I have a 1.5 year old pointer, which will not play with toys. My intention is to go hunting with him, and therefore he needs to learn how to fetch.

I have tried back chain teaching, which were very unsuccessful. I have tried positive feedback training, but it is hard to give him any positive feedback, because he let go of everything as soon as he hears anything that just sounds like a command.

I am afraid of using force fetch, due to his tender/fragile temperament.

My biggest problem with this, is that it is not disciple that he lacks. He is extremely well in "dressur" and enjoys to be trained in all discipline style training. (Sit, stay, heel and etc.)

The reason for this problem might be the two smaller dogs living in the house. It seems that he does not think he "owns" anything, and will drown whatever he has, as soon as he he makes contact with person or other dogs. He never plays with them, maybe also because the other dogs is sometimes rough on him. (Must be added that the big dog is trained separately from the other dogs)

How can I get him to play with toys, not barking at the toys, or run over to it, but take it up, and at least run away with it?

How do I get him to gain confidence when he lives with the other dogs?

3 Answers 3


Teaching a dog to fetch and teaching a dog to love playing with toys are two separate, but related things. Since your question title is specifically about toys, I'll answer that one. If you're curious about teaching a retrieve, you can check out this question.

I would recommend doing sessions with the other dogs in another room so as not to disturb him at first. You can add them later as a distraction when he gets better.

What does your dog love to put his teeth on?

When you're first starting to teach a dog to love playing with toys, start with something that he already loves putting his teeth on. It could be anything including things that may not normally be considered "appropriate." Right now we're just focused on fun with things in the mouth. Here are some starter ideas:

  • Braided fleece
  • Old sock with paper inside
  • Twisted up paper bag
  • Bungee tug toy
  • Chew toy
  • Chew bone
  • Big ball
  • Leash

Obviously the things that are longer are going to be easier for you, but if your dog doesn't like those then use what works for your dog.

Encourage play with erratic movements.

Now that you've found something he loves, encourage him to play tug with you. Move the toy in erratic shapes so it acts like prey. Rabbits don't move towards dogs so neither should your toy.

Make sure to stop the game if he ever gets you instead of the toy. At this stage he probably doesn't mean it so he should pick up pretty quickly that the goal is the toy. You can also run away from him with the toy, keeping the toy in a straight line so it's easier for him to target.

Continue to work on this in multiple environments until he'll tug on his favorite thing anywhere. Keep the tugs very short (under 5 seconds) so he is always wanting more. If he doesn't have an "out / drop" command, hold the toy very still in a way that doesn't allow him to play with it. As soon as he lets go and offers a control (sit / down / etc.) release him to get the toy again.

Similar toys, same games

Now that he's playing with you and the toy, start introducing new toys with a similar feel. Does he like hard dumbbell type toys? Maybe he likes soft squishy things or things that make funny noises.

Switch up toys and require that he always play with the toy that you have. You don't want him running off with toys (trust me, it's very hard to overcome once they start). Throw a big pile of toys on the ground and ask him to play with the one in your hand. Then drop it and pick up a new one and ask him to play with it instead. Go through a variety of toys. Not only will he learn to love different toys, he'll learn that you always have the most fun ones.


One way to help the dog learn to love toys is to ask them to tug before they do something else. Ask for a quick (5 seconds or less) game of tug, and then run over and do some of the obedience stuff he loves doing.

An important reminder is that once you've started to ask for a tug, don't give up. If you give in, he'll learn he doesn't really have to tug if he doesn't want to. If it takes a really long time, take note that you probably shouldn't have asked for a tug in that situation yet.

Toys and Food

Some dogs just really don't like toys to start. In that case, I recommend trying a very hard jerky type treat or looking into something like a TugIt toy. They are specifically designed for dogs who just want to get at the food by only rewarding for good tugs. The better they tug, the more food they get.


Some of the early retrieve work (under 1 ft in distance) can be done regardless of his love for toys, but once you start adding distance, you'll want to be sure you're using something that he loves enough to get, but not enough to keep. Good luck!


