Is Fetching Really All That “Fetching” for Dogs?

Playing fetch is a common canine/owner activity but is it always the best thing for our dogs? Graphic © Can Stock Photo
Playing fetch is a common canine/owner activity but is it always the best thing for our dogs? Graphic © Can Stock Photo

As science sheds more light on the popular game of “fetch”, it is fascinating to learn that “fetch” may not always be that “fetching” after all for some dogs. Stressed dogs in particular may take longer to recover if they are playing fetch. This article discusses how this game affects a dog’s body.

Fetch can ignite the hunting instincts in some dogs. This becomes evident when one considers that many dogs do not need to be taught how to run after a ball, but only how to return it. Sometimes dogs are natural hunters and instinctively run after small moving objects that resemble prey. In fact, the concentration of cones in their eyes is such that they see moving objects in the periphery of their vision twice as well as they see static objects right in front of them.

The Dog Pulse project in Norway studies this phenomenon as well by measuring the heart rate of a dog and identifies points where the dog’s fight or flight response is triggered when playing fetch. When this hunting instinct is triggered, the dog gets a boost of adrenaline. Just as we would, if we were doing something extreme like bungee jumping. With repeated exposure to adrenaline, another hormone is released in the body, cortisol. Cortisol is a type of steroid.

These hormones are great in short doses, for emergencies. They are very powerful and provide a lot of power to the body and muscles. The body gets faster, stronger and tougher. But something that powerful cannot be emptied as quickly as it’s pumped in.

In some cases, adrenaline is known to have remained in circulation for seven days and cortisol is known to have remained in circulation for up to as much as 40 days. When an animal hunts in the wild, after that adrenaline rush, he sits down to eat his meal and lets the hormones wear off. But when we throw the ball, we throw several times each session. Imagine bungee jumping several times over. Imagine taking that many shots of steroids, every day. It might be worth considering how much of the residual hormone is coursing through a dog’s body and how long it would take for all those hormones to leave the body. Every dog’s physiology is different; some may show the effects while others may not.

It is a commonly held belief that dogs need to play fetch to remain healthy. As part of my education I have been studying street dogs and how much they move around. While my results are still pending publication, I can say with confidence they just don’t run as much. Maybe they just need to conserve their energy. However, they do explore a lot more, use all their senses and get at least 16 hours of sleep a day.

If a dog is overweight despite say around 45 minutes of exercise a day, it may be worth checking his diet and general health, and considering a check up with the veterinarian.

Sometimes clients point out that their dog brings the ball to them asking to play. This is true. Adrenaline addiction is as real an addiction any other. I may reach for that next cigarette, but that does not make it good for me. Not all dogs are “addicted” by any means. Some dogs genuinely love the game. Further, many dogs have an innate joy of engaging in a wide range of dog sports.

For the dog who does not appear to be so engaged in a game of fetch though, consider alternative games include nose games like treat search and mental games like dog puzzles. Often – but not always – these can be more calming on a dog and can go a long way in addressing stress issues. Some dogs prefer their owners’ attention over the notion of repeatedly running after a ball. When he brings the ball to you, maybe he is just hoping for some attention and it’s fine to give him that if that’s what he wants. Talk to him. Maybe tell him a story. Dog Pulse uncovered that just as fetch increases heart rate, search games can bring down the heart rate. In addition, slow walks build core muscles, and sniffing on walks exercises a dog’s mind, helping to calm him down and tire him. Food for thought indeed.


Dog Pulse. (n.d.). Retrieved from Dog Pulse Org.

Horowitz, A. (2010). Inside of a Dog. In A. Horowitz, Inside of a Dog. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In R. M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Hold & Co.

First published in Bangalore Mirror, June 8, 2015, Times Group

For more articles by Sindhoor Pangal visit:


  1. It is interesting to me that two people compared playing fetch to breeds like border collies who may be out all day herding sheep and following their shepherd around. I think the difference is fairly obvious. Fetch is a continuous, high energy, back and forth activity. The amount of activity is not controlled by the dog, it is completely controlled by the human, as any dog addicted to fetch will not stop on its own unless incapacitated. On the other hand, a herding dog will have intermittent activity followed by slower periods when the sheep are where the shepherd wants them to be. So the activity may be controlled by the person but it is not so continuous. And the movements are in many different directions, thereby providing a more balanced workout for the body. I also don’t see border collies leaping ten feet in the air to catch a sheep as they might for a frisbee.

