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  • Writer's pictureThree Dimensional Dog

How to play fetch - the five rules

Dogs are most happy when they live goal-directed lives. This means they have objectives assigned to them by an Executive Decision-maker. Doing so helps to boost their sense of connectivity to the family and enhances their self-esteem. Without these properties, dogs become prone to anxiety disorders.

Fetch can be an outstanding game for many dogs; especially ones with active minds. It is a goal-directed activity that can help to channel a dog's focus and reduce, random chaotic thoughts. As you probably know, fetch is an activity that requires a dog to run, retrieve an object, and bring it to you.

Fetch is best when played with five primary rules. These five rules will make sure you retain the role of Executive Decision-maker while having fun and mentally challenging your dog.

The five rules of fetch

1. Heel

This one is the most important -- and the most overlooked. All dogs should stay with their handlers until given permission to leave. They should not simply run off to chase a ball when it is thrown. Use the concept of "stay" to get your dog to hold position until released. Use a leash if necessary to prevent your dog from running off prematurely.

This is potentially life-saving advice. Every year I hear of several clients' dogs who suddenly bolted away to chase something only to be hit and killed by a car.

Once the ball is thrown, the leash can be dropped and the dog can drag it along. Do this until the concept of "stay" is well ingrained and the leash is no longer needed.

2. Okay!

This is the fun part. "Okay" is the moment you give the dog permission to run off and chase the ball. But no cheating! Be sure that your dog waits until the exact moment you give permission.

3. Come here

Obviously this one is super important. If your dog won't return with the ball, then the game comes to a screeching halt. Young, adolescent dogs, in particular, love to try and reverse the game. They sometimes refuse to come back and instead want you to chase them. They are, in essence, trying to train you to fetch the ball. Avoid this game. Instead, use a long (15ft) leash next time to reel in your dog. Also, start the game at short distances, and build to longer over time.

4. Drop it

Once the dog returns with the ball, they should drop it on command. This can be a challenge as some dogs are so passionate they will refuse to let go. This is another great time to utilize a leash. Simply pick up the leash, put a little firm pressure upwards and hold until the dog drops the ball.

Be careful not put too much tension in the leash. This technique is not a choke hold. Only a mild restraint. The dog's front legs should never leave the ground.

Hold tension until the ball falls out. Say nothing as you utilize this technique. Also, avoid moving around as you hold the leash. Anchor yourself and make things really boring for a moment. When the ball falls out, release the tension, and the excitement will soon begin again!

5. Leave it

This is another commonly overlooked rule. Dogs love to try and steal the ball again just after they've dropped it. Be ready with your leash again to give a correction upwards if they try to grab the ball without permission. Stand over the ball to help take possession of it.

Now the game starts over with step one! 

Can fetch be a bad thing?

Yes. Fetch is a wonderful game for most dogs, but it can also have its down-sides. Don't let that surprise you. There has yet to be discovered a game or training regimen that does not have a trade-off effect.


I strongly caution dog owners with aggressive dogs against playing fetch. Fetch is a predatory game. It involves a dog running after what it perceives as prey, catching and killing it, then returning to the family with the meat. Is that something that needs to practiced in aggressive dogs?

Only dogs that have been taught proper impulse control should take part in such an activity. If not, this game only strengthens neural pathways that support further aggression.

Resource guarding

Dogs that have problems with resource guarding should not be entertained with fetch. Again, the game touches on brain functions that are problematic. In fact, for resource guarders, all toys and resources should be put away until the dog's overall stress and anxiety levels can be reduced to a healthy level.

Anxious dogs

Counter to popular mythology, dogs with excessive energy that misbehave should not be encouraged to fetch. Instead, they should be taught healthy boundaries and how to do less, not how to do more. Why further stimulate an over-stimulated mind? For more on this topic, click here.

Does fetch get a dog's energy out?

No. There is no such thing as getting energy out of a dog. When fetch is played with the five rules, it helps them to compartmentalize their energy -- to keep energy in, not get it out. Physical exercise is healthy, but the mental challenge of having rules is what helps most to enhance a dog's behavior. Without the rules, you could be making their behavior worse. Also, consider that physical exercise for a dog enhances their endurance to stay energetic for longer periods. Don't be fooled by the fact that they took a nap afterwards. Look at the big picture and long-term results.

If your dog is free of these behavior sensitivities, grab a ball and go have fun!

Aaron McDonald is a canine cognitive behaviorist, theorist, and author.  He can be reached at

If you are interested in learning about your dog's mind, grab a copy of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior.

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