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How to Deal With a Fetch-Obsessed Dog: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop!

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I wanted a dog that loved fetch more than I do. That’s what I told everyone.

And I love playing fetch. I grew up with labs and was pretty proud of my tennis-ball-throwing skills.

Enter Barley. Barley is a three year old border collie, and he likes fetch. A lot. His pupils dilate almost instantly when I pick up a tennis ball. We can’t leave toys out or he’ll constantly ram them into our legs, begging for fetch.

He digs at cabinets storing fetch objects. He will bring people limes, stickers, and feathers when we hide the toys.

He doesn’t just like fetch – he is obsessed.

barley fetch

the fetch maniac himself!

I got what I was looking for, but when I first got my new dog, he was so focused on fetch that he turned down steak in exchange for a tennis ball. I’ve owned him for three months and I’ve never seen him actually play with another dog.

How could I help him become a slightly more normal member of the household?

Together, Barley and I have been working on easing up on his unconditional love of fetch. Today I’ll be covering some of the strategies and tips I’ve used to help Barley realize there is a whole world outside of the word “fetch” and how I’ve managed to retain my sanity.

When Fetch is a Problem

Fetch is a fantastic way to wear out your dog. That’s why it was one of my number one criteria when I was looking for a dog. I’m a runner and hiker, but some days it’s nice to just throw a frisbee for your dog.

It’s not nice to have a dog that’s so single-minded about something that he’d be clinically diagnosed as OCD if he were a human!

When I first adopted Barley, I couldn’t pet him. As soon as I looked at him or reached for him, he darted off to find something – anything – for me to throw. This bummed me out. I wanted to be able to pet my dog and do things other than fetch!

barley fetch maniac

Barley trying to push me into a game of fetch before dinner

For the vast majority of dogs, fetch won’t turn into this obsessive fixation. Most will enjoy catching the occasional frisbee or ball and won’t flip out when you move on to another activity.

For others, they get hooked on the fixed action pattern and little bursts of happiness they receive every time they fetch a ball – and this is where fetch can become a problem.

Your dog might be a fetch maniac if…

  • Your dog frequently refuses to engage in other activities because he’d rather play fetch.
  • You have to lock up tennis balls to keep your dog from constantly bugging you to play fetch.
  • You have to physically restrain your dog to keep him from playing fetch or chasing objects.
  • Your dog plays fetch anywhere, anytime and has a hard time quitting even when tired or hot.

Fetch can even end up being dangerous if your dog is too obsessed! I’m fully confident that Barley would fetch until he drowned or overheated if I let him.

I have to keep a very close idea on Barley when playing fetch to ensure that he’s not overheating. As an owner, it’s my job to keep him safe, and having a fetch-obsessed dog sometimes means you have to work overtime.

If you have a fetch maniac, you’ll need to keep an eye on the temperature as well as his water consumption helps keep him safe. Familiarize yourself with warning signs of overheating in dogs – this is important no matter how much your dog loves fetch!

So how can you help your fetch maniac settle down and enjoy other things in life?

Trainer’s Tip: Create Fetch Rules to Teach Impulse Control

Luckily, there are a lot of ways to reduce your dog’s obsession with fetch. The key is to make some strict rules surrounding fetch and then build up your dog’s impulse control when toys are involved.

Stick to your guns – at least at first. Inconsistent rule making will just confuse your dog. If you occasionally break rules, your dog might just think he has to try harder in order to get what he wants.

The good news? As your dog learns impulse control with fetch, you can slowly start to ease up on many of these rules.

Hide the tennis balls. Keep keep all fetch toys under wraps unless it’s time to play fetch. Your dog will have to learn to entertain himself other ways, breaking the cycle of constant fetch. This will make it much easier to follow the next several steps.

Time your fetch sessions. Set a five-minute timer for rounds of fetch. Use a cue like “last one” before throwing the ball for the last time, and then use a cue like “all done” before tucking the ball into a bag and heading home. This will keep your dog safe from heat and help teach your dog how to calmly end the game. As your dog gets better at this, you can gradually increase the time that you play fetch.

No fetch inside. This rule is really, really important for your sanity – and your floors! Keeping tennis balls locked up will help immensely, but you probably still want to leave out some other toys. If your dog starts giving you squeaky toys or tug toys for fetch, just ignore him. Eventually, he will give up and go do something else.

Only fetch when human initiates. This rule is ultra-important for teaching your dog how to entertain himself in other ways. This might mean stepping over seemingly endless sticks while on walks. It’s ok if your dog carries the stick around, but if he drops it at your feet you have to ignore him.

Dealing With Your Dog’s Fetch Mania

Use Fetch as a Reward

The good thing about a fetch-loving pooch is that fetch can utilized as great reward during training time!