  2. Hmm I usually don’t get involved in these ‘science based’ studies. First if games are uncontrolled then of course you have the possibility of raising the dogs arousal level and triggering stronger instinctive behaviours such as chasing. But of course if the play such as fetch is controlled then there is no increase in any kind of arousal level as you are controlling this! For example if the dog is trained to stay while the ball is thrown and released on command from the handler then you not only control the arousal level but can also use this as a means to control many natural instincts. Teaching the dog to return when in full flight after the ball will (like a miracle) give you total control if your dog sets off after chasing a rabbit or deer. I am assuming that to do this study there were blood samples taken – maybe that was contributing to stress more than playing the game of fetch. Also for information on Border Collies working sheep, I studied many of this breed working on hill farms in Derbyshire, UK and an average dog on an average day in the year would actually cover around 75 kilometres! They do not herd sheep every single day but they follow the farmer as he drives around fields on tractors, quad bikes etc. I have never seen one stressed by this level of activity.

    1. Since I do rely heavily on science to formulate my methods, my response is perhaps going to be irrelevant here. In any case, in our studies we did find that irrespective of commands given to a dog, on throwing a ball to a dog, the dogs heart rate immediately spikes up. The pulse project is a good place to look for these videos. The spike can be anywhere from 70% to higher. There is sufficient literature to connect the increased heart rate with the pumping of hormones in the body and the result of repeated spikes of adrenaline and cortisol on the body of any being. Galen Myotherapy center also details the muscle problems caused by excessive chasing of the ball, which is not only based in science, but also on the hands on experience they have had in the field for several years. They are good references to understand the affect of this game on the dog.

    2. While I agree that it is hugely beneficial to teach a dog (particularly those naturally highly-aroused beings) impulse control, I think it is a mistake to equate stillness of body for lack of arousal.

  3. A very good article and very on the point.
    Most owners don’t see it but the game of fetch is highly stressful to their dogs, there is zero calmness in those dogs and when the ball is removed they:
    don’t know what to do
    might get aggressive even or look for other ways to canalize their stress.
    I strongly believe that is the case for about 75% of all dogs and saying that these are just a few OCD dogs is just blunt.
    I do however think that good retrieval games are a far better and calmer way to exercise a dog for example. The longer it takes to learn a dog to grab an object and hold it very persistent in a calm matter, that is superb (I am talking the well learned obedience style retrieval games). These objects can be hidden and asked to search etc. no need to throw them or whatever.
    I think a lot of dogs really benefit mentally from this and a lot of owners just don’t see it. A lot of people also think that fetch is a game you do together but generally it is more about the ball and the dog and a throwing machine.

    I see to much dogs on a walk asking for their next adrenaline shot. gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme, now now now now now. That doesn’t benefit anyone.

    I have had many breeds and I noticed this behavior luckily with the third dog I had some 20 years ago. And I start really training my dogs since.

    Now I have a lot of working border collies and we work with sheep a few times a week. This is very instinctive behavior but I think less comparable to fetch games.
    1 it is continuous working with a lot, and I mean a lot of mental stimuli, so a lot to think about.
    2 the dogs are very responsive to the owner so there are really busy together
    3 when we are done, the dog is very relaxed, happy and sleepy which means there has been a release of energy without the extreme raise of adrenaline and cortisol.

    Keep up the good research.

  4. I’m curious how fetch compares to other activities that involve repeated burst arousal states in domestic dogs. Playing chase or wrestling games with other dogs, for instance, or herding (something border collies and other herding breeds are bred to do for extended periods every day and for which fetch games are often a substitute in suburban environments), or agility training? Do any of these activities also cause permanently elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels that might be harmful?

    I’m pleased by some of the safety-driven changes in many agility venues in recent years. Lower jump heights, breakaway tires, more widely spaced weaves etc. reduce the wear and tear on dogs’ bodies. But it is worrisome that the act of performing this sport, which entails multiple hormone-raising bursts of activity, (or indeed, using a border collie to herd in a farm environment) might be bad for their health in a different way. I assume the costs of these chronically elevated stress hormone levels would be heart disease, cancer, autoimmune issues and so on–conditions that are very common in domestic dogs.

