When you’re trying to teach your dog to use an iFetch toy, sometimes even our most ball-motivated dogs will have absolutely no interest in picking up and/or dropping the ball. Don’t worry, all hope isn’t lost!
While you will need to eventually teach your dog the ‘drop it’ command while holding the iFetch ball, we can start with having your dog learn to hold and drop an item that might be a little easier for them at first.
Let’s break it down in 5 steps:
Step 1: Prepare
If you have an old magazine (tabloids are good for this), roll it up, then wrap it completely with duct tape – I choose Hello Kitty duct tape for Maggie but any kind will do. We’ll use it to teach the foundation steps of holding an item in the mouth. Once your dog has mastered that, you can transfer that command to almost any other item, like leashes, socks, and tennis balls.
As with all training (dog or human) go slowly and be patient. Only take the rolled-up magazine out during training time — you want your dog to associate it with training and rewards. As with many of the best training methods, this one starts with play. Drag the roll across the floor, inviting your dog to a game of chase. Let your dog get very excited about it. This is a new toy, after all! Once your dog bites the roll or even puts his mouth around it, immediately reward him with a treat. There’s no need to give a command here, just a treat. You can toss the roll, hide it behind your back, anything play-like, but keep it close enough so you can reward your pup each and every time he puts his mouth on it. We aren’t asking for them to pick it up. Do this for short sessions, 5-15 minutes long, then put the roll away on a positive note to continue the fun next time.
After a few sessions, or however many it takes, when your pup eagerly and readily puts his mouth on the paper roll, then it’s time to move on and make it just a little bit more difficult.
Step 2: Command
At this point, your dog is starting to understand the concept that ‘putting my mouth here gets me something yummy’. That’s a little awkward to say, so let’s give it a command name. I use ‘Pick it up’ but you might like ‘Get it’ or anything similar that works for you. Take out the roll and get him excited about it. Just as he goes for it, say your cue — ‘Pick it up’. Each time your pup goes for it, use your command again. Over time, he’ll start to associate the command with picking up the roll.
And now that he’s mastered that, we’re adding more difficulty! Time to take a deep breath: our next step is to teach him that you want him to pick up the roll and hold it.
Step 3: Drop
If your dog isn’t a fan of holding it, we can have him hold it for a shorter time than we show in the iFetch training videos. What your dog needs to learn now is that the real reward is for dropping it on command.
To start with, as soon as your dog has the roll in his mouth, hold up a treat and say ‘Out’ or ‘Drop it’. When your dog drops it without you asking, don’t give any rewards or treats at all. Simply try again but this time, be quicker with the cue. The treat comes only when you ask and he drops. It’s your decision, not his — and he’ll realize that soon enough if he really wants treats.
Step 4: Hold
You’re doing great, you’re almost there. Remind yourself to move on only when the previous step is solid and happens every time you ask. Now that your dog will drop the roll immediately, we are going to ask them to hold it for one beat. The dog grabs the roll, either by you handing it, rolling it or a short toss, then wait one beat before saying ‘out’, cuing the dog to drop it. The first few times, he may drop it immediately, as that’s what they know to do. But you’re asking for something a little different now. Just try again until he gets it. Feel free to say ‘good’ or ‘stay’ while the dog is holding it.
When you get him to hold for a beat and then drop it, you’ve hit the jackpot. This is the key breakthrough in your training. Your dog — and you — have made huge progress. Time to give your dog a special bonus! An extra treat, lots of praise, and some head scratches (or whatever your dog likes best). You’re winning the lottery as a proud dog owner. Then it’s time to get back to work. Continue to reward the hold and drop.
Step 5: Practice
Now you can use your success in training to increase the time that your dog will hold the roll. All you have to do is lengthen the holding beat as you practice. You might want to change up where and when you train — if you started in the kitchen, now try the living room, or the bedroom. Every new location has its own smells, distractions, and associations, so you might find you need to take a step back in your training in a new location. But that’s OK, this is how training works.
When your dog is confirmed and comfortable in picking up, holding, and dropping the roll, you can transfer those same commands to different objects that your dog can easily pick up like socks, toys, and tennis balls.
Believe it or not, at first my Maggie wasn’t interested in picking up any items for me. Now she’ll happily bring me a shoe, a leash, and even a tissue. I trained her to do this using the exact same steps I outlined above. Even as good as Maggie is now, I remember that it wasn’t a fast process, it took time, I sometimes felt frustrated and wondered whether I was really a good dog trainer. But I didn’t give up, and I reminded myself to take baby steps, and expect slow progress. If I could do it, you can do it too.
For those of you with smaller dogs, you might find that the rolled up paper is too big for your dog. Another option is this training dumbbell. It looks odd but it’s very easy and inviting for dogs to pick up and carry. This is what I used for Maggie during our initial training to learn to pick up items.
Best of luck training! We look forward to hearing about your adventures training your dogs!
Nicole, iFetch Lead Trainer
Maggie, iFetch Dog