For example, reward your dog for letting you trim his nails by tossing his favorite Frisbee after each nail clip. This is more effective than treats for many fetch maniac dogs.

Teach Impulse Control By Rewarding Your Dog For Ignoring Fetch Objects

Also try rewarding your dog for ignoring favorite fetch toys. You can set your dog up to practice impulse control by walking him past a tennis ball while on leash. Reward him for not picking it up with really tasty training treats.

tennis ball

Alternatively, produce a different toy from your bag and reward him for ignoring one toy with another! This will help your dog learn to focus on you more.

Impulse control in general is important for fetch maniac dogs. Some common impulse control games include Nothing In Life Is Free and It’s Your Choice. Try these out with your fetch maniac as well!

Show Your Dog How to Stop and Smell the Roses

It’s a good idea to learn new ways to tire out your dog that doesn’t involve fetch.

The frantic sprinting of fetch isn’t really the healthiest way to wear out your dog anyway, so think about trying jogging, long walks, hiking, dog joring sports, swimming, and training games as ways to wear out your dog. Be sure to calmly ignore pleads for fetch along the way!

Barley still spends the first 20 minutes of most of our hikes placing sticks at my feet before he decides to give up and enjoy the hike. This lower-key energy release gives him time to sniff and leaves him in a much more all-around tired state when we’re done.

dogs obsessed with fetch

Teaching your dog other ways to have fun is important to a well-rounded dog. Fetch maniacs can learn impulse control around toys and can learn to have fun in new ways. They may love the game fetch, but it’s good for them to have diverse interests.

Keep your dog safe and happy by making fetch a reasonable love affair, not an all-out-obsession!

How did you know your dog was over-the-top for fetch? What did you do to help him learn some self-control around his favorite game?

About the Author Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC. She has worked in private dog training, group classes, and shelter behavior modification work for most of her adult life. She now works as an online dog behavior consultant with Journey Dog Training.

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19 comments
Lindsay says July 7, 2017

Great post! I’m going to share this in my newsletter on Sunday. My Lab mix Ace was like this in his younger years. Thankfully he’s not as bad now that he’s older but he still loves to play fetch! On the bright side, a dog obsessed with fetch won’t run away as long as you’re holding a ball!

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    Kayla Fratt says July 20, 2017

    Thanks for sharing this! I have found the same thing – I often use fetch to keep Barley close to me during walks. It’s very handy! Glad that your lab is starting to slow down. I think Barley and I have a few more years of fetch mania. Luckily, he’s gotten a LOT less pushy about it! What is your newsletter? I’d love to see more of it.

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Jeanette says March 27, 2018

My dog Bentley is also Obsessed with fetch. He loves the balls and just can’t seem to get enough!!! He sometimes won’t eat unless his ball is right by his food where he can see it. I’ve learned to hide them and direct his attention towards other activities as running in the sand along the beach or wherever there is water. Taking long walks and changing things up by talking him to different places to walk and play. I try to limit his ball sessions as well. I’m still working with him because he will not leave my guest alone when they play fetch with him.

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    Kayla Fratt says March 28, 2018

    Sounds like your guy Bentley and my boy Barley have a lot in common! I really found the “No Fetch in the House” rule to be a lifesaver with him. If a guest tosses a ball even once, they’re going to be pestered all night. You might want to try that rule!

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Teresa says April 7, 2018

I just recently adopted a 12 year old mini Aussie who is ball obsessed and so truly enjoyed your comments on curbing such tendencies. I’m worried about her legs/joints in that she acts and is obsessed as a youngin’ would be. And as you mentioned she would fetch till she dropped and I’m certain, literally. I will try some of your ideas with hope I can get her interested in other activities. Given her age I was going to try nose work with her as she is highly intelligent as this breed generally is. Great post!

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Kayla Board says May 1, 2018

You could maybe save my life with this article, I’m gonna try this for a while and see if I can get my dog passed fetch. He tries it with every toy and every second of the day and even nudges you or whines if you don’t throw it for him. I will let you know how it goes along the way!

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    Kayla Fratt says May 1, 2018

    I hope it helps! Please keep us posted!

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Pam says June 4, 2018

I’m going to attempt ‘no fetch’ in the house. None of us can sit down to relax without something (ball, stuffed animal, rope toys or even a piece of large fuzz) getting shoved in our laps to play fetch with. Roughy is a deaf border collie/blue heeler that will never be suitable for livestock use, so his ‘job’ is fetch, or herding the other dogs, all day everyday. He’s fun to teach sign language to, because he’s so willing and so intelligent, but we are desperate to slow down some of these obsessive characteristics.