    I’m wondering if this issue might also apply to humans. Are frequent games of tag, for instance, or sports that mimic hunting, chasing, or conflict bad for us in a similar way? We’ve always been told that sports like basketball and soccer are good for kids (and adults), but if they cause chronic stress hormone elevation, then a game of ultimate frisbee might be as bad for a human as fetch for dogs.

    It would be ironic if sports turn out to be the reason we get so much cancer and heart disease as humans too, and that a sedentary life with nothing more than sustained walking (which raises heartrate a bit without the adrenaline rush) would prevent most cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune problems. I was always taught that the bursts of stress hormone elevation we get during intense activity is good for us, because it means that our stress hormone levels are lower the rest of the time. But it sounds like this may not be true after all.

    The next question, of course, will be whether the enjoyment we derive from these sports and games is still worth their health costs.

  5. I also have a herding bread (Australian Cattle Dog) and I started noticing the stress from throwing the ball. He would get so excited to play fetch he looked like he was going to have a heart attack. I played fetch anyways because that is what we are supposed to do right? Although, I agree that maybe some dogs would be ok to play fetch one or two times, it seems like a mindless game to play to me anyway. When we stopped playing fetch it was hard to give up I felt like I was depriving my dogs of something that “all the other dogs get to do” and then I did notice a change in my dogs behavior he seemed like he was more confident and our reactivity to other dogs went way down. I felt the same way in the beginning this sound ridiculous no fetch for the dog. It is new and not everyone can understand it and that is ok. The research is coming from all sorts of qualified professionals to back this up. The best thing you can do for your dog is be diligent. DO the research and always be looking for the best thing for you furry family. I also know that if fetch is what you want to your dog that is great, but if you want to try something new to benefit your dog that is good too. I also new is scary and I appreciate when people spread the knowledge even at the possibility of getting resistance. I am certainly not that brave. Thanks Sindhoor

  6. As the owner of an active herding dog I have seen first hand the effects of excessive ball chasing on both his physical and emotional wellbeing. For the first three years if his life we played fetch on a regular basis as I believed it was the best way to exercise him and that he loved it. At this time we were also dealing with major reactivity to other dogs, skateboards and some people when they made eye contact for too long with him. Due to a carpal injury we had to stop his beloved fetch to allow him time to heal. During this time we spent lots of time on leash taking slower walks and as the days passed I noticed his reactions to normal triggers were decreasing.
    I began to do some research into possible links of over exertion to behavioural issues and I came upon Turid Rugaas and her opinions on appropriate exercise for our dogs. In the last two years we have completely changed our exercise routines. There are no balls in our house as my dog is frankly addicted and the mere sight of one sends his stress levels through the roof. If he finds one while we are out I hide it for him rather than throwing it. Using his nose to locate the ball provides a huge dose of mental stimulation while keeping his adrenaline levels at a healthy rate. Our life has completely changed due to this shift in thinking when it comes to understanding what a dog truly needs in terms of exercise. I have a happier, more relaxed and confident dog than I ever believed possible. We need to slow down and focus on the mental stimulation more. Thank you Sindhoor for an excellent article and keep spreading your message.

  7. Key word here seems to be “excessive” – in normal dogs, behavior is expensive. They behave for reasons: finding a mate, seeking food, teaching young. They don’t fetch sticks until a human’s arm falls off unless it becomes very reinforcing.

    Honestly, I think we need a resurgence of common sense. Normal dogs play, and they sometimes chase, grab, toss, and tug objects, either alone or with other animals. That can include us.

    Relax, everybody. It’s not a sin to play fetch with your dog, any more than it was a sin to play tug. But, if you want to have a dog that isn’t bugging the crap out of you to play, or stressing out from over-arousal, then do some common sense training and think about variable routines. Know your dog. Teach object exchange. Teach a release or “out” cue. Teach “find” so the dog can learn to locate objects as well as food items. Use the game as a reinforcement for impulse control. Vary things up – don’t play the same games every day. I’d be very surprised if anyone ran in to trouble with a moderate approach.

    1. I heartily agree with Anne Springer’s comments – do things in moderation and have a variety of different ways to engage with your dog.

