Willie and Maggie usually play tug games every morning before I begin working, but Willie had a tooth removed, so he is working on some new tricks. Maggie needs to stay in good condition and needs to run hard, at least twice a day, so we are playing fetch together in the morning.
After just a few morning of this, I noticed that Maggie began jaw chattering as I got my boots on to go outside. It’s relatively subtle, but it’s new. What’s not subtle is her overall level of arousal while fetching. She ADORES doing it (that is her talking in caps) and when she brings the disc back she is so excited that she seems electrified. She squeak-barks, jaw chatters, and shoves the disc into my leg if I don’t pick it up fast enough. There’s nothing else that we do that gets her so excited. (Although she would drop the disc in a second if she saw sheep.)
That got me thinking about Clarissa von Reinhardt’s book, Chase!, in which she writes that fetch games release adrenaline, which acts to ready an animal for action. Under its influence, animals breathe faster, their heart rate increases, and glucose is released to prepare for immediate and extreme action. The plus side of adrenaline release is not just that it preps the body for action, it’s also enjoyable. (Watched the Winter Olympics this week?) But, von Reinhardt argues, it’s also a stress hormone, and can cause nervousness and hyperactivity. This is why she says: “..predatory games in which the dog becomes excessively fixated on, chases after, or becomes worked up by the object should be strictly limited. My preference is that they not be played at all.”
In May of 2010 I wrote a rave review of the book overall (which is focused on training dogs to enjoy being off leash but still listen and respond to you) but disagreed with her comment above. However, after watching Maggie rev herself up like a teenager in a souped up car at a stop light, I went back to read the section again.
I think her argument brings up an excellent point: Playing fetch may be good physical exercise for many dogs, but it doesn’t necessarily act to calm them down. It can also teach them to run after moving objects–not always a good thing when one is walking in the woods. She recommends teaching dogs what I’d call “natural agility” (walk on a log), Find It games (which kept me and Willie sane when he was recovering from surgery), all types of nose work, and problem solving games. I’d add in trick training here, because learning tricks requires the kind of mental exercise that results in most dogs taking long naps afterward. And, of course, long, long off-leash walks in safe places. As you probably know, I think there’s little better for dogs than that, but you need safe places to do it, and dogs who always always listen to you and won’t dash off. (Thus, the value of Chase! As I said in my blurb on the back cover, “… the idea of a “sausage tree” is worth the price of the book.”
I don’t worry about negative behavioral consequences with Maggie, because 1) She will stop on a dime at a word from me, 2) She exhibits little interest in small animals outside, and 3) She’s more comfortable on defense while sheep herding (don’t run this way) than being on offense (go this way damn it).
My primary concern with Maggie and fetching after objects is the potential of injury. I suspect last year’s hind leg injury was from leaping up and catching a disc, so I throw low and use discs with holes in them. That way they don’t catch the air, and the disc lands before Maggie gets there. Fetch games help Maggie to stay in condition when it’s too snowy or icy to work sheep, but as soon as Willie is able, I’ll go back to the two of them playing tug games. That too is great exercise, and she seems to love playing tug without getting so overly aroused.
But discs with holes make for fun photographs.
I’m curious about you and your dogs. Do you have a dog who gets aroused while playing fetch? Costs and Benefits from your experience? I think this topic is a good reminder that just because play can be fun doesn’t mean it’s not important. Karen London and I made that point in Play Together, Stay Together, because we both believe that play just doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Fun with snow continues, we’ve gotten another 6 inches or so and it’s gorgeous outside. Of all the dogs, Maggie seems to like snow best. Willie’s behavior doesn’t change in snow or no snow. Tootsie’s feelings are clear–the less snow the better. We shovel paths for her because otherwise she’d pretty much disappear and she trots out where it is clear, goes potty and trots back inside, thank you very much.
Snow makes the world so much prettier, including creating such classy designs on the most plebeian of objects.
Minnesota Mary says
What a fun topic – play. As my elder (13) dog ages our play becomes more subtle and difficult to notice by outsiders. He hesitates at the top of the stairs when I’m walking toward him, lowers his head and waits for me to stop, crouch and shift my weight as if I’m going to take off running at him. He bolts down the steps wagging his tail thinking he’s still the fastest between the two of us. He’s not wrong. We have conversations – his end held up with a few meaningful glances and some ululation, and mine with both verbal and physical contributions (neck rubs, glances, belly rubs). I have some wood puzzles where you hide a treat inside and the dog has to figure out how to get it out of the puzzle. Elder boy has never found a puzzle he couldn’t master in less than five minutes.