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    Kayla Fratt says June 4, 2018

    It really helped me!

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Marissa says July 6, 2018

I didn’t know this was a thing until my rough collie Lola. She will even sneak in her balls from outside to play in the house! WIll try these tips because as others have said the pup will play ball until she drops….

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    Kayla Fratt says July 6, 2018

    Let us know how it goes! I will be updating this article soon, actually. My border collie recently tore a muscle and we’re on a total fetch moratorium. It’s been really interesting — he’s actually being much more playful and affectionate now that we don’t play ANY fetch at all!

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Erin says August 25, 2018

My border collie pup is a fetch maniac. I’m going to try these tips, but I’m worried. I don’t think he knows how to play by himself. He usually just talks to me if I ignore him for fetch. It isn’t quite a howl, so it really does sound like he is trying to talk to me. If I ignore that, he starts chewing on the furniture or trying to bite the wall. Do you have tips for teaching self play?

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    Kayla Fratt says August 26, 2018

    It’s really common with border collies! I taught my dog to play by himself by really encouraging tug-o-war games, chase games (letting him hold a toy), and PATIENCE. You might want to look up Denise Fenzi, she is kind of a guru on teaching dogs “engagement play” without toys!

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Sara says August 31, 2018

My dog is fairly fetch obsessed, but she’s learnt that dropping balls for me inside or outside won’t elicit a response, so she’ll just play with balls by herself in a non-obsessive manner (except when I initiate, outside, of course and then she’s quite focused). My main issue is when I go to the dog park; when I want her to play with other dogs, she’ll find a ball and drop it perfectly in between the feet of other people, as I taught her to do with me. People find this so cute, they ignore me when I ask them to not throw the ball, and start playing fetch with her. I’m at my wit’s end of what to do, because if a dog wants to play with her while she is playing fetch, she will get annoyed at the intrusion and usually gently warn the other dog off. Little puppies rarely get the message though, and recently she snapped at a puppy who just didn’t know to quit. She isn’t resource guarding as she never fights if a dog steals the ball, she just doesn’t like getting interrupted; I call it her work ethic. I suppose what I can do is try training her to ignore other balls at the dog park, but that won’t help if people throw balls anyway. She’s a German Shepherd/Australian Cattle Dog mix, so I think being a working dog makes it all the more serious to her.

I do have a command, “bring it here” with which she’ll give me the ball even if someone else threw it, after which I can get rid of the ball. This unfortunately isn’t kosher if the ball belongs to someone else. Would appreciate your advice!

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    Kayla Fratt says August 31, 2018

    If she would rather play with a ball than play with other dogs, maybe that’s ok. Is there a reason you want her to play with the other dogs? If she’s like my dog (which it sounds like she is), she’s got a style of play that she likes — I say go with it.

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Sara says August 31, 2018

Oh, just for her continued socialization as she’s still so young; 8 and a half months! She also loves playing with other dogs, and can do so for hours–so long as a ball isn’t present. That’s just why it seems so unfortunate. But yes, it seems so weird to train her out of loving fetch that it seems to me to be better to give her better outlets (e.g. larger unleashed dog parks for fetch where other dogs aren’t an issue), and maybe schedule play dates so I don’t rely on the dog area for her socialization. Thanks for your thoughts!

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Sara says August 31, 2018

Something really cute also happened today when we went to a nice large field for her fetch session this morning; there was another big German Shepherd there and she had a playful tussle with him before returning to me for more fetch. I’ve never had an issue with her greeting othe dogs, large or small, she’s always friendly, but I’ve read socialization throughout life is important. Thanks again for your reply by the way, which came as quite the relief! I was worried I neglected to train her right or something (and that other people throwing the ball for her might ruin her training; I should add that even if someone else does, if I play with her instead, she’ll always play with me; I’m her preferred fetch partner). It seems you’re saying there are some things intrinsic enough that I should just go with it. 🙂

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Simon says October 18, 2018

Seriously, every time I have what feels like an uncommon question about my pup, you guys always have me covered! I have a Portuguese Water Dog, never in a million years would have thought fetch addiction was going to be an issue. Turns out it’s all she wants to do, I decided it’s a problem, when it was 11pm, I walked to the bedroom to climb into bed, only to find a wimpering dog with tennis ball waiting, on a day where we played probably two hours of fetch! Honestly, I think the more fetch we play the worse it gets.

So thank you guys, I am going to try limiting the amount of time, distraction training and this will be a hard one, but stop being a pushover every time I get the puppy eyes and a ball on my foot.

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    Kayla Fratt says October 19, 2018

    Good luck! We really found that literally closing our tennis balls away was our best solution. The more you fetch, the worse it gets is right!

    Reply
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