      Sadly there are too many pet dog owners in the UK who only give their dog what they see as “quality time” by using a ball. They do the same walk every day to a nearby park or sports field, stand in the middle of the field and throw a ball (usually using a ball chucker stick so that their arms do not giet tired) time after time after time….. The dog is aroused and excited, it repeats the behaviour and seems to be very happy. Of course it seems happy – this is the only time that the owner is actively engaging with them and so it takes what is given to it. But given a choice that dog would far rather be enjoying the companionship of a calm sniffy walk, interacting with its own species, and mental stimulation rather than repetitive mindless games of fetch.

      There is an excellent article about how much sleep dogs need, which also ties in with the above excellent article. I strongly recommend you read this –

      Also Sprinkles is a great alternative to excessive games of fetch, and offers both human and dog an alternative to the daily ritual discribed above –

  8. In your response to Denise, you say that “dogs are exhausted after such walks, far more than they are after adrenaline pumping runs.” Exhaustion is the result of excessive stress, which I thought you were against?

    1. This is going to be a bit of a detailed response. When we measured the heart rate of a dog, fetching increased the heart rate while sniffing decreased it. As you might already be aware, our nervous systems are divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Increased heart rate is indicative of the sympathetic nervous system being turned on. Decreasing heart rate is indicative of parasympathetic nervous system being turned on. When the sympathetic nervous system is turned on, adrenaline is pumped into the body. It’s part of that mechanism. As expected, adrenaline is not being pumped in when the parasympathetic nervous system is turned on.

      Given this background, sniffing walks reduces heart rate, decreases the adrenaline pumping that is happening in the body and the cortisol that follows the pumping of adrenaline. However, the sniffing walks, still use the brains resources, without pumping adrenaline. So the dog is still tired, minus the adrenaline and cortisol. That’s what I mean. I hope this makes it a bit clearer. You’re right. I should have been a bit more clear in what I said. Thanks for pointing this out. 🙂

  9. Hello Ms. Pangal,

    I am wondering how you would reconcile your findings with breeds such as the working Border Collie?

    These dogs, in particular, in contrast to the street dogs that you have studied, have been bred especially to activate prey drive on a very regular basis and to use it in a very specialized fashion. I am not talking about the over-the-top obsessive Border Collies that one might come across that are poorly bred or handled – I am talking about those who are bred well and do their work on a daily basis to a very high standard.

    These dogs might enjoy a good sniff now and then, and they might enjoy a searching game as much as any dog. But they also really do need to engage in activities that do activate prey drive in a way that many other breeds do not.

    I am using Border Collies as an example, but I would expect that breed might be a very important factor to consider in regard to the idea of regular games of fetch as beneficial or detrimental to an individual dog.

    I live with a former street dog. Just like the dogs you describe, she does enjoy short walks, a lot of sniffing, exploration, and low key activities. She cares nothing for fetch, so she and I don’t play the game.

    I also live with two working bred Border Collies. They enjoy those things, as well. But several times daily, short games like fetch, or tug, or running through tunnels in the yard satisfy another need that they clearly have as working bred dogs. These are not obsessive hyperactive dogs. They relax, and relax well. But they also benefit from having their prey drive kicked into gear several times a day. That makes sense, given their breeding.

    It seems to me that breed can be a very big factor in this consideration.

    Thank you for your time.

  10. In “Stress, Anxiety and Aggression in Dogs” Anders Hallgren address information helpful to understanding this subject: (Please see the final notation from page 92, in particular)

    Page 11 – Excessive daily fetch games can lead to increased production stress hormones.
    Page 18 – The brain is blocked by high stress. Calm thought and cognition are blocked by feelings. Stress is a sign of an internal or external change; the dog is adapting to the situation. The body uses energy reserves and then requires time to recover.
    Page 21 – In most cases, stressed dogs will be hyperactive or will overreact to certain things. The dog will also find it hard to wait or contain himself and may whine a bit.
    Pages 38-39 – Adrenal glands (located above the kidneys) release adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream. 30 Seconds later the adrenal cortex releases cortisol. Oxygen, fat and sugar content are raised in the blood. Cardiac activity is increased. The pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which influences the adrenal glands to release cortisol.
    Page 91 – A harmless game can trigger negative stress if played too long and too vigorously. Excessive behavior usually leads to negative stress.
    Page 92 – Based on the lifestyle of hunting canids, dogs are programmed to not overexert themselves too often. Excessive fetch, for example, overstimulates the stress system because it is similar to the behavior of pursuing prey. The same can apply to play with other dogs. Perhaps once or twice a week is good.
    The adrenal gland becomes enlarged in dogs that are overstimulated over a long period of time, and it constantly produces elevated stress hormones. (Markey)

    1. Presumably this article is targeting dog trainers who need solid information to help them make decisions with their client’s dogs.

