 5: As your dog is comfortable entering the water up to swimming depth, get in the water near your dog where you are able to stand yourself. This way, if your dog gets worried, you can support getting him back to the depth he was previously been comfortable at. Offer lots of verbal praise as your dog begins swimming and then encourage him back to the shallow water: praise, treat and repeat! Going back and forth between swimming and shallower water with lots of rewards will build confidence and understanding that your dog has control over getting in and out of the water.
Can dogs take swimming lessons?
If your dog seems very nervous about swimming, or if you are feeling concerned about helping your dog learn to swim, you can get professional help. Canine aquatic centers and therapeutic veterinary swim centers are becoming common across the country. These pools provide safe and positive introductions to the water. Just like people often go to professional swimming lessons as kids to learn to swim, swimming lessons with a therapeutic swim coach can help dogs and puppies gain confidence and experience in the water.
Chew This Journal
An Activity Book for You and Your Dog
Is your dog bored? Doesn’t have to be! From bucket lists and outings to arts and crafts Chew This Journal will inspire you to spend more time with your pup. Chew This Journal leads you through fun activities, while creatively recording your adventures in the pages of the book. This unique journal doubles as your dog’s memory keeper and activity tracker, making it a one-of-a-kind keepsake that you and your dog complete together.