In 2015, a Golden Retriever named Fritz revealed to the world what many dog owners already know: not all dogs can catch.
Despite snack after snack flying toward his face, ol’ Fritz managed to miss every time. Up until the end, when he barely, perhaps accidentally, snatched a solitary French fry out of the air, renewing hope for dogs everywhere. Well, at least renewing hope for my Nyx.
You see, through many failed training attempts in the prior year, I had learned that she could not catch. She could not even come close. She was a lost cause, or so I thought.
In this article, I will share the steps you need to take to get your dog to catch something – anything! If your dog also has limited catching abilities, no matter the cause, you can help them work through with the same steps I used for my pack. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
My Dog Can’t Catch Anything
With this new information in mind, I returned to my prior mission of helping my border collie learn to catch.
Day after day, snack after snack, we worked at this task. Me throwing, her not catching. We were simply unable to make any headway.
Until one day, when she got her mouth around the treat just right for a successful catch. I broke into cheers and celebration, which promptly caused her to forget how to catch once again.
Right back at square one!
I tried hard to figure out what was going wrong. Why my dog can’t catch a ball, a Frisbee, a hot dog, a steak, I really did not know.
It was not for a lack of motivation as she loved all those things, especially the ball.
And it certainly was not for a lack of trying, as she was diligently working her tail off, as a good Border Collie should.
Well with closer observation, it became shockingly clear that as soon as the snack neared her face, she briefly closed her eyes. And with that, the treat would miss its mark, causing great disappointment for all.
Using that insight, I was able to create training steps that quickly helped Nyx — and her entire doggie crew – learn to catch.
If your dog also has limited catching abilities, no matter the cause, you can help them work through with the same steps I used for my pack. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
How to Successfully Teach Your Dog How to Catch
Learning how to catch is as simple as practice, practice, practice.
But first, you must understand how to best set your dog up for success.
For the best results, you should frame the activity in a positive manner. Stay upbeat and calm whenever you work on this task together.
You will also need to make the activity as approachable as possible for your dog. Start with an ultra-soft, floppy stuffed animal, then move onto smaller and smaller toys before trying treats. Although many dogs are more food driven than toy driven, the right toy is just plain easier to catch.
Start the training process by sitting facing your dog at a distance of about two feet away.
Show your dog the stuffed animal and say your command word. Ours is simple, as it is just “catch,” but you can pick any command you want as long as it is unique to that trick.
As you say the command, toss the stuffed animal toward your dog’s mouth using a soft, slow underhand motion.
If your dog so much as glances at the toy as it flies through the air, reward and praise.
Continue on in this manner, slowly raising the bar to encourage progress toward a real catch. You can accomplish this by only treating and praising for movement toward the toy, and then just for an attempt to catch. Before you know it, you will be rewarding your dog for completing the catch, much to your collective surprise.
Once you can no longer say, “My dog can’t catch,” you can start moving on to smaller toys. As dogs are not great at generalizing, you may need to move through the full range of training steps we’ve described with each toy you select.
To keep the trick somewhat familiar to your dog, select toys similar to the one you started with, just in a smaller size, and work in the same area each time. Continue down the toys you have until your dog can catch a ball.
Once you reach this phase, you can trade out the toys for small treats. The trick to making this behavior stick after switching to food is making sure that your dog never gets a reward for free.
If your dog misses the catch, quickly snatch up the treat for a second try. Your dog will quickly get the point and double down on trying to catch each tasty morsel. If your dog misses the catch several times in a row, ask for a sit to start over, treat for that and begin your catch training anew.
The time it takes to teach your dog to catch will depend on their level of understanding about how this all works. If you want to speed up your results, you can work on this trick several times a day for a few minutes at a time. The extra practice can only help in establishing the movements needed for a great catch.
Look at this video
If you are a more visual person, try teaching your dog to catch using this video.
Practice: The Best Way to Reinforce Your Dog’s Newfound Catching Skills
Once your dog learns how to catch, getting better at it is just a matter of practice.
With regular opportunities to catch toys and treats, your dog will never again leave you wondering why my dog can’t catch a ball.
You can practice in many different areas to help your dog better understand that all tricks stay the same from place to place. Try working in the front yard one day, park another and friend’s house later in the week to give your dog lots of chances to improve their catching skills.
After your dog understands this trick inside and out, you can randomly vary the toys and treats you toss.
You can even catch your dog off guard to help build muscle memory and reaction times. Give a whistle and quickly toss a treat to see if your dog can catch on the fly. Upon confirming that you will never again worry that my dog can’t catch anything, you can toss treats without warning to test and strengthen the newfound catching skills of your dog.
Top Reasons Why Dogs Cannot Catch a Ball
As your dog works on learning how to catch a ball, you may notice the underlying problems that prevent your dog from being a natural at this activity. Here are a few things you might see.
Strong Flinch Reflex
If your dog is anything like my Nyx, a strong flinch reflex will override any desire for play or treats. As your dog’s eyes ever-so-briefly close, they lose sight of the delicious morsel or fun toy.
When this happens, the flung item hits the floor, turning this potentially graceful movement into a mad scramble.
You can overcome this reflex by always working from below your dog’s face, not from above. Use the gentlest of tosses to keep the toy from coming up over the eyes to help your dog build confidence and fight against this reflex.
If the flinch reflex continues, this could be masking underlying issues with your dog that may need to be addressed,
Lack of Coordination
Dogs are all unique individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses.
For some dogs that cannot catch, being coordinated enough to catch a ball is their weakness. Thankfully, you can just keep practicing and practicing to help your dog build the muscle memory needed to succeed. With time, it is possible for dogs to overcome a lack of coordination and finally learn how to catch a ball or treat.
Poor Understanding of the Game of Catch
If your dog has no idea what you are asking of them, then your game of catch will quickly fall flat on its face. You must clearly communicate the action you want your dog to take before the message will click.
If your dog seems confused or overwhelmed with instruction, break down the training steps into smaller chunks. You can add a game of tug in the early training steps, for example, if your dog does not seem to understand that you are asking them to grab the toy with their mouth.
You may discover other barriers to learning how to catch as you work with your dog in learning this task. With a dedicated approach, however, you will not have to ask why my dog can’t catch every again.
Breeds That Naturally Excel at Playing Catch
Golden Retrievers, like poor Fritz, get a bad wrap when it comes to playing catch.
Remember catching is a learned skill in some dogs.
Just in case you were tempted to blame any one breed for your difficulties, here’s the truth about that matter: breed alone cannot determine whether or not your dog will be able to catch a ball.
Like my Border Collie, there will always be outliers that just cannot naturally catch.
All dogs can learn, however. Dogs are great at picking up new tasks while working with their owners.
Even without a natural ability to catch, Nyx showed a true enthusiasm for the task.
This enthusiasm helped keep the training sessions fun and focused, which greatly improved our results and the speed in which we achieved them. She wanted to catch the ball and tried hard, time and time again, as we troubleshooted the problem and worked on building this new skillset.
Now that she can catch, she tries to practice this skill whenever she has a chance, much to my delight. She shows off her skills with so much flair that it is tough for onlookers to believe that she wasn’t born a natural. Give your dog the same chance at small-time fame by putting your all into helping them learn how to catch.