      So maybe this article needs to be a wee bit more specific and throw in some definitions for good measure. Are we talking about normal dogs or, “dogs that are exhibiting stress, anxiety or aggression, ” and how is one defining “excessive” quantities of fetch? What behavior can a person observe to help them make this determination?

      If this article is targeting a sub-population (such as aggressive dogs), then shouldn’t it say so? And if the author is more generally stating that fetch is bad (as it appears in her response to me), then we need something to show that the game of fetch is mentally harmful to normal dogs, with supporting evidence. Yes, dogs get hurt playing fetch, but they also get hurt when they stick their nose down the wrong hole on a nice walk and come out full of stings. Life happens. Pick your risks.

      Personally, I’m still reeling over the fact that humans are not predators. Games of hide and seek, tag, chase, wrestling, hunting (both adults and children) sure look predatory to me….and engage similar feelings of excitement….leaping around corners looking for the bad guys….setting traps, organizing raids….maybe we should not be allowing these games, lest the children become too excited?

  11. Can you clarify as to why you equate a whole hunting session to a single throw of a ball? Canines in the wild certainly don’t catch everything they go after and it usually takes them a much longer chase than 30 seconds. They also are performing the hunting activity more than once a week so therefore, applying this same theory, the adrenaline certainly wouldn’t have the opportunity to completely leave their system before the next hunting session.

    Referencing this –
    “In some cases, adrenaline is known to have remained in circulation for seven days and cortisol is known to have remained in circulation for up to as much as 40 days. When an animal hunts in the wild, after that adrenaline rush, he sits down to eat his meal and lets the hormones wear off. But when we throw the ball, we throw several times each session. “

    1. As of now, we have 3 reference populations to study to look at normal hunting behaviours – wolves, free ranging dogs and wild dogs. Of these, free ranging dogs are the closest to the dogs at home, since they are the same speices. The other two are not. Free ranging dogs are actually preferential scavengers. Though there is no study on how much they actually hunt, anecdotal it is quite evident that they do not hunt 15 – 20 times an hour, twice a day (which is the roughly the frequency in a game of fetch). Urban free ranging rarely hunt. But you do bring up an excellent point. I think the world can benefit a lot from studying this in detail. Will put that in the list of things to study in the months to come.

  12. This article saddens me.

    Imagine the outcry if this article were written to human parents. “Stop allowing your children to exercise vigorously because they might enjoy it too much and become addicted to the adrenaline! Instead, when they ask you to play physical games, encourage them read more and maybe add in some puzzles.”

    The goal of pet ownership is not supposed to be to “calm” your pet – it is to enjoy each other’s company. Dogs that play fetch often love to do so, and owners should be encouraging activities that the dogs clearly enjoy.

    The breeds of dogs that are most inclined towards the game of fetch are the more active breeds of dogs such as sporting, herding and working breeds. A walk around the neighborhood might be sufficient exercise for the owner, but barely touches on the needs of a young and rambunctious dog.

    It’s no different for a human child. We do not expect them to be adequately exercised by walking around the block with their parent -we encourage them to run and play and use their bodies – releasing all sorts of NORMAL and POSITIVE hormones associated with exercise.

    As the article correctly points out, the game of fetch releases adrenaline into the system. indeed, ALL vigorous exercise does this; there is no need to bungee jump! So yes, humans can exercise and will experience adrenaline. Is the author implying that is might be a bad thing – since this hormone might remain in the system? That maybe humans and their children should stop exercising because they might become “addicted” to exercise? That when our children ask us to play ball we should read them a book instead? How disrespectful to the clear wishes of our charges! A dog who brings you a ball wants to play ball; not listen to a story! We should be encouraging our dogs to communicate with us, not shut down their attempts by blatantly hearing them “wrong.”

    If a person has hours on end to devote to their dog’s interests, walking them around the neighborhood and letting them sniff and explore to their heart’s content – more like a street dog – then I agree 100% that the dog is not likely to need much additional exercise. But the number of people I know that are able to do this is so limited that I would suggest offering practical alternatives – one of which is playing fetch with interested in players. Sure; some dogs have OCD; deal with that when you see it. Not much different than a dog with hip dysplasia or any other medical issue. But what has that got to do with the rest of the dogs out there? Not much.

