Why Can’t My Dog Catch Anything?

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Few things make a dog look goofier than failing at catch.

My dog never looks more confused than during that split second, after the toy has bounced off his head but before it’s hit the ground, when he turns his head, trying to refocus his crossed-eyes for a second bite, lunging his open mouth wildly around.

Truly a majestic animal. But it makes for a short game.

Wondering why your dog can’t catch anything? Catching is a difficult maneuver, requiring proper motivation and a step-by-step training program, just like every other trick you’d teach your dog. Almost all dogs can learn to catch if you make them want to, you just need to know how to get and keep your dog’s attention.

My standard poodle, Romeo was not a natural catcher nor was he a fast learner. It really made me question whether or not poodles were really one of the smartest dog breeds.

We tried a few different techniques before we found one that worked. Once he caught on (see what I did there?), he was catching like a champ. He even started throwing his toys around and catching them himself when we weren’t playing together.

So if you have enough hilarious slow-motion videos of your dog failing to catch (like these little champions) and want to figure out how to teach them this fun trick, read on!

I did a bunch of research that will help you skip some of this nonsense.

Can All Dogs Catch?

I was genuinely worried that I was asking my dog to do something that he wasn’t able to do. He just seemed so bad at it that I couldn’t picture him ever being able to catch.

However, poodles can catch just like most dog breeds. Almost all dogs can catch, but some dogs are better at it than others.

It probably goes without saying, but dogs with poor vision or mobility issues are likely not good candidates for a game of catch. Even something seemingly small like arthritis can make catching difficult or impossible for your dog.

Likewise, dogs with brachycephalic noses will have may have a difficult time catching. These breeds, which include pugs, bulldogs, boxers, and Boston terriers, have short heads and shorter mouths.

These short mouths make it harder for them to snag an object out of the air than for dolichocephalic dog breeds, or dogs with longer heads and mouths like hounds, shepherds, and yes, even Romeo my poodle. 

However, if you have an English Bulldog and still want to play catch, your dog still should be able to learn to catch. It just may take some more practice for them.

Why Can’t My Dog Catch?

If your dog can’t catch a treat or a toy when you throw it, there are likely a few factors at play. I’ll run through some of the most common issues that pet-owners may encounter when trying to teach their dog how to catch.

They Don’t Know What To Do

Grabbing an object or treat out of the air isn’t a natural motion for your dog to make like chasing a ball or sitting. 

Motions like chasing or sitting are behaviors that your dog will do on their own. This makes it easier to teach them to do those tricks by observing them perform the behaviors themselves, assigning a name to the motion, and encouraging them to do it on command.

Catching, on the other hand, takes modifying a dog’s natural behaviors. “Modify,” meaning that your dog “naturally” has instincts to run, jump, focus on objects, and bite, all the tools they need to play catch.

But it’s up to you to teach them how to put all of those tools together in order to play catch.

If your dog doesn’t bite at the treat or toy that you’re throwing or even just closes his eyes in anticipation of a wack in the face with a toy, it may be that they simply do not know what to do.

Lack Motivation

Another reason your dog can’t catch may simply be that they are not motivated to do so. 

If your dog likes to play fetch but has never been a catcher, he may be confused by what you’re doing. “Why are you throwing it at me instead of across the yard like we normally do?”

Or, if you’re playing catch with a treat and your dog keeps missing the food but picking it up off the ground anyway, why bother learning how to catch it out of midair when they can just wait for it to hit the ground and pick it up there?

Your dog has to want to catch before you’re going to be able to make it into a fun game for both of you.

They Need Practice

Learning how to catch a ball 100% of the time that it’s thrown at you would be an impressive accomplishment even for a person – and we have hands!

Even if your dog knows what to do and is properly motivated to play catch with you, it’s still going to take a lot of practice before they are consistently able to catch what you’re throwing.

If your dog is catching whatever you are throwing sometimes, maybe 10% of the time, it’s likely that your dog knows what to do and just needs to practice the catching skills longer.

It Hurts! 

Picture this: you’re learning how to play catch for the very first time. You have a baseball and you’ve never played catch before, and the person you’re playing with is REALLY good at throwing the ball.

You’re probably going to take a few hard hits from that ball before you’re having any fun, and one too many hard hits may make you rethink playing catch at all.

This is more or less the same experience your dog is having, except keep in mind that they have to catch the baseball with their teeth.

Dogs commonly chip their teeth playing catch with the wrong objects. If your dog is refusing to play a game of catch with you, it may be that the game is causing them pain in their teeth or mouth.

All dogs are different, and you’re the person who is best suited to gauge your dog’s mood and behavior. If your dog can’t catch, it’s likely because they are experiencing one of the above issues.

