If you're wondering why dogs not bring the ball back when fetching, you may be hoping for some clarity on the behavior.
Let's face it: many dogs love to play fetch and some dogs learn with little or no training, but if your dog is not bringing the ball back to you, he's likely either taking off with it or dropping it halfway.
This behavior can obviously make you frustrated as you wonder why your dog does that. Rest assured, you are not alone.
Many dogs need several training sessions to understand a game of fetch. It may seem like an easy game, especially when you watch other dogs play it as if it's the most natural task in the world, but it's not as easy as it seems.
Instead of getting green with envy watching other people's dogs fetch, be proactive and try understanding where the problem lies and then resort to some troubleshooting options.
A Matter of Fetching Genes
Some dogs are naturally inclined to playing a game of fetch especially breeds with the word "retriever" in them like the Labrador retriever and golden retriever.
Generally, these dogs are predisposed to learning at a faster rate because they were selectively bred to retrieve downed birds from land or water, hold them in their mouth and bring them to the hunter.
While for a good part these dogs are nowadays kept as companions, they'll still happily fetch anything in place of downed fowl (balls, sticks, dumbbells).
While retrievers come first to mind when it comes to fetching, there are many other dog breeds who enjoy this game.
More Complex Than Thought
Generally, dogs with high prey drive are more likely to be willing to chase balls and anything that moves, but fetching is much more than simply chasing after a ball.
Us humans often fail to notice that fetch is a game composed of several discrete behaviors that are chained together.
In order to fetch, a dog must first watch the owner toss the ball, then pick it up wherever it falls, then carry it for several steps, and then bring it to the owner, possibly dropping it into the owner's hands.
It may therefore take several training sessions to train all these behaviors and then chain them together so that the dog performs the whole sequence.
If your dog doesn't have fetching genes running through his veins, don't despair; there are many options to teach the game, but first let's take a look at some common problems.
A Game of Keep Away
People often assume that owning a dog who is obsessed with balls may make training fetch as easy as pie, but it's often the opposite. Dogs who dream about balls all day, are more likely to want to play "keep away" rather than fetch.
"Keep away" is a game dogs play where they grab an item and try to entice people or other dogs to chase them to get the item from them.
You'll often see dogs play this game when they get a hold of something they shouldn't have, such as a shoe or an item from the trashcan, and want their owners to chase them.
Often dog owners are to blame for this game as they inadvertently teach it by chasing their dogs around to get back an item rather than teaching the dog to drop.
If your dog tends to pick up the ball when you move towards it or retrieves the ball you toss him and then runs away with it, perhaps giving you a play bow and waiting for you to chase him, then he's likely trying to play a game of "keep away."
A Touch of Possessiveness
Some dogs will chase a ball you toss them, but then, they take off with it playing with it at a distance from you or possibly lying down to chew on it.
Being possessive over toys can put a dent in training a dog to fetch as dogs displaying this behavior may not want to bring the ball back to you.
Dogs who resource guard will likely move away with the ball if you show any interest in the ball such as looking at it or moving towards the dog.
If you have chased your dog in the past to retrieve an item he wasn't supposed to have, this could have instilled in him a fear of losing his possession and a need to protect certain items from you.
While some dogs who take off with balls may be possessive of toys, a large number of dogs simply do so because they weren't likely given an opportunity to learn the rules of playing fetch. These dogs therefore have no clue of what you're asking them to do.
Early Dropping Behaviors
Some dogs will chase a ball you toss, pick it up, take a few steps towards you and then drop the ball early, perhaps when they're halfway towards you, why is that? There may be various reasons for this.
One of them is distractions. If your dog is walking towards you and you excitedly talk to him to encourage him to come towards you, your dog may perceive this as praise and if you have always praised him before giving him a treat, he may be dropping the ball so his mouth is empty and he can now run towards you ready for a treat.
In other cases, it could be that your dog simply fails to realize that he can carry something as he comes to you. Sometimes, early drops happen also when dogs start getting tired or bored so keep an eye on your dog for signs of fatigue or apathy.
Now That You Know...
As seen, there are several possible reasons as to why your dog won't bring the ball back when fetching. Here are now some tips to help your dog succeed.
- Don't chase your dog when he has the ball or any other item he's not supposed to have. Avoid this type of conflict. Instead, teach your dog from the get-go that giving you the ball is very worthy. Invest some time in teaching the trading game, where you train your dog to drop an item in exchange for a tasty treat. Start this training early with puppies.
- Avoid using high-value toys such as toys recently purchased or toys your dog hasn't seen for a while. The more value a toy has, the more likely your dog will want to take off with it.
- You can also try trading the ball with another ball in what is known as the "two-ball method." Simply toss the ball, when your dog gets it, show him you have another ball, but don't throw it until he drops the ball that's already his mouth. Even better, fill up a bucket with balls and keep trading. Repetition after repetition, your dog will understand that in order to chase another ball, he must first bring back the one he already has. He'll likely eventually learn that there's no need to take off and hold on to the one ball when there are more and more coming!
- If you use the two-ball method, avoid falling into the temptation of pretending to toss the ball to get your dog to drop so you can snatch the ball from him. This leads to suspicion in the dog and a future reluctance to drop. Dogs are not stupid!
- If your dog ever shows signs of possessiveness over toys or other resources, play it safe and consult with a dog behavior professional using force-free behavior modification.
Tips for Dogs Who Drop the Ball Early
- Don't chase your dog or go retrieve the item for him. You want your dog to retrieve, not the other way around. Instead, simply sit and encourage your dog to bring the ball back to you the rest of the way, suggests dog trainer and author, Kyra Sundance in her book "The Most Amazing Silly Dog Tricks." When he finally brings the ball all the way, lavishly praise and reward. You want to make it clear that only by bringing the ball back to you he will get rewarded.
- An option for dogs who seem not to be able to multitask by carrying the ball and walking towards you, is distracting them with movement. Instead of getting your dog to come near you, try turning and running away as your dog walks towards you. Working on the opposition reflex often distracts enough to do the trick.
- You can also try calling your dog's name as your dog takes a few steps towards you. Hopefully, this will get him to walk towards you with the ball in his mouth, but sometimes dogs will drop the ball upon hearing their name, warns dog trainer Pat Miller in an article for the Whole Dog Journal.
- If your dog keeps dropping the ball early, take a step back in your training and try asking him shorter and easier retrieves. Split the exercise in smaller steps by rewarding him for gradually bringing the ball a little bit closer each time.
- If your dog still doesn't bring the ball back to you and he appears tired or bored, end the session asking your dog to perform an easy task and reward. Take a little break and resume a bit later or on another day. Dogs do better with short, upbeat sessions rather than long, tedious ones.
- Some dogs can be particular about retrieving certain objects as they may not like the feel of certain items in their mouths. Find out what your dog likes to fetch the most and stick to it until your dog learns the basics of the game.
- Last but not least, for very obstinate cases where bringing the ball back to the owner feels more like a chore, why not just get a fetching machine and let it do all the work? A favorite one is the Go Dog Go fetching machine. There are also several fun sports that involve balls and not specifically bringing the ball back to the owner such as Treibball and flyball.
Did you know? According to the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website, backchaining is an efficient method that reduces the chances for error and leads to fluency, an optimal method for training a dog to fetch. In backchaining, dogs are trained by starting at the end of a behavior chain and working back towards the beginning.