    I think many people will find that 45 minutes of walking every day is not sufficient to exercise many of the working breeds – games of fetch are a wonderful way to make better use of their limited time.

    Please re-consider the implications of this article.

    1. I don’t believe that the author at all suggested that we should never play fetch, but that simply, for *some* dogs, it may not be the most holistically beneficial form of exercise. I personally have known dogs for which fetch only serves to hyper-arouse them, putting them in a very undesirable state of mind, the effects of which can last for days. This is especially true when played as most people do, with few rules and little to no impulse control required. If we are comparing dogs to children, it would be like allowing a child to engage in an activity that over-stimulates them; it may have a physical “exercise” component, but that is not sufficient to result in a well balanced experience. I didn’t feel at all that this was referring to the laid back pet dog who enjoys a nice game of fetch, but rather that ball obsessed, crazed dog that cannot think straight, and will fetch to collapse – that is not healthy exercise – physically or mentally!

      I agree that young, active dogs need much more physical exercise than most get; however, I don’t believe that this article is necessarily addressing the needs of young dogs. I would also argue that, even for those dogs who do need a high degree of physical exercise, they would benefit from more calming activities like seeking activities, especially in pet homes.

      I believe the goal of pet ownership is as individual as people and their dogs; however, simply because ‘calming’ may not be the goal of the relationship, I can say that many people’s dogs would have better lives if they learned this valuable skill, and if more people understood that aroused is not necessarily happy. That, I believe, was the intention of this article.

    2. The comparison to human children playing ball is not completely accurate in my opinion. Children do not have a prey drive. The comparison to animals on a hunt is more accurate, as the effect in the body of a dog that’s playing fetch is closer to that of an animal hunting. During the pulse project the elevation in heart levels we saw in the heart rate of a dog was far more than what we come to expect during a good cardio workout. A simple lackluster tossing of the stick was showing elevations of upwards of 70% in heart rate. And subsequent trials were further increasing the heart rates. There is a talk in Asheville in October that gives a lot more details from the Pulse Project and is a good place to start to actually put numbers on what these games are doing on our dogs. We humans see a “toy” and have a mental picture of a “game” and expect physiological changes akin to a “game”. But looking at it from a dog’s eyes, it might be viewed as prey and not a game any more. Hence the comparison to more extreme things like bungee jumping.

      Speaking of street dogs, the dogs do not put in miles and hours of walking, as is common misconception. The last part of my study was done during the day and the dogs spent almost the entire day sleeping. They walk short periods of times. So to stimulate the brain like that of a street dog, one need not walk long hours. It’s the style of walk that matters. The style of walk needs a lot, and I mean a LOT of sniffing on walks. Apart from me in India, several of my colleagues in Europe have been experimenting with this style of walks in Europe. Dogs are exhausted after such walks, far more than they are after adrenaline pumping runs. Do keep in touch for the final paper on the street dog study. That’s expected to be out in December.

      Engaging with dogs is certainly important as you point out. But it does not have to be via fetch. It can be through sniffing games that dogs do enjoy a lot because they get to use one of the faculties that is their core strength – sniffing. It can be through exploring walks. It can be through other games. The Canine Kingdom of Scent is a great book that explains a few different nose games for dogs. You are 100% bang on. When a dog asks to engage, one must engage with a dog. It’s firmly believe in that.

      You are also right that young dogs have a lot of pent up adrenaline that needs an outlet. So movement is critical for them. But movement via fetch is not always the answer in my opinion, since it adds adrenaline into the system.

      The underlying thought behind fetch – one of wanting to engage, one of wanting to expend energy and one of wanting to mentally stimulate a dog are all absolutely bang on. Just that fetch is not always the way to go.

      1. You say that there are “less damaging” activities, but what is so damaging about fetch to begin with? Yes, you mention release of various hormones and neurotransmitters in the body–I have no doubt that this is true given it is easy to quantify such things–but to suggest that such chemical activity is always negative is misguided.

        As for dogs not recognizing fetch as a game, your data neither supports or denies that. Sure, prey drive is activated (which is NOT a bad thing), but it’s not like a dog is completing the entire prey sequence within a proper game of fetch.