My younger (3.5) dog revels in any game of “catch me” or “tug” or really any attention paid to him. He’s in training to be a therapy dog once my elder dog retires. When young dogs (mostly previous foster dogs) come over to visit, he wears them out in the yard chasing and wrestling in the snow. We are still learning each other’s ways. He came to me less than a year ago as a foster dog and ended up staying.
Play is important in our lives too. I’m grateful for the opportunities my dogs give me to increase my level of play in my life
Michelle McMillen says
I have an Aussie and am currently long-term babysitting another. Our Aussie will fetch once or twice, and then lay down to chew the ball/toy or leave it altogether. The visiting Aussie is toy-obsessed and loves to play fetch, but even he doesn’t get worked up over it and will go lay down when told the game is over. So neither one fits Reinhardt’s description.
I have walked ball mad dogs in the past, and didn’t enjoy the experience – the obsessive fixation on the throw object to the exclusion of everything else always depressed me, and the constant pressure for just one more throw got boring very quickly. Neither of mine are natural retrievers, although I think Poppy could have been taught the game – as it is she has her own version called Treasure. I find a small, safe, half rotten stick, roll it in my hands to cover it with scent, and throw it a short distance into long grass or other cover. She finds it, and carries it until no one is watching, when she finds a safe place away from the path to hide it. If I take a toy outside to throw she takes the first opportunity to take it back inside and hide it under a cushion. She knows that if you give Treasures back to humans they just throw them away again…
Sophy also has very specific ideas about play – down on the rug, tugging a toy and playing “wrestling” and tummy tickling, twenty minutes after supper on days we have not walked enough. They both love the Hunt the Treat game, and when the weather is too miserable to walk we play that, and training games, and any other brain work I can think of that is fun, with various Ottosson toys as a special treat.
But mostly we walk – long, leisurely off leash walks over the fields, by the river, along the shore, or in the local park (which is so dog-friendly they not only allow dogs into the nice warm cafe, but give away free dog biscuits and poo bags there). The dogs meet and greet human and canine friends, catch up on the pee mails, have the occasional fun dash after a rabbit or squirrel, get to choose which path to follow as often as possible (want to guess where they choose to go in the park?!), then have a nice snooze in the car crate on the way home. In summer we go on adventures rather further afield, with a picnic to share; on wet days a special treat is to go to Pets at Home, where they are greeted by the staff with cries of “Here come the cleaners!”, and allowed to wriggle under the display stands for the odd biscuit that lurks there.
I sometimes worry that life may be a bit too placid, but they are fit, healthy, and seem happy. I must make the effort to find new places to walk, though – that is the thing they love best: somewhere completely new, full of unexplored possibilities!
Casper O' Hane says
My dog does love to chase frisbees, and definitely gets intense. She drops down into the BC crouch when I pull the frisbee out. But no teeth chattering or squeak barking. She jumps to catch them but not very high the way I throw them. Her back legs don’t usually even leave the ground, just her front. I’ve seen lots of videos of disc dog freestyle and will probably try it, since she loves frisbees so much and it looks like fun.
Casper O' Hane says
Oh and I should mention that it doesn’t affect her negatively in any way. She knows that once the frisbee is put away, that’s that, and goes back to being her normal not-hyper self.
Vicki in Michigan says
Problem-solving and walking on logs are excellent, but they are not cardio for a dog who NEEDS to run……………
I’ve had two corgis who were fetch obsessed. One of them, I believe, would never have stopped, as long as I was willing to throw something. I had to decide it was too warm, or she’d had enough, or *I* had had enough……
As far as I know, neither of them ever killed anything. We had the usual suburban animals — squirrels, birds…. The more fetch-obsessed of the two once spotted a baby robin on the ground, cheeping away for its parents. She went over to look at it, and having determined what it was, walked away.
I would not say either of them had a souped-up prey drive. I would not say they got more and more wound up from fetching.
I do think the possibility for injury is the real concern. The more intense fetcher had toenail injuries a few times. She’d come back on three legs, dripping blood, saying “THROW IT!!!!! Lots of dogs only have three legs! THROW IT!!!” :-/
Hi Patricia. I am thinking about chase a lot recently as I have a young working cocker spaniel who if given the choice would spend her life running after birds and never stopping.
One explanation that I read elsewhere, which felt like it made sense to me, was that to match the intense adrenaline rush that chasing birds (for example) provides, we need to provide a similar adrenaline rush such as through chase of something we can control such as a frisbee. Food rewards for low energy tricks just wouldn’t cut it. Would be interested on your thoughts about this?
The approach I’m currently taking is to lower arousal in the outdoors, build value in proximity to me, ditching the routine so there is not the anticipation of chase in our walking environments every time, and some games with me that will give an adrenaline rush I think but not for an extended period of time, so also practising the ability to quickly move between high arousal and back to low arousal.
