How to get your dog to play fetch, by expert trainer Ben Randall

There are plenty of dogs who'll run all day playing fetch, or who'll do anything for a bit of kibble. But how can you motivate a dog who doesn't seem too bothered about food or toys when it comes to playing fetch? Ben Randall shares his advice.

It might be time in the life of this dog training column to be up front about something: training a dog often relies on a bit of bribery. Using rewards — in the form of love, praise, fun games and (of course) food — is right at the heart of many of of the BG (Beggarbush) methods that I’ve honed over the last couple of decades working with dogs. Whether you’re teaching a dog to sit, stopping a dog from barking at visitors or getting a dog to walk to heel, the judicious use of treats goes an awful long way.

I’m a big believer in carrot rather than stick when it comes to training dogs, but there are times when that approach is challenged by a dog who doesn’t play ball — quite literally. And that’s the case for this week’s reader, who sent her problem in to (and you should feel free to do the same).

I have a 12 month cocker spaniel and she has been really good with basic commands and we are getting there on distraction free recall. But I cannot get her to play fetch, I have tried and so has my brother in law whose own cocker has perfected the game. She is not massively good or toy orientated, but I would hope it would help keep her I distracted when off the lead. — EM, via email

We tend to think of dogs like cockers as being hard-wired for run-and-fetch, but actually this is a common problem with working dogs — and especially working cockers.

A very high percentage of the time it’s because the cocker has been given too much freedom to smell, and sniff, and find their own enjoyment. If they’re used to playing independently like that and then we throw them a ball or a toy, they’ll be keen to play once or twice, then decide that sniffing is more fun and carry on with that instead, blanking all your well-intentioned efforts.

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As for food? Generally speaking, dogs who aren’t motivated by their stomachs tend to be those who have been given a lovely variety of things to eat, to find something that they’re keen on. Unfortunately, that can make a dog fussy, and a dog who isn’t bothered by a treat isn’t likely to respond as we’d like to training treats.

Luckily, both problems can be solved — and once they are, your dog will see playing fetch as a highlight of his week.

1. Get your dog to get excited about mealtimes

When my clients come to me with a fussy dog, I tell them this: your job for me is to keep the dog’s diet simple and create a firm routine, feeding it twice a day.

Start in the morning, asking your dog to sit and then placing the simple, good quality food on the floor — but they should wait for your command. After a period of patience and steadiness, you give the fetch command, and your dog can go ahead and eat the food.

If your dog picks and sniffs and doesn’t eat straight away, simply remove the dish — and that’s it until the afternoon feed.

Repeat the process at the PM dinner time, and see how you do. This might go on for a day or two until the dog realises that it’s hungry; and if you’re offering a good quality diet, it will get the message and start to look forward to its food.

2. Make the retrieving game more fun than the alternative

To break the existing pattern, you need to limit how much freedom the dog has away from you to go sniffing and smelling out and about. Don’t start off on walks: the dog needs to be super-keen on finding a favourite toy in the house and garden, and only once you’re happy with this can it progress in the outside environment. By doing this we are limiting the dog’s freedom to find its own fun, and cementing a bond and partnership between the dog,  you as handler, and the favourite toy. That will really improve the keenness to find the toy and bring it back.

3. Progress bit-by-bit playing fetch

Once you’re ready to go full-on with your fetch game out and about, don’t start off by throwing a ball and allow it to chase it and get overexcited.

Instead, keep the dog on the lead, then go with it to place the ball or toy under a bush, or in long grass. Walk the dog 10 or 20 metres away on the lead; then turn around, take the lead off, and give the fetch command. This will keep the dog a lot calmer and improve its trust and focus on you — and the reward will come when you give it.

It’s also a mistake to make the game too easy. Just the other day I was working with a viszla who wouldn’t collect a ball more than a couple of times when it was thrown on short grass, but as soon as it was hidden in the long grass he’d just keep going back again and again. Bushes, undergrowth and the knee-length grass you get in mid-summer make it a brilliant game that really lets the dog use its natural instincts – i.e. its nose.

One more thing: if you’re working with a dog who isn’t bothered about toys, there are options. Since this is a working cocker, you need to try order a fake rabbit ball. Cockers who turn their noses up at the usual tennis balls or squeaky plastic bones seem to be absolutely fascinated watching these roll across the ground and into the undergrowth. Just make sure that playing with this is a treat only to be used for the fetch game: just as restricting meal times will make them keener on their food, limiting their use of the rabbit ball will get them all the keener to play with it when the opportunity comes up.

For more detailed advice about Ben Randall’s positive, reward-based and proven BG training methods, one-to-one training sessions, residential training or five-star dog-boarding at his BGHQ in Herefordshire, telephone 01531 670960 or visit

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