My Dog Won’t Fetch – What To Do When Your Lab Won’t Bring The Ball Back


If your dog won’t give the ball back, won’t drop the ball, won’t let go of his toys. Or if your dog won’t fetch at all, then this is the article for you. We look at the solutions to these common fixable retrieving problems. Labrador Retriever you say? The Labrador part might be right,  but forget the retriever!

Playing keep away

If your dog has as much enthusiasm for giving his ball back as you do for paying a parking fine, then you are in good company. Dog trainers refer to this a ‘playing keep away’.  And plenty of Labradors play the ‘keep away’ game, much to the frustration of their owners.

We are going to take a look at why some Labradors won’t bring the ball back, and at why some don’t want to fetch it at all. And most importantly, what you can do about it! You might also enjoy my free training tips emails where I cover lots of topics like this one. Just drop your email in the box below to receive them.

Chasing is fun

Most Labradors are only too happy to chase a stick or a ball (paid link)for a few minutes. A few will give you a withering look which clearly indicates you can run after the thing yourself. But for most dogs, especially Labs, chasing is fun! Some will do it all day long. It’s not usually the chasing part that’s the problem

Not letting go!

Unfortunately a sizeable proportion of dogs that do chase after the ball you just threw, won’t give the ball back again, thereby effectively terminating the fun. Not just for you, but for themselves too. After all, there’s only so much fun you can have with a ball on your own. There are a number of different causes of playing ‘keep away’. Let’s take a look at those first.

Bored of fetching?

If your dog used to chase a ball but doesn’t want to any more, he may have been put off retrieving. We call the enthusiasm for fetching your dog’s ‘retrieving drive’.  There are two things that influence this drive

  • genes
  • experience

Some dogs are just more driven to retrieve than others.

Give my ball back (paid link)High drive dogs tend to come from working lines,  but actually, it doesn’t take a huge amount of retrieving drive to produce a dog that enjoys playing fetch. Plenty of show dogs have enough drive to make a good retriever. More often it is the experiences that the dog has had, that can mess up the retrieving process.

Too much of a good thing

Problems often arise when puppy parents are not aware that   it’s quite easy to dampen a dog’s retrieve drive by making him think retrieving is boring. With a lowish drive dog,  just throwing a ball over and over until he is sick of it, will do the trick. And the trick is to stop after a few throws, and while the dog is still having fun.

Fortunately retrieve drive can usually be reignited. We’ll look at that in a moment.

It’s my ball, you can’t have it!

While overdoing things can put a dog off even chasing after a ball, the more common problem is the dog that willingly chases the ball, and then won’t return it. Again, both genes and experiences are at work here.

The drive to possess

Some dogs have a strong drive to possess. They feel an urge to ‘possess’ for themselves whatever it is they have chased and picked up. All the dogs I have had with this streak have had quite a few ‘show genes’ in them. But dogs from working lines can also be this way. Possessiveness is not related to dominance, some of the most submissive dogs will be possessive over toys.

Having toys taken away

Many puppies are very keen to show off their toys. They’ll bring them to you with a wagging tail. And parade around proudly. Many puppy parents instinctively reach for the toy, to take it away and throw it for the dog. A completely natural thing to do, based on the assumption that that is what a retriever puppy wants most. Only it isn’t

What your puppy wants most is to examine this new toy, preferably while sitting in your lap, and for you to admire it together.

Admire the toy together

So if you have a young Lab puppy right now, do remember to sit on the floor, and let your puppy climb into your lap and enjoy the toy without taking it away. Wait for the puppy to loosen their grip and relax a bit before you gently take the toy and throw it again. You might also find this article helpful: How To Get A Dog To Play Fetch

Beware chasing games

Some dogs have learned to run away with the ball because they have frequently been chased round and round the yard by children and thoroughly enjoy it. These dogs are not such a problem and will usually retrieve when they realise that no-one is going to chase them anymore.

The good news

There is some good news in all this. The possessive dog, the dog that really wants to keep the ball actually has the makings of a great retriever. Especially if he wants the ball so much he will move heaven and earth to get it.

Not a recall issue

Obviously, it is important that your dog will recall without a ball in his mouth before you attempt to recall him whilst he is carrying something. But for many keep away dogs this is not a recall issue. They are perfectly happy to come when they are not carrying something. They just don’t want you to get your hands on that ball! By attempting to call the dog in this situation, you can end up damaging your recall too,  so be careful!

