How to train a cat to play fetch

Can you train a cat to fetch? You definitely can, as proven by video after video on the internet where cats bring back toys on command as though they were dogs.

Is it that unusual? Many people believe so, though in reality retrieving objects comes naturally to cats. Think about it. If you have an outdoor cat, you have likely seen dead mice on your doorstep. How did the mouse get there? Your cat brought it home. A cat loves to carry prey around in their mouth, which is the same reason they like to play fetch.

A cat playing fetch
Cats love to play fetch because it resembles their natural drive to carry around their prey. Photo by Tony Harrison, cc

Therefore, training your cat to fetch is a win-win situation: your cat gets to express part of his natural behavior and interact with you, and you get to engage in a fun activity with your cat and possibly teach your cat a trick that will amuse your friends.

A step-by-step guide to training a cat to fetch

A QUICK NOTE: The timing of the training is essential. If you attempt to motivate your cat with food, you won’t achieve the best results right after feeding them. Right before mealtimes isn’t a great choice either, because your cat may be unable to concentrate on the task. The best way to “activate” your cat’s training mode is by playing with your cat for a few minutes using a toy or a wand. When your cat is up and alert, he’s ready to get started with training.

  1. Get a toy that your cat likes. It doesn’t have to be a toy though; it can be a hair holder, a crumpled up piece of paper, a toe spacer, or any other type of object your cat is happy to play with and able to pick up in his mouth. If your cat already carries toys around in his mouth, this will make the training easier. If your cat doesn’t love to play, it may be that he is not toy-driven. Don’t give up; check out this article about getting an unwilling cat to play. Maybe he needs to figure out how fun it can be to play, especially with you! Once your cat is willing to play with the toy, then training can begin.
  2. Throw the toy a short distance away from your cat and say “fetch!” How short a range? It’s better to start within a handspan or so, but it depends. Your goal is to entice your cat to go after the toy while being close enough that you can reward him as soon as he does. The cat will then learn to associate the reward with the toy. He will understand that the task is a co-activity with you. It’s important to say “fetch!” upon throwing because your cat will learn to associate the command with the action right from the start.
  3. Say a cue word when your cat goes after the toy. We recommend first saying “yes,” which can be followed by a command name. Talking to your cat is not a requirement of teaching them to fetch – you’re using a sound/word to serve as a cue for both the desired behavior and the subsequent reward. Any word will work as long as it is short and is consistently used during training when the cat does the desired action. It is crucial that the word is spoken in the same tone and voice each time, which is why it is better to use “yes” in a calm, friendly tone. (Cats are capable of recognizing spoken words.) The word could be anything – it could be “no” or “car,” as long as it is consistent – but why choose anything else than “yes” if it makes things easier? From time to time, add “fetch!” right after the “yes!” as this will further help your cat to strengthen the association between the action and the command.
    Note: for better results, instead of a word you can use a clicker — a device (or a pen) that emits a “click” sound. The best part of a clicker is that the click lasts for a fraction of a second, which allows you to pinpoint the EXACT moment when your cat does the desired action. Clickers are universal in training animals for complex tasks, and you can learn more about using a clicker in training here.
    Note 2: If the cat does not go for the toy on the first try, pick it back up and start playing with him. Once his attention is on the toy again, throw it a second time, but at a shorter distance. Keep repeating this and making it closer as needed to entice your cat to engage with the toy, even if you have to drop it right next to you on the floor.
  4. Couple the cue word with a treat. For as long as you are training your cat, he will not be motivated enough to get a “yes” (or a click) from you unless it means something. For most cats, the best motivator is food; thus, you have to couple the cue word with a treat every time you say it. This way, your cat will learn that “yes” means something good.
    cat receiving a treat in training
    Cats love food, and it works excellent in training. Photo by J Jongsma, cc

    Commercial treats are the most convenient to use here, but dry food or small pieces of cooked meat can also work. Check out this article to learn more about treats in cat training. Once you say the cue word, give the treat as soon as possible and your cat will learn to associate the word with a treat.

  5. Repeat the previous steps several times. That is, throw a toy, wait for your cat to go after it, say “yes, fetch,” and give him a treat. Repeat this several times in one sitting and repeat sittings as often as you find practical. At this point, your cat likely understands that once he goes after the toy, he will hear a cue and get a treat. Once the cat understands what you want and goes for the toy almost every time, you will have taught him the first part of learning to fetch. Now it’s time for the next step.
  6. Withhold the treat until your cat grabs the toy with his mouth. Most cats will reach for a toy with their paws. Before when your cat used his paw, you would say the cue word and give him a treat, but now you should wait until the cat eventually uses his mouth to get the toy. As soon as you see this action, you want to say the cue word and dispense a treat. If it seems like your cat is struggling to move on to this step, reward small steps in the right direction. Give your cat a treat as soon as he touches the toy with the tip of his nose and proceed accordingly, only rewarding him as he gets closer and closer to putting the treat in his mouth.
  7. Take it one small step at a time. From now on, the training will carry on in small fractions. This method is used to train all different kinds of animals to do complex tasks. For example, to teach pigeons to play table tennis. The concept behind behaviorism is that you train the animal one step at a time, rewarding each increment toward the desired behavior, no matter how small. Once the animal masters the step, you can to push it to the next increment. Bear in mind that often the next step is performed randomly by chance, but once you start to reward one particular random step consistently, it soon becomes a deliberate choice.
  8. Chug along. Your cat now understands that he can grab a toy in his mouth to earn a reward. Now, if you withhold a reward, he is equally likely to drop the toy or keep it in his mouth. To continue the training, you should only reward the cat if he keeps the toy in his mouth for a while. Once he has mastered that, you can take the next step and reward your cat only if he stands up with the toy in his mouth. After that, reward him only when he starts to walk with the toy in his mouth. Once your cat masters this behavior, reward him only when he starts to walk in YOUR direction. And after that, reward him as he comes closer and closer to you with the toy. Don’t forget to say “yes” or “yes, fetch!” every time you observe the behavior you want before giving him a treat.
  9. Final step. Now that the cat comes to you with the toy in the mouth, you can either call it good or add a final touch – it’s up to you. If you give your cat a treat, he will likely drop the toy he is carrying in his mouth on the floor to eat the treat.
    cat toy used in fetch training
    Victim. Photo by Ville Säävuori, cc

    Instead, as a final step, you can either wait for your cat to drop the toy to dispense the treat, or extend your hand and have the cat drop the toy in your hand. In the latter case, you should only reward the cat when the toy lands perfectly in your palm. If not, skip the reward and repeat the process. The cat will soon actively seek your hand to place the toy inside it and get his treat. At this point, you can proudly say that you have taught your cat to fetch. Don’t forget to praise your cat for being such a great sport and fun play buddy!

The ultimate advice is that you should become familiar with your cat and observe what comes naturally to him. The cue word or click must arrive at the exact moment when your cat does the desired “next step” in the fetch routine. If your cat is reluctant to proceed, take a step back and spend time reinforcing the last learned action. Repeat the previous step a few more times and proceed only when your cat consistently does the right thing. If you follow these tips, you’ll teach your cat to fetch (and impress your friends) in no time. Then the two of you can get to work on mastering something new.

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