Dogs go crazy for fetch. For some, not even an unwatched roasted chicken on the kitchen table can bring as much excitement as the feeling of the breeze rushing through his fur while clasping his teeth around a soft, plush toy thrown to him.
“Dogs find playing fetch so fun, in part, because it releases dopamine in their brains,” says Angelica Steinker, a certified dog behavior consultant and founder of Courteous Canine Inc. in Tampa, Florida. “It’s one of the few recreational activities that’s fun in and of itself without requiring food or some other external reinforcement.”
But ultimately, fetch can be a pretty rote activity. You throw something. They bring it back. You throw something. They bring it back. You throw … well, you get the idea.
If you feel like your dog is quietly begging you to stop trying to make fetch happen, you should listen, but it’s also not a bad idea to try to spice this classic up. Here are six ways to take fetch to the next level:
6. Teach Your Dog the Right Way to Play Fetch
“Toy-based play is something dogs learn to do when they are pups,” says Heather Luedecke, a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of Delighted Dog Training Academy in Hilliard, Ohio. “The hardest dogs to teach fetch are generally dogs that didn’t play with toys early in development.
If you want to get the most out of fetch with your dog, it starts with the first toss. Steinker recommends something called the “north-south game.” This involves two toys. Throw or roll one, and when your dog has a chance to go to it, throw or roll the other in the opposite direction. That’s how they learn to go back and forth.
As you gradually move to more complicated retrievals, Luedecke says the key is to lavish praise upon your dog for success. You can also give your dog a treat when he brings the toy back.
5. Use Food-Stuffed Toys
You can hardly go wrong with anything that’s stuffed, and playing fetch with a food-stuffed toy can help up the ante for your dog.
Luedecke says that allowing your dog to see, smell, or hear that something delicious is inside of the toy you’re tossing is a great way to increase his interest in your game.
Anything that is dog safe and you can stuff in the toy is a good option for a food-stuffed game of fetch, says Luedecke. “Kibble, canned dog food, and/or tuna or salmon from a can. A little goes a long way.”
4. Say ‘No’ to Sticks
It’s a classic image—a dog leaping to snatch a perfect stick from the air. But Steinker says this is a big no-no for real-life fetch. “It’s like watching a child to run with scissors,” she says.
Luedecke agrees, adding that small pieces of stick can easily break off and get stuck in the squishy back portion of a dog’s mouth or cause intestinal blockages if swallowed.
Steinker says there are great fake stick options if your dog is prone to picking up any and every stick he sees on a walk, and Luedecke says for the truly stick-obsessed, you can try wrapping a regular stick in duct tape. It might take awhile, but protecting your dog from potentially serious health hazards down the road will be time well spent.
3. Take Regular Breaks
There’s nothing fun or exciting about slowing down or stopping a game to drink some water, but even the best game ever isn’t immune to the potential environmental pitfalls of non-stop midday fetch.
If you want to keep your dog interested in fetch, you want to make sure he avoids overheating.
“If you see his tongue is starting to turn white or that he’s gasping at all or having any trouble breathing, it’s time to stop,” Steinker says. “You need to be the one to initiate that because your dog might not. Stop before he asks to stop.”
Taking breaks is also a good way to teach your dog how to wind down after activity.
“Teaching a dog to be compulsive about fetch builds arousal. That can lead to behavior issues— jumping, barking, biting—when you try to stop play,” Luedecke says.
2. Play Hide-and-Seek Fetch
Traditional fetch can also be a high-impact activity, which means overweight dogs, older dogs, and even puppies won’t have the physical build for the running, jumping and catching required for the game.
Luedecke recommends trying an alternative hide-and-seek version. Take the toy (maybe one with a particularly identifiable scent) and hide it. When your dog retrieves it, toss it for a fetch. The time you spend hiding it and the time he spends looking for it is a perfect respite for your dog’s joints.
1. Keep Toys Out of Reach
The best way to keep fetch exciting is to keep the fetch toys exciting, and this doesn’t mean buying a brand new toy every time your dog wants to play fetch.
Luedecke recommends storing toys not in use in a high place far outside your dog’s grasp.
“Keep the fetch toys put up until you are ready to play,” she says. “That way your dog learns that the toy is special and will understand what you are doing when it comes out.”