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We Test the iFetch, the Automatic Ball Launcher Your Dog Can Operate Herself

Have you ever wished for a magical machine to throw the ball after you’re tired? Well, it's here.

 |  Mar 4th 2014  |   2 Contributions


They say necessity is the mother of invention. Some of my favorite dog products to review are those that were inspired by a dog lover noticing the need for a totally new kind of gadget or tool. For dog owners who have ball-obsessed dogs (I’m raising my hand right now), have you ever wished for a magical machine that would throw the ball after you’d tired of the game? The family of one ball hound decided to turn this wish into a totally new kind of toy. The iFetch, an automatic ball-throwing machine, was produced with funding from a tremendously successful Kickstarter campaign –- they raised more than quadruple their goal!

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Three generations of the Hamill family created iFetch for small- to medium-sized dogs who can never get their fill of fetch. The iFetch launches a miniature tennis ball when dropped in the funnel, and powers down between throws to save energy (it runs on batteries or can be plugged into an outlet). You can set the iFetch to throw balls 10, 20, or 30 feet, and although it was designed for indoor use, it can be used outdoors.

Using positive reinforcement and shaping, dogs can be trained to drop the ball directly into the iFetch’s funnel, allowing them to play fetch on their own! There is a training video on the iFetch website that explains the steps necessary to teach your dog to load the iFetch herself.

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I very much enjoy the design of the iFetch. Its round edges are whimsical and futuristic. It is small enough to store easily when not in use. When the iFetch powers up to launch a ball, it is a bit noisier than I would like. It didn’t seem to bother Ace, who is often skittish when she hears loud noises, so while this might be annoying to some dog owners I don’t think your dogs will be phased.

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After a few throws, Ace became comfortable using iFetch.

The iFetch reliably launched the included mini tennis balls in a low arch. Ace acclimated to the iFetch pretty easily, after some initial confusion. Within a few throws, Ace started to understand that this weird, whirring blob was tossing her a ball. She soon anticipated the ball being thrown when the machine began to make noise.

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Ace tended to stand in front of iFetch, right where the ball rockets out.

Ace tended to stand right in front of the iFetch as she was waiting for it to throw the ball. Understandably, this made me nervous, and I found myself hustling to aim the iFetch away from her before it tossed the ball. She did get hit with the ball a few times, and it didn’t seem to hurt or even startle her. On the iFetch Kickstarter page’s FAQ, designers noted that they considered adding a sensor to prevent dogs from being struck but decided against it to keep costs low. They found their dogs, like Ace, weren't disturbed by being struck, and some relished the challenge: “We've actually seen dogs catch the ball right out of the machine without incident.”

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That blur on the left is Ace, chasing a black squash ball.

Many owners of ball-loving dogs are wary of tennis balls, since the surface of these balls is thought to be particularly abrasive to dogs’ teeth. Ace’s vet has cautioned us against fetching tennis balls. I noticed on the iFetch website that any lightweight ball that is about 40 mm in diameter will work in the machine. I asked the folks at iFetch if they could recommend a lightweight rubber ball that would fit in the machine, and they suggested using a squash ball. You can order these easily from online retailers, or buy them from a sporting goods store (I got a three-pack for about $10). iFetch plans to offer non-fuzzy balls specifically designed for iFetch sometime in the future.

The squash balls fit perfectly into the iFetch, and Ace seemed to prefer them over the iFetch balls. I noticed that sometimes the iFetch would fail to launch the squash balls, and so I would unplug the iFetch and fish out the ball. This never happened with the mini tennis balls that came with the iFetch; using the iFetch balls, it launched perfectly every time. I wonder if the squash balls, being less abrasive on the surface, are a little more difficult for the machine to manipulate. If you are interested in the iFetch but are wary of using tennis balls, get some squash balls –- I think the occasional misfires are worth your peace of mind about your dog’s teeth.

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Although I viewed the instructional video, I did not take the time to train Ace to operate the iFetch herself. Ace responds reliably to the “drop it” command, but it seemed challenging for her to learn to drop the ball near the machine instead of near me. I previously trained her to bring the ball right back to me every time when playing fetch, so she would need to overcome that previously learned behavior in order to learn to drop the ball in a new location. Since I’ve seen how positive reinforcement training has been useful in teaching Ace some seemingly impossible behaviors like “leave it” (one word: coprophagia), I’m confident that a dedicated dog owner could teach her dog to play with iFetch independently.

I think the iFetch is a well-made specialty dog toy that many dog owners would enjoy. Aside from its intended use as a way to engage ball-obsessed dogs that have less ball-obsessed owners, I imagine the iFetch could be a real asset to people who have limitations in their ability to throw the ball or in their stamina to keep throwing the ball repeatedly.

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Throw it again, Mama... I mean, iFetch!

Dogster Scorecard for iFetch:

  • Quality: iFetch is built for the long haul with quality materials.
  • Style: The design of the iFetch is as unique as its concept.
  • Function: iFetch reliably launched the iFetch mini tennis balls, but if you want to substitute teeth-friendlier squash balls, they will occasionally jam.
  • Creativity: The Hamill family transformed a far-fetched idea into a fetch-lover’s best friend.
  • Value: At $99, iFetch is a specialty toy that may be a useful tool for children or people with physical limitations.

Bottom line

For the ball-obsessed dog, iFetch launches mini tennis balls with ease so you don’t have to.

What do you think of the iFetch, Dogster readers? Will you be bringing this ball-tossing robot into your home? I’d love to hear from folks who have used the iFetch. Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Read more reviews from Ace's Mama here!

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About the Author: This East Coast transplant enjoys the bounty of San Francisco, including its microclimates, farmers' markets, and secret stairway walks. When she's not walking with, talking about, or kissing the face of her Boston Terrier, Ace, she blogs about Ace's adventures. Product reviews writer and guinea pig at Dogster. 

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