Teaching your dog to return with the ball

If you are not bothered about ‘how’ the dog gives you the ball, and don’t mind him dropping it at your feet, you may be able to solve this problem in a less subtle way by throwing food to the dog. Another approach is to have two balls,  and only throw the second one,  when he has brought the first one back.

Some dogs can fit several balls in their mouth at once though, so this can be a ‘hit and miss’ affair unless you follow a strict plan of only throwing the second ball when the first one is released. And with some dogs you will have a very long wait!

The trained retrieve

If you really want the dog to bring the ball back,  reliably and without fuss,  your best option is a properly ‘trained retrieve’. This is a very structured process and requires a little skill with the clicker, so it’s a good idea to do a foundation course first, if you’ve no experience in this field

Restoring enthusiasm

If your dog was retrieving before but has lost his enthusiasm, you may be able to revive it. Try avoiding all retrieving for several weeks and then rationing the number of retrieves he is allowed each week very strictly. This will only work if the rest of your family will co-operate!

Help and support with training

Most dog training challenges have a straightforward solution, but it can be hard to figure these out on your own. We have some great resources to help you in our training section of this site, and I have now set up an online dog training school over on the Dogsnet website. So do check that out when you have a moment. There are plenty of articles to browse and detailed descriptions of what is in each course

Don’t forget you can get my email training tips for free by dropping your name in the box below.

You’ll also find some plenty of more general information for Labrador parents in the Labrador Handbook.

(paid link)It looks at all aspects owning a Labrador, through daily care, to health and training at each stage of their life, and is available worldwide. You can buy The Labrador Handbook from Amazon by following this link(paid link). If you do, The Labrador Site will receive a small commission which is greatly appreciated and won’t affect the cost to you!


The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website


  1. here’s a trick. Use 2 tennis balls. Once I show my dog the second ball (first ones between his jaws) he’ll drop the first ball wanting to retrieve the second one

  2. My lab will run for ball all day long and bring it back to me but its a fight to get it out of her mouth even though running for it is her favorite thing ever

  3. My boy likes to chase the ball, but is so proud of himself for getting it, he just rolls on his back and starts kicking his legs in the air. Kinda hard to not to laugh hysterically… the other people at the park do.

    • Most of the time, we (owners) just simply enjoy seeing our dog be happy. Don’t get me wrong, playing fetch is a great bonding & obedience experience. But as you just described, your pooch is in his happy world rolled over, tail wagging, and playing w/ it while facing the heavens. My dog does the same thing and the laughter it brings to everyone is like chicken soup for the soul. Unless you wanted him/her to be a hunting dog, then I say play away!!! 🙂

  4. I feel very lucky with my black lab luka . He is 1yr and had obdience training at 6mths was told by trainer he highly intelligent and needs to learn .ball obsessed but does fetch back to me every time .done some agility training and again using the ball did very well.also just adopted lab x..sammy is 7 mth old and has no.interest in chasing any ball
    He prefer collect any rubbish he can find .lol

  5. My boyfriend says my Lab is a triever, not a RE-triever, because she is not interested in returning anything you throw. After she catches it, she just drops it, but that’s okay with me!

  6. Do you think you could get rid of the annoying newsletter spam dialog that appears at least 5 times whilst you attempt to read any article? Even after you’ve put in a dummy address? (which I guarantee is all you will ever collect with this idiocy)

    • We appreciate you alerting us to this issue. The lightbox is only supposed to appear once to any individual, can you tell us what browser/platform you are using to help us fix the problem? Many thanks

  7. Benny brings back his ball but won’t part with it , blank him he drops it and wants you to throw it , he will wait all day , food no ball yes ,.

  8. Hey there, we adopted a lab x, they think with mastiff and collie. I’m wondering if pit bull in there? But anyway, loves playing ball, I use two balls, works great. But we’ve found at home, if he gets a child’s toy, or something he shouldn’t have, he won’t release, he just bites down and holds it. I basically have to just give up and let him have it. How can I get him to release. It’s worked with treats, but you don’t always have something. I’m afraid he’ll get something in his mouth that’s harmful, and I can’t get it out. He’s a two year old. All we know of his past, is he got picked up lost, and no one claimed him. He’s really a big suck, lots of love. This is the only issue. Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks

  9. Hello,

    I have a 6 month hyperactive lab. She keeps jumping unless u come close to pet her. Whenever I throw a ball to him heputs it in her mouth and starts turning in circles. I usually force the ball off her mouth by snatching it from his mouth and he likes it. Because its like playing tug of war. But I want him to give the ball back to play fetch. She never does. And whenever I put water for her she drinks then flips the bucket of water. How can I make her fetch. She is very active but doesn’t play fetch.


  10. Hello! I have a 10 month old Black Lab mix that my wife and I just got a few weeks ago. She is very energetic and likes to play, but she will not fetch. We keep her outside because that’s what the previous owners did, and when I come home and go out there to see her she gets all excited and starts jumping (which is another issue) and wants me to run around with her. That’s all well and good, but naturally I get tired out. I have tried using a ball and a frisbee and she ONLY focuses on ME. What can I do to get the attention off of me and on to the object? Also, she doesn’t want to play tug of war. Is that natural, or do some labs not like to play that game? Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  11. Oh my! That could be Bailey in the photo and I have incorporated all the suggestions and am going to get a clicker. This behavior was reinforced in her first year with her first owner, a teenage college student – she lived in the dorm with him and was used to rough hand play and wrestling, including wrestling the ball from her mouth, which to her was a game. She no longer expects the ball to be wrestled from her mouth but she loves to place the ball in my open hand, with it still firmly in her mouth and repeat it a few times. Our rescue Pitt (my grandson’s) get the same treatment, but instead of a hand its his mouth, and she has taught him well. If it is a softer and smaller squeaky ball, she’ll allow him to bite on half, sharing her prey while they both bite and wrestle with it, tails wagging, playful growling and they have a “ball”. I admit I let her hold onto the ball a little longer than I should have but I was working on her bonding issues.
    I ignore her when she will not give me the ball and she usually will toss it to me on the floor. That’s progress. The exchange for treats works as well but she gets overly excited (she gets excited enough over ball play as it is) She will listen to me and sit still and wait but you can see her struggling to contain her excitement, it’s all I can do not to laugh. The swap works well as long as one of them are not one of her 2 fav indestructible balls, in that case she will hold it in her mouth and chase the other. In this case her chuckit balls do better. I think the clicker will be the ticket.
    Bailey has shown a great predisposition for a diabetic dog (she alerts me when my BG is low) and I have started training her for this. Then she can go everywhere with me. But I have to fine tune her behavior first and not knowing what method they used (she knows hand signals as well but I do not think I know them all) I am pretty much learning as we both go along, I use the reward method not the traditional method. This is a great site by the way, kudos! Thank you!

  12. Hi there, we have a 4 yr old chocolate lab. She has always loved to play and has many toys so my husband and I will generally put some away and swap them out every once and a while. Yesterday we gave her one toy (small stuffed animal possum) to play with. She hid away and played with the toy and then just rested with it beside her. When we went to take the toy from her she placed in her mouth and started growling. She usually doesn’t growl. She also showed her teeth and continued the growling. My husband had to pri it out of her mouth! Any suggestions on how to train her to give it up or tips to stop the growling? Let me know. Thanks. Kim

  13. My 6 month Lab enjoys retrieving, and can go on for quite sometime before he gets bored (unless severely distracted..).
    We only play retrieve in the yard and inside of the house (The frigid weather/temperatures of the last 4 weeks have set us back on working/training items outside during our deep freeze).. Question: He will bring the item back every time, but will not release it. He wants me to pull/pry, or tug, but will not release or put down.
    I’ve been working on the command “release” for the last 2 weeks, with no success. I use a clicker mostly as an event marker, but he’s receptive to praise as well. Any suggestion ? Thank You !

  14. Hello,

    I found this article after our latest incident at the dog park. We have the sweetest Irish Setter/Lab mix who is 9 months old. She is totally OBSESSED with the ball and has gotten into a few fights with other dogs at the dog park over balls that aren’t hers. She wants to chase everyone’s ball and her leave it and drop are good for everything BUT the ball. She’s very well-socialized and got great bite inhibition, but I still hate to see her get into tangles with other dogs and it’s scary and stressful for me. I worry this means I just won’t be able to take her to public places to play, which is a shame because she’s otherwise really friendly with other dogs and loves to run in open spaces (we live in a city). Any advice would be appreciated. Is this something dogs can grow out of as they get older?
    Thank you!

  15. My 20 month old chocolate lab has no problem retrieving a ball and giving it back to me in my fenced in back yard. (I use the 2 ball trick and throw the 2nd one once she releases the first one)

    But if I throw the ball to her in an open field or dog park, she will play keep away for a very long time. She isn’t interested in treats or another ball, she just likes to look at me and run away if i approach her.

    Any recommendations for this?

  16. We have an 11 week old lab that we are training for duck retrieving. When we throw the bumper, she will eagerly fetch it, but when she comes back with it she veers off to the side when she gets closer as if she does not want to give it to us. Why is that and how do we correct it and can it be corrected this early? She is a very quick learner, but also a little stubborn at times as if she only wants to learn quick with certain things.

  17. Hello,
    We have a 5 year old male black lab. He is an outdoor dog and always has been. We went on vacation last week and he has beeen acting strange ever since we came home. He tries to come in every time we open the door, even though we are blocking the door and telling him no. Also, he is getting up on a wooden piece of furniture right outside of the window and stares at us and will stay there for long periods of time, sometimes standing on it and other times sitting. The piece of furniture is not very big and he barely fits on it, so we know it cannot be comfortable for him. He has never gotten on this furniture before. We have a half acre (with underground fence) that he can roam/run. While we were gone, we had a family member come feed, water and sit with him a bit every day. We have had him since he was a puppy and we have gone on vacation every year and this has never happened before. He is not whining and does not act injured or scared. What could be causing this and will he stop acting “crazy”?

    • Hi Karen,
      Possibly your dog had a frightening experience whilst you were away and is now feeling insecure. Possibly your family member let him in the house in your absence, and he is now missing the pleasure of that. If the unusual behaviour continues, a vet check to exclude any health issues would be a good idea.

    • I read your post and I had the same problem with my 10 year old Yellow Lab Bosco. It turns out that I was and am still being stalked by a guy who lives in my neighborhood. He is good at getting in my house and scaring Bosco. I put a camera outside the door and saw him. Unfortunetly, he is smart enough to back up to the camera, The back of his head is seen but the police can’t do anything. Sadly I lost Bosco last Christmas as he was 12 and had health issues. I have spent &7,000 on Security and continue to pray….
      Please try putting a disquised camera in your home. You can get cheap ones on ebay. Always trust what your dog is trying to tell you. I feel so quilty that I didn’t pick up on this soooner. Bosco didn’t deserve to be traumatized in the last years of his life….. Unfortunetly I am still trying to deal with this stalker who I have never met.
      Boscos mom

  18. Hi,

    We have a soon to be year old lab/retriever mix puppy. She lives with my husband and I as well as our 2 children (both under the age of 6). Huxley is a great dog, we had a trainer when she was younger for some obedience training as well as aggression issues. However, our trainer is no longer around and we are back to having some issues. We have noticed Huxley has growled at our oldest child. Now she was laying at her bed, her empty kongs were laying nearby aswell. Huxley is very tolerant and we are trying very hard to teach our kids how to act around dogs. However, we are not sure what to do now. Especially since we no longer have a trainer. Do we go back to having the kids feed Huxley? Do we have the kids give her treats when they approach her bed? or bests to tell them to stay away? How do you teach a dog the hierarchy which includes young children?

    I hope to hear back from someone, since we are at a loss.

    Thank you,
    Erin and her family

    • Hi Erin,
      It is not uncommon for dogs to guard resources, this may include food, toys, and favourite sleeping places. Where young children are involved I think it is a good idea to have a behaviourist come and observe your dog, and give you advice on managing and/or resolving the problem. Essentially you need to teach your dog that a person approaching his resources is a good thing. It will be helpful to teach your dog to ‘give things up’ or ‘move away’ on cue, using powerful rewards. Avoid behaviourists that talk about hierarchy and dominance, this is irrelevant. Your dog is simply afraid that the children are going to take away something he values. It can transform a dog’s relationship with children if he learns to respond to them in exchange for rewards. Show them how to teach him to sit whenever he wants something, and whilst you are waiting for help, make sure his bed (move it if necessary) is out of bounds to them.