How Do I Get My Dog to Play Frisbee

by Chuck Middleton

How many times has someone asked you that question while you’ve been at the park out practicing? Over the course of 10 years I’ve been asked that very question literally hundreds of times and I still do not have a simple response. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that what most people really want is a quick-and-easy answer when there isn’t one. For many years, I tried in earnest to explain that each dog learns a little differently and share, in detail, some of the things they might do to encourage Frisbee play. I could stand there and literally watch their eyes begin to glaze over as they tuned me out. I imagined their thoughts, “This guy is crazy. I don’t want to be a dog trainer, I just want my dog to play Frisbee.” Soon I learned that it was just easier to tell most people that my dog was a “natural” and go back to my training session. After all, I’m pretty sure that was what most people were already thinking, and it gave them the justification they were seeking to explain why their dog wouldn’t play Frisbee, “he’s just not a natural.”

No dog I know was born a natural Frisbee player. As we all know there is more to Frisbee play than just throwing the disc into the wind on a wish and a prayer. By examining the basic dynamics of how your dog learned to play simple throw and catch, you’ll be much better prepared to teach your dog more advanced Frisbee moves and tricks.

No matter how smart your dog is, or you think he is, he will never learn, “Now, I want you to run after the Frisbee when I throw it, catch it before it hits the ground, and then turn around and bring it back to me.” But take that sentence and break it down into individual pieces, like links in a chain, and many dogs with some natural or encouraged desire can be taught to 1) chase, 2) catch and 3) retrieve. There you have the basic pieces of canine Frisbee. Eliminate any one of those links and the game quickly becomes an exercise in stress management instead of a fun activity for you and your dog. Actually, it is possible to break it down even further. By looking at just the retrieve you’ll see that it too consists of three pieces, 1) taking an object, 2) carrying it and 3) giving it up. These steps are links in a behavior chain that, most of the time, must be taught individually before they can be combined–just like a chain is made by first creating the individual links before connecting them together to create the desired length.

Now you may say, “My dog does all those things naturally, I didn’t have to teach him to play Frisbee.” With some special dogs that may be the case, but chances are far greater that he simply transferred the learned behavior chain above to the Frisbee, from a ball, sock, stick or bone.

Before we go further, let me digress for a moment. Due to the very nature of canine Frisbee, physical coercion is a poor training tool. In obedience, for instance, you make a dog do what you want until he learns to do it correctly, either to please you and earn praise or, more often, to stay out of trouble and avoid punishment. But try to force your dog to chase, catch and retrieve the Frisbee and soon you’ll be spending more money on a therapist than I spend on dog food. Positive reinforcement is often the best way to train a dog, and the only way (in my opinion) to train a Frisbee dog.

Now if I were writing an article for a dog and disc newsletter this is how I would try to answer the question, “How do I get my dog to play Frisbee?”.

Behavior chains are taught in reverse order. Using Boss as an example, I’ll briefly explain how he learned to chase, catch and retrieve, in reverse order and independently of each other, before we ever combined them together for a game of ‘throw and catch’ with a Frisbee disc.

The first link: At six weeks of age Boss was encouraged to play with an old sock. While he played, he was encouraged to come to me with the sock. Generally, these initial attempts at retrieving covered only two or three feet–a distance where a little physical encouragement from me was possible, if needed, and he was praised like crazy. We tried it again and again, always for only a couple of minutes at a time, always over short distances where success could be controlled, and always with insane levels of praise. I knew (was hoping) that some day the Frisbee would become its own reward, but when it comes to teaching your dog (old or young), something new, lots of praise is a must. If your dog learns what praise is at an early age, he will be easier to train using that same praise as he gets older. Soon, little Boss would cross the room with that sock and the praise continued.

The second link: I tied that same old sock to a rope and dragged it around and around the house constantly encouraging Boss to “get it”. It was important that Boss was allowed catch up to and grab the sock. As he progressed, Boss was praised not only while chasing, but also for grabbing the sock. Soon, he was chasing without fail; when the sock was removed from the rope, slid across the room and retrieved, we had two links in the chain complete.

The final link: Learning to catch is extremely difficult for a puppy. When Boss was between 10 and 14 weeks of age I fed him literally hundreds of pieces of dog food–one piece at a time. When his attention was focused on the food it would be tossed up and in front of his face and he would be given the command “catch”. In short order attempts at catching were being made and as eye/mouth coordination increased catches became routine. Training to catch food was interspersed with work trying to catch a bounced tennis ball. A bounced tennis ball offered Boss a larger “catch” target with a longer range of travel and the ability to try and catch on the second or even third bounce. During our “catch” training, our chase & retrieve training continued with Boss’ sock being replaced with a Frisbee rolled on its side. By fourteen weeks of age Boss could chase, retrieve and catch somewhat consistently, and by 15 weeks he finally chased, caught and retrieved his first flying disc.

Although Boss is only an example, (Flash before and Fly Girl after, learned in much the same way) it is used to illustrate how a so-called “natural” might have learned the steps of playing Frisbee before ever seeing a flying disc. More importantly, it illustrates how a dog learns to play Frisbee - IN STEPS. This is critical. If you are still with me, but thinking, “My dog knows how to play ‘throw and catch’. What I need to know is how to teach him to do those other things, like vault off my back.” Well then, you need to go back and read this article again, because I just told you how - IN STEPS.

A vault is no different from ‘throw and catch’ in that it too can be broken down into trainable steps, or links, or pieces. I’ll help you with part of the first step. Your dog cannot fear punishment if he jumps up and puts his feet on you. Think about what the other steps might be and we’ll discuss those in a future article.

‘Til next time, praise your dog like crazy because a dog that responds to praise is a dog more easily trained.