        Sure, it might be a good idea to abstain from playing fetch with some dogs who have mental illnesses (OCD, etc.), but denying a normal dog of such activity could be the cause of several more issues.

        1. As the article says, fetch accumulates adrenaline in the body. In addition there is risk of repetitive stress injury from fetch (read more). Activating prey drive itself is not harmful. Problem with the “game” of fetch is that it activates the prey drive far more often than the mechanism was designed to be activated. An animal was not designed to hunt several times in an hour. Robert Sapolsky’s book on Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers is a very good guide of what happens in the body when this prey drive is activated and why it should not be activated so often. The long and short of it is that it can be far too damaging in the long run. Perhaps another blog post on the ill effects of too much residual adrenaline and cortisol would be useful in this context. Meanwhile I highly recommend this book to understand the effect of this chemical activity and what it does to the body.

          1. 1. “There is risk of repetitive stress injury from fetch.” There is risk of injury from doing just about anything active. Whether or not that is reason enough to not do an activity is a personal judgment call, I suppose.

            2. “Problem with the game of “fetch” is that it activates the prey drive far more than the mechanism was designed to be activated.” Feral and/or street dog populations, working dog populations, and pet dog populations and sub populations are not subject to the same selective pressures. How often the mechanism is “designed to be activated” will vary from population to population, especially if the selection criteria focuses on presence or absence of prey mediated behaviors. What population(s) are you referring to? And how can you suggest that what is normal for one population is also normal for another?

            3. “An animal was not designed to hunt several times in an hour.” While this may be true, I still don’t see how a game of fetch is equivalent to hunting. Did you do the same tests on your population while hunting vs. playing fetch?

            It just seems that there is a disconnect between the data and the conclusions resulting from it.

          2. 1. UK based mytherapist Julia Robertson explains why there is increased risk of repetitive injury in games like fetch. It’s not all games that carry similar risks. She includes running beside bicycles in this category. There may be a few more. Some games carry more risk than others. Though you are right, all games carry risk. We do need to do risk-benefit analysis. From a physical perspective, this game seems to have more risk than benefit. Check out the article here.

            2. Absolutely right that what population hunts how much needs to be studied. As of now, we have 3 reference populations to study to look at normal hunting behaviours – wolves, free ranging dogs and wild dogs. Of these, free ranging dogs are the closest to the dogs at home, since they are the same speices. The other two are not. Free ranging dogs are actually preferential scavengers. Though there is no study on how much they actually hunt, anecdotal it is quite evident that they do not hunt 15 – 20 times an hour, twice a day (which is the roughly the frequency in a game of fetch). Urban free ranging rarely hunt. But you do bring up an excellent point. I think the world can benefit a lot from studying this in detail. Will put that in the list of things to study in the months to come.

            3. There are a few evidences that point in the direction of the game of fetch being similar to hunting. First anecdotal evidence is the natural instinct that many dogs have, with which they readily chase after a moving object. Their eyes were designed to catch movement and run after it. The second, more data driven evidence is the one that comes from pulse project. The pulse project measured the dogs heart rate and the percentage jump of heart rate is so high that it seems sufficient to conclude that it’s damaging on the dog. The jump in heart rate seems to suggest that what the dog is experiencing is akin to hunting. You seem very interested in this. I highly recommend you try to attend the Dog Pulse presentation happening i North Carolina in October. It’s going to be fascinating, to say the least. Meanwhile,

  13. Excellent explanation! I once worked in a dog daycare with a ball-obsessed Labrador. She was friendly with people and dogs, but began guarding the (resource) ball if it was thrown more than a few times. We simply restricted ball retrieving to a few minutes each day and all was f e.

    A new employee, who would not follow instructions, threw the ball for an hour straight, several days a week. Against my repeated warnings to the employee and the business owner, this continued for several weeks, even as the Labrador became aggressive toward other dogs chasing the same ball. The aggression generalized to any dog that was near her, whether a ball was present or not. She bit several dogs and was then banished from the daycare.

    It was the last straw for me as well and I quit the job to become a certified trainer.

  14. Aw, wow. Great to know. I felt really accomplished after getting my chihuahua to fetch, and I still do, I’ll just need to be careful about wearing her out. I’ve also been teaching her some alternate games, like picking up beans and putting them in a bowl – less physically intense, more mentally stimulating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *