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The Problem with Fetch:
Or Why I Chucked the Ball Launcher

Ren Volpe, June 2 2023
Black puppy playing with a tennis ball
Puppy playing with a tennis ball, photo by Jess

There seems to be an unspoken rule among dog people that every dog and human should be absolutely crazy for fetch. While it's true that many dogs go bonkers at the chance to chase a ball or frisbee, that's certainly not the case for all pups. Still it's common to hear dog owners complain when their dog won't join in the fetch frenzy - as if not having an interest in chasing a flying object is evidence of a training lapse or a malfunctioning dog.

Most dogs do have an instinct to chase moving things. It's in their DNA, a leftover trait from their wolf ancestors. That’s because wolves and other predatory animals have an innate drive to pursue and capture prey. This prey drive has been passed down to modern domesticated dogs, albeit in a modified form. Different breeds and individual dogs may have varying energy levels or prey drive, and some may have zero interest in chasing after things.

Throwing a ball is highly reinforcing for us humans, too. Ball games have been a part of our culture and traditions for centuries. Going to the park and flinging a ball around can make us nostalgic, taking us back to the simpler days of childhood. Or sometimes we just get busy and need to tire out our dog as quickly and efficiently as possible.

While fetch may be a popular and enjoyable activity for many dogs, there are reasons why it might not always be the best choice for some. It can pose problems for high-energy dogs who struggle to settle down - you know, the ones without an off switch - as well as for dogs with reactivity or anxiety issues. On top of that, the repetitive stop-and-go of fetch has the potential to cause physical problems.

Reactivity, Anxiety, and Over-Arousal

Let's talk about reactivity, anxiety, and over-arousal first. When a dog's energy levels skyrocket or their anxiety spikes, our first instinct is to give them more exercise, hoping to wear them out physically. Maybe that means more fetch, transitioning from a leisurely walk to a full-on sprint, or spending more time at the dog park. But here's the thing: a tired dog isn't necessarily a happy dog, especially when it comes to anxious or reactive ones. You may just end up with a super athletic but stressed-out pup who demands increasingly more physical activity.

That’s because the hormones released during high-energy play, obsessive ball chasing, and moments of reactivity are pretty similar — cortisol and adrenaline, to be exact. Whether your pup is encountering an aggressive dog or relentlessly chasing a ball, it’s all the same to their brain.

If your dog frequently experiences either one, there's a repetitive cycle of hormone release. As a result, your dog's brain is subject to a continuous flood of these hormones. While physical exercise may tire out your dog's body, their brain may still be in a state of stress. It can take quite some time to bring those levels down, ranging from hours to even weeks in some cases.

If you have a reactive dog and want to engage in play or exercise, activities such as fetch or rowdy play sessions with other dogs can actually worsen the reactivity. Similarly, if you have an anxious dog who is particularly fond of playing with a ball, throwing the ball for 20 minutes may inadvertently reinforce their anxiety, as your dog's brain cannot distinguish between the release of hormones caused by psychological or physical stress.

Obsessive Behavior

Another potential side effect of too much fetch is obsessive behavior. Some dogs become fixated on playing fetch to the point where it becomes an obsession. As a result, they may show signs of anxiety or frustration when the game isn't being played, making it challenging for them to relax or enjoy other activities.

Playing fetch is usually a limited affair between a dog and their human. While this can strengthen the bond between you two, it doesn't provide the same level of socialization and interaction with other dogs or people, which most dogs need. Taking the dog out should also involve plenty of sniffing and meandering, as well as other calming activities (read more about why sniffing is so important for your dog), not just frantic exercise.

Making every dog walk as fun as possible is tempting, especially if you have a puppy or an exuberant adolescent dog with boundless energy. After all, you may think, what’s wrong with going crazy in a pile of dogs on every walk or chasing a ball until they’re exhausted? But if every time you leave the house, it has to be a party, you may be setting yourself and your dog up for difficult times ahead because realistically that’s not always going to be possible. All dogs need to be able to walk calmly and get their business done without a full-on rager.

Physical Injuries

Finally, we can't forget the physical injuries that can occur during an intense fetch session. Some dogs have energy for days and are prone to overexertion when playing fetch. This can lead to exhaustion, dehydration, and problems like muscle strains or ligament tears. The repetitive movements involved in fetch, like sprinting and abrupt stops, can strain joints and muscles, especially in breeds prone to musculoskeletal issues like hip dysplasia or arthritis. ACL tears (common in both human athletes and large breed dogs) are caused by suddenly slowing down or changing direction, which are intrinsic parts of fetch.

If you do decide to play fetch with your dog, it’s important to avoid hard surfaces and take frequent breaks. Some dogs will continue playing even when injured or in pain, so you need to be the responsible adult and set limits. Conversely, when your dog refuses to drop the ball or plops down, they aren't being stubborn or dominant - they probably just need a break.

If Not Fetch, Then What?

I'm not suggesting you keep your dog locked indoors on strict bed rest. Too many pet dogs already live painfully boring and secluded lives. The solution isn't less exercise but finding the right balance between mental stimulation and physical activities that leave your dog calm and satisfied.

Enrichment for Your Dog's Mind and Body

Here's the thing. Fetch primarily focuses on physical exercise, but mental stimulation is just as crucial for your dog's well-being. Relying solely on fetch for exercise may neglect your pup's need for mental challenges, which can lead to boredom or behavioral issues.

This is where enrichment comes into play. Enrichment refers to activities and environmental enhancements that provide mental and physical stimulation, promote natural behaviors, and improve overall well-being. The term gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s when zoos realized the importance of creating stimulating and engaging environments for captive animals to prevent boredom and behavioral problems.

Though we don’t like to think of it in these terms, our beloved pet dogs are captive animals, too - and unfortunately, the average urban or suburban dog rarely gets enough physical exercise or mental stimulation. Fetch, in moderation, can be one of the ways to keep your dog physically fit and mentally engaged. But let's be clear: repetitively fetching a ball (or stick or frisbee) twice a day doesn't qualify as enrichment, no matter how much your dog adores it.

With that in mind, here’s a starter list of ways to add enrichment to your dog's daily life.

  • Physical Exercise. Go for long walks or hikes in new environments, dip into a swimming spot, play with other dogs, or engage in a good old tug-of-war session.
  • Social Interaction. Dogs are social animals and benefit from regular socialization with other dogs and humans. Organize playdates, go for parallel walks, or consider signing up for training classes to provide opportunities for social interaction.
  • Novelty and Variety. Introduce new toys, rotate toys regularly, change up your walking routes, or provide different scents and textures to keep your dog interested and prevent boredom.
  • Training. Engage in training sessions, set up agility courses, try out scent work, or even participate in obedience competitions to provide mental stimulation and strengthen the bond between you and your furry friend.
  • Food-Based Enrichment. Get creative with food puzzles, slow feeders, or Kong/Toppl toys stuffed with treats or food. These will promote foraging behaviors and keep your dog mentally engaged during mealtime.
Does Your Dog Have a Fetch Problem?

If you're wondering whether too much fetch might be a problem for your dog, try an experiment. Replace ball play with a variety of enrichment activities for two to three weeks. Observe any changes in your dog's behavior and overall well-being. Are they more relaxed on outings? Calmer at home? If you don’t notice any changes, chances are your dog’s current fetch activities are just fine.

Remember, these drawbacks don't apply to all dogs, and playing fetch can still be a safe and enjoyable activity for many. But it's crucial to consider your dog's individual needs, physical condition, and temperament when deciding whether or not to incorporate fetch into their regular routine.

So go ahead and have a ball (or a frisbee or a stick)! Just remember to keep things balanced and enriching for your canine companion - and for yourself, as well.

About the author:
Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com