But don’t worry, there are some simple techniques you can use to help teach your dog to catch. If I can do it with Romeo I’m sure you can do it with your dog too.

How Do I Teach My Dog To Catch?

The Setup

Before you bring your dog into the mix, there are a few key ingredients you should get prepared to set your dog up for success.

The first thing to consider is the object you want to have your dog learn to catch. There are basically two schools of thought here: treats or toys.

Treats are a good option for dogs that are very food motivated. If you decide to train with a treat, make sure that it’s small enough to fit entirely inside their mouth. If using a Milkbone, be sure to break it up.

But don’t break it up too much so that it’s difficult for the dog to see. And make sure to use a high-value treat that they only get during special training times (as opposed to their regular kibble).

I recommend these training treats not just for this but for all types of training. They are small enough that you can give your dog a few of them before they get full and also because they contain salmon, so the smell helps trigger and keep their attention.

I tried treats at first but in the end, I switched to using toys. My dog was too distracted by the treat to learn anything. He just stared blankly at it till I tossed it at his face.

If your dog misses the treat at first (which is bound to happen), it’s very important that you pick the treat up before the dog picks it up off of the floor.

If the dog understands that they get the treat regardless of whether they snatch it out of the air or wait for it to hit the ground, then they’ll lose their motivation to learn to catch.

This was Romeo’s problem. I couldn’t bend down and pick up the treat I just tossed at him faster than he could zero-in on it and gobble it up from the ground. A couple of times like that and he started looking at me like we were playing a fun game of “dad throws food at me.”

After that, we switched to using a toy. If your dog is easily motivated by a game of tug or fetch, I recommend starting with a toy rather than with a treat. 

When choosing the right toy, you should consider what your dog likes and what will keep their attention. 

The main thing to look for is that the object is soft enough not to damage your dog’s teeth. So no baseballs and even tennis balls are not recommended for dogs because the course fibers surrounding the rubber can over time scour your dog’s enamel. 

My dog really likes balls, so I picked up a dozen cheap racquetballs for us to practice on. They were soft, relatively smooth, and, since Romeo already knew how to fetch balls, it wasn’t too much of a stretch for it to get his attention.

Another important point to consider is the environment in which you are going to teach your dog to catch.

There’s gonna be flailing. And wagging and probably jumping and some scrambling from both of you. Make sure you’re well away from anything either of you could know or break. This is probably an outside game, at least at the beginning.

Also, try to limit the number of distractors that can cut your training time short. If you have to go to a public place, try to find a spot well away from other dogs, kids, or traffic so your dog doesn’t burn through energy and focus on the wrong things.

This isn’t just sport for your dog, he has to learn how to do this. So make sure you’re working in an environment that’s conducive to safely learning an active skill like catch.

The last prerequisite is the catch command. This is an often-overlooked setup step, which is too bad because it’s one of the most important.

Any time you teach your dog a specific behavior that you want them to recall on command, you should associate a specific word with the action. 

It doesn’t really matter what word you use so long as it’s clear, distinct, not too long, and doesn’t come up in other situations. “Catch” is a good, straightforward option.

Once you have your ball/treat, you’re in your yard or wherever you’re going to practice, and you’ve picked out your command, you’re ready to get started training.

Motivate

This is part getting your dog’s attention and part keeping their attention. If you’ve picked out the right treat or toy for them, it should just be a matter of getting them to sniff it or recognize that playtime is about to begin. 

Teach 

This is the most nuanced step, so I’ll explain a couple of different ways and you can pick which one works best for your dog and your situation.

Method #1

This will work better if your dog is lower energy, you have a solid sit and stay with your dog, they are extremely food motivated, or you have a limited amount of space to work in. It’s a bit more contained than method #2.

It also works best with treats but toys will work too, you’ll just need to work a bit harder to keep your dog engaged.

  1. Get your dog in a  sit- or a stand-and-stay. Your dog needs focused attention.
  2. Hold the treat or toy high above your dog’s head while you stand roughly arm’s-length away. Your dog should be tracking the treat with their eyes.
  3. Slowly lower the treat to your dog while saying you catch command, indicating that their sit-stay is over and you’re starting a new behavior, one that will bring them closer to their treat
  4. Your dog should stretch its head up and open its mouth for the treat, not jump (unless you want catch and jump to be synonymous).
  5. Start by giving your dog the treat while dangling it over their head and getting them to stretch and bite for it while you repeat the catch command. 
  6. If they bite it from your hand, give them the treat and lots and lots of praise.
  7. Put them back in a sit-stay and get their focused attention again.
  8. This time, don’t hand feed the dog. Instead, drop the treat when it’s very close to their mouth, so it basically just drops in. This way, your dog should be able to easily catch the treat in their mouth. Again, lots of positive praise.
  9. Repeat this process while slowly increasing the distance you’re dropping the treat from. Be sure that you are putting your dog back in a sit-stay every time so they remain focused on learning and don’t enter a feeding frenzy.

