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Boomerang dogs, getting them to retrieve – Karen Phillips

One of the interesting topics that have come up for discussion on the Better Pets and Gardens Facebook page is how to teach a dog to retrieve.  Dogs tend to come under three different categories; those that love toys and naturally want to bring them back, those that aren’t interested in toys at all and those who love toys but think it’s far more fun for you to chase them to get the toy back.

For dogs that naturally retrieve, congratulations!  It certainly makes things at the park much easier and also helps keep your dog’s focus on you and not on other dogs.  It also serves as a perfect reward when your dog is being well behaved.

For those dogs that are over exuberant with their retrieving, especially those who bark at you to make you throw the ball for them, make sure you have rules in place.  Firstly, make sure your dog always has to do something in order to earn his toy.  Just like food rewards, a toy should be earned not expected.  If your dog barks at you, just turn your back.  When it stops barking you can turn back around and throw the toy.  It is important that you are consistent with this.  You can also wait for your dog to do something useful such as sit or lie down before you throw the toy.  Your dog getting the toy thrown is then dependant on it doing these things.

For dogs that don’t seem interested in toys you first need to teach your dog that toys are fun.  For dogs that love food, there are toys available that you can put treats into.  You can then teach the dog that when it interacts with the toy it will get treats.  This will increase the value of the toy to the dog.  Once the dog starts to show interest in the toy you can encourage it to chase it to get the treats.  The act of the dog chasing the toy will help to build enthusiasm for the game.  Then move onto teaching the dog to pick the toy up and bring it to you, all the time using positive reinforcement to reward it for doing so.  Remember that when encouraging a dog to chase a toy, make the toy move like a rabbit would.  I often see people in my agility class trying to move the toy towards the dog to get it to play.  The whole idea is to trigger the dog’s prey drive and I don’t know too many rabbits that would be running towards a dog!

It is really important that when you start playing with toys with your dog that you never chase after the dog.  Most dogs think that chasey is super fun and if you’re not careful you will quickly end up with a dog who thinks the greatest game in the world is you chasing after it trying to get the toy.  Trying to stop this game once it’s started is extremely hard.  It is far better to teach the dog to chase you.  So, if the dog loves its toy but won’t bring it back, grab the toy and start acting all excited with it.  When you have your dog’s attention take off running with the toy and make a game out of the dog chasing you, rewarding it with the toy when it reaches you.

Another game you can play is to tie the toy on a long line and throw it a few metres away.  Grab the dog by the collar, get it all excited and race it to the toy.  Let the dog beat you to it (but only just) and when it grabs the toy, take off running in the opposite direction.  Having the toy on a long line prevents the dog from grabbing it and running off in another direction with it.

Most lively dogs are unable to resist these types of games and it turns the act of retrieving into a less formal and more fun approach.


Karen Phillips is the owner and trainer of Riot, the beautiful border collie that is the Better Pets and Gardens mascot.  Karen has had immense experience and success with her border collies as well as little Cassie, the very fast papillon, and is currently involved as a trainer with the Agility Club of WA.  Karen is also a regular expert on our Facebook page every Monday night.

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