@jeffaudio's answer is pretty good but with a dog with a soft personality you are going to have to modify the plan a bit. I have trained 3 dogs now with similar personalities to do it and here is what helped me:

  1. In the beginning reward just about anything. The point is to get the dog to want to try so you will get it going faster if you reward even a sniff or paw on the toy. If he actually puts his mouth on the toy give a "jackpot" where you give him three or more treats in a row. This should create desire for him to figure out what made the jackpot happen.

  2. In the beginning, only do this when your dog is full of energy and in a low distraction environment.

  3. Quit when your dog is the most into and excited about the game. This can be the hardest part for us humans. But if you quit when your dog is asking for more he will leave the game remembering that he loves it!

  4. Let your dog win easy. If your dog has a hard time when your hand is on the toy you have to find a way to explain that it is allowed. You will not be successful forcing this. I recommend sitting down on the ground and getting him used to taking things off your leg first. Once he is comfortable with that then just rest the thing on your arm or hand in such a way that if he basically touches it then it will fall. When it does reward with a jackpot and put it back on your hand exactly the same way. If he makes it fall or takes it again jackpot again and stop the game for a while.

  5. I would let this kind of dog take the toy away from me and run/play with it on their own if they want to at first. You are trying to show your dog that he is allowed to play with things. ..so let him and celebrate it. It sounds like he is very obedient so doing this is really unlikely to cause problems with your fetch down the road.

Bonus to be EXTREMELY careful with... you won't do this very many times but it will help your dog learn to break the rules that he thinks exist about toys. And it will help you learn what excites your dog. Put something like peanut butter or meat (liverworst works great) in an old sock and tie a short rope to the sock or just use a long sock. Squish it to really get the smell going. Bring it into a small room with only that dog (so that if he somehow gets it away from you that you can get a hold of it again quickly). Hold on tight to the rope and just let the sock lay still on the ground. If you have done a good job putting something smelly in the sock your dog will start investigating. Once he does this is your moment to learn what movements you can make that make it more exciting. Does your dog feel more confident when it just slowly moves or does a sudden fast jerk get him to pounce? Can you get him confident enough to even try to tug it away from you? Like I said. ..be very careful not to let your dog swallow the sock! When you are done be careful to dispose of the sock somewhere that animals can't get to it! Remember that this is not a game you want to play to much with your retriever because it will not help him to maintain a soft mouth. The point of doing this with your dog is just to get your dog thinking out of the box and getting him interested in playing with you. It may also help you to better understand what is going to turn this dog on.


@jeffaudio's answer covers your question in details but I'd like to add a few points.

  • Playing fetch and retrieving when hunting are two separate things. You should focus on playing with him, that will eventually make him retrieve. Then hunting is another matter that will come easily for a hunting well balanced dog

  • You seem to separate "back chaining" from "positive reinforcement". Both are used at the same time: back chaining is just a technique you use to positively reinforce something that you are unable to reinforce in its globally at the beginning. Hence the term "training" in "positive reinforcement training".

  • "using force fetch": many sources and trainers recommend against the use of force in training, in any training. Using force to train your dog to play just doesn't sound right. With some additional knowledge about reinforcement training you should be able to reach your goals (while respecting your dog's need). It seems that you know already some aspects of positive reinforcement, as you mentioned back chaining.

  • It is good that you say that your dog don't lack discipline: indeed he just lack enough training; period. No need to find other explanations.

  • Define your agenda keeping in mind your dog's age and needs. See also next paragraph.

Your dog defines the learning curve

A classical error with training is that we start with our own agenda while the dog just have one line in its agenda: have fun and enjoy random doggie behaviours.

Teaching with positive reinforcement means that the dog has to set the pace and that you have to adapt your sessions accordingly.

At first you have to reward even the smallest efforts: he puts the toy in his month for 3 seconds? Perfect, you're in business and you can start reinforcing. Does it sound absurd to you? Maybe, but that's the way to proceed with positive reinforcement.

You also need to make the problem easy enough for your dog to succeed. You need to reinforce every successful attempts until you can start variable reinforcement ratio. A rule of thumb would be that the dog succeeds (and gets reinforced) 80% of the time, at least. If the rate is too low, make the exercice easier. If you're confortable around 90% makes it harder.

I hope these more general advices can be mixed with @jeffaudio more specific answer.

Chapter 2 of the book The culture clash from Jean Donaldson provides advices on how to teach games to your dog, including retrieving, tugging, etc.

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