Eventually, you should be able to work your way farther and farther away until, look at that, you’re dog is catching the treat from a foot, two feet, three feet away!

Method #2

This is the method that worked for Romeo and me. It’s more active, so we couldn’t do very long training sessions, but I’d recommend this method for anyone with a very active dog and lots of space to work in.

It also only works with a toy, not a treat. And even better if your dog already knows how to fetch.

  1. Same as Method #1, get your dog in a sit- or a stand-and-stay. Everyone learns best in a state of focused attention.
  2. Get your dog focused on the toy while standing 4 or 5 feet away, like you would if you were playing fetch before you threw the ball for them. You want to give your dog space to move around for the toy.
  3. Say your catch command while lightly tossing the toy towards your dog’s face.
    • A perfect toss is slowly arching downwards by the time it gets to the dog’s head level.
    • It should also be slightly to the side of the dog’s head, probably to their right, to make it easier for them to keep the object in their sight while moving to catch it
    • In the beginning, I found it easier to bounce the racquetball off of the ground for Romeo to catch. This gave him more time to track the ball and try to predict where he should put his mouth to catch it.
  4. Your dog should lunge for the toy, trying to catch it in their mouth. 
  5. They will fail many, many times. Just make sure your dog is having fun the whole time. Cut failures with praise and playtime with the toy to keep them engaged. And be sure you are keeping their focused attention in between so they are learning and not just playing.
  6. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If your dog catches it, praise them like they just saved Johnny from the well.

This method will likely take more training sessions than method #1, but your dog will immediately begin associating the action with fun playtime. Romeo started throwing his stuffed toys around the house for himself in between training times. 

Repeat

Regardless of which method you go with, you will need to repeat these training sessions regularly.  Go to the same environment, use the same toys, and repeat often. These are the same principles that people learn by.

Your dog will eventually learn this behavior and be able to do it out in many different environments and situations. But until they are consistently able to catch the toy or treat, your dog will continue to learn fastest and best in a routine training session rather than a stray toss from the couch.

Keep the training sessions frequent but short. You don’t want to frustrate, exhaust, or hurt your dog by demanding too much too quickly or pushing them too hard.

The whole point of playing catch with your dog is to have fun, right? So make sure your both having fun the whole time and keep it light and breezy.

Expand

Once your dog has learned the behavior and has fun catching, it’s time to expand their abilities by slowly altering the situations and objects.

Keep the catch treat or toy on you and periodically throughout the day, challenge your dog to catch it. This will be different for your dog who is only used to catching outside, during training sessions, and will help them internalize the action of catching and be able to do it on command.

You should also start mixing up the object you’re tossing to your dog. Start with slight differences. If you’ve started with a treat, change to a different treat. Likewise, if you started with a toy, switch to a different toy.

Once the treat-catcher is consistently catching different treats and the toy-catcher is catching different types of toys, you can then switch it up further. Toss your toy-catcher a snack one time and watch their eyes light up with pleasant surprise.

Your treat-catch may look at you disappointed that they have a mouthful of plastic bouncy ball than a mouthful of chicken at first. 

Once more, it’s on you to make sure that this is all fun for your dog. Get them playing with the toy (make sure it’s not small enough that they could swallow it by mistake!) and realize that, while it’s not a treat, catching is still lots of fun!

Try altering the game over time too. There are lots of different ways you can keep your dog interested, from playing dog-in-the-middle with a partner to my favorite, throwing a dog-friendly frisbee, and having your dog jump and snatch it out of the air.

Just keep in mind that your dog has to catch this object with their teeth, so it’s best to use soft objects or objects designed specifically for a dog’s mouth. Romeo and I play with this dog-friendly frisbee to keep his choppers safe.

Your Dog Can Catch!

I’ve created something of a monster out of Romeo. He throws balls for himself and catches them out of the air.

He intercepts my tosses when we’re trying to play catch. I’m thinking of having him trying for the minor leagues. He can play on that team with the Golden Retriever.

You should now be able to identify why your dog can’t catch anything and have some tools to help teach your dog to catch. It’s not always easy and it may take a while, longer even than you are expecting.

But in the end, teaching your dog to catch gives you both one more fun game to play together, which Romeo and I think is always worth the effort.