DEAR DIDI: I have always dreamt of playing Fetch with a dog. However, I finally got a dog and he loves his ball but won’t bring it back. Nor will he let go of it, so that I can throw it again. He is a German Shepherd and currently about eight months old. – Disappointed Buddy
DEAR DISAPPOINTED BUDDY: Aaaahh, the quintessential game of Fetch! It looks so easy, right? A Border Collie may be more inclined to return the toy and beg you to throw it again. However, a German Shepherd may find other variations of this game more to his liking. Maybe he has discovered that you want the ball pretty badly and he can use that against you. The little devil gets a hold of the coveted ball and teases his human by taking off with it. The human falls for it and chases him. This kind of dog enjoys being chased more than chasing the ball.
Other dogs’ passion for possession is so strong they just can’t give up the toy. Perhaps they take it to their crate, bed or other personal space. This sort of dog may even learn to freeze, lift lips, growl or snap at anyone that tries to take that ball from him. This sort of issue can develop quickly into a serious behavioral problem if handled incorrectly when the behavior first begins as a young puppy. Trainers and Behaviorists tend to refer to this generalized behavior as Resource Guarding. It can extend to any object the dog values, such as, toys, food bowls, recently stolen socks, or even an over nurturing human.
We must teach our four legged children that they will get rewards for bringing the ball back and relinquishing it. It can be a delicate balance to figure out what your dog enjoys about the toy game. Use that factor to reward him for doing the part that isn’t so much fun to him. For example, my dog adores chasing a moving ball but once he has captured it he refuses to give it up. I need to teach him that giving it up means he gets to chase it again. Keep some pieces of turkey hot dog handy in a treat bag at your waist. Attach a 12 foot long leash (available at all pet stores) to his collar.
Throw the ball with some energy and drama to your body language so your dog is really into it. When he has the ball in his mouth, continue to make encouraging and happy sounds. Do not use commands or harsh tones at this time. It will only teach him to not want to return to you. Slowly reel him in with the leash. If he drops the ball before getting to you, praise him thoroughly and reel in more gently next time. When he gets to you with ball in mouth, suddenly produce a yummy hot dog bit and touch it to the pad of his nose. Hold it there without saying a word. You may need to be patient. Eventually, he will open his mouth to accept the treat. Which means, the ball will fall out. Tell him he is a good boy, let him eat the hotdog, then pick up the ball and instantly throw it again. He gets three rewards for having relinquished the ball. Praise, food and the chase! With enough repetition and encouraging atmosphere he will learn that the traditional game of Fetch is so much more fun than the ‘keep away’ game he was playing before.
If hot dog isn’t enough to convince your dog to let go of the ball, you may need to escalate to something yummier, such as string cheese, leftover chicken scraps, etc. If your dog begins to resource guard the food you offer and would rather growl or snap at you during this game, I strongly recommend you enlist the help of a qualified Behaviorist. I hope you are having fantastic games of Fetch with your fur buddy by next week!
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. For a free consultation with Dierdra or to ask your dog behavior question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.