Interesting point about the arousal of fetch games. We’ve seen border collies in the park who are so aroused by a game of fetch that they don’t even notice our dog soliciting play. But wonder if the extreme arousal is related to the activity of fetching or the brain of an individual dog.
My dog is a golden retriever, a breed created to fetch (oh, and to be lovable). And while she enjoys playing fetch, she will choose to end the game when she wishes. It has not stimulated general prey chasing in her either, which varies from animal to animal.
For instance, she reacted with utter calm with a rat in the house walked by her and down the stairs. She does not chase cats. She will ignore a squirrel. But rabbits, opossums, armadillos, and least terns (but no other kind of bird) make her crazy.
I guess the lesson is that we still have much to learn about dogs. And the most important thing is to know your own dog and what is good for them and what is too much.
We have a fetch obsessed corgi who came into the family last year at the age of 7. He will chase a ball as if life itself depended on it until we stop the game. He (as well as our other more demure female corgi) could care less about birds, squirrels, rabbits, etc. Our female looks at us like we’re nuts to suggest that she do something so beneath her as to chase a ball. A blanket statement to the effect that no dog should play fetch is a little far-fetched to me (pun intended). Every pup is different and what works for one, won’t for another. You just have to know your pal.
Ana Schnellmann says
Thank you for another thought-provoking post, Patricia. I have a three-year-old Golden whom I generally take for long, off-leash walks (private 225-acre farm, so it’s safe), but lately, due to my having a knee injury, I haven’t been able to give her much exercise–so, I’ve focused on “Fetch.” Of course, a Retriever is a natural at that! I wondered, though, why, after half an hour or so of hard running (I use a Chuck-it), the dog seemed MORE antsy, not less. I think, in her case at least, it was a matter of over-stimulation. She does need the physical exercise, but I’ve been integrating more tricks work and nose work. Thank you again for posting, and it’s also a delight to read the varied opinions of your readers.
Chris Lopez says
Yes, Grant the Siberian Husky gets the zoomies if we even play light fetch in the house, and has to excuse himself to the porch to run laps around the pool.
We are careful not to let 3-month-old Sophia (his little sister, same father, and only female of her litter, by the way) play chase with Grant because they both get too excited, even when both on-leash.
They both have strong prey drive and I don’t want Grant to confuse his tiny sister with prey before their bond–and her size–increases over the next months.
That said, Sophia stalks Grant as part of their play, which speaks to how big she thinks she is.
Paula Ehlers says
This does make sense when I think about it. My 8 month old Westie is obsessive with a laser light. It’s a good tool for me when I get home from working 2nd shift, to have him run around the yard like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, but probably isn’t so good for him in the long-run. I might have to re-think this.
Honey Loring says
I’ve never cared enough about “fence” to train or encourage it, but I am lucky here, as you are probably in Wisconsin, to have many safe (legal) places to go off lead. The best is the poodle frolic, an annual New Year’s Day event to which I invite all local poodles for a big romp in huge huge fields. 15 dogs in the house this year, mostly standards. This works out so well, that even with all of the dogs and people in my (kind of small) house, when we have a human pot luck, there is little, if any, posturing.
As far as tricks go, my current one is to have Apollo, my young white standard boy, put both paws on my leg (while I’m sitting), and and then I lure his head down while I sat “his” prayer – “Dear god, please make Trump go away.”) Then I say “Amen.” It’s pretty funny, even with the luring needed, although I hope one day to get past that.
I also regularly thrown lots of tiny treats out on the floor (20 or so, I actually don’t count) so that they forage. I came up with this to stop the guilty looks when I’m leaving!
I think you’re fantastic, Tricia~ So glad we spent time face to face at Camp. I keep waiting for you to do a seminar in New England.
Yours in the Wonder of Dogs, Honey
carol pleskoff says
We have a about 6 year old rescued springer spaniel that loves to play fetch, but only indoors. He does bark and get get very excited but will only retrieve a few times then he walks away with the ball, lays on it, as if to say “ I’m done”
I have tried many times with different toys to play fetch outside., we have a large fenced yard, and he just ignores me. Just wonder about his previous life. We have had him 2 years.
He does love to play “find the treat” anywhere. We are senior citizens who have Had many dogs, done agility and competition in the past, but this boy is a great companion.
Love to find new ways to challenge his mind.
Dorte Nielsen says
“..predatory games in which the dog becomes excessively fixated on, chases after, or becomes worked up by the object should be strictly limited. My preference is that they not be played at all.” That’s exactly what I was told by my first excellent dog trainer.
She said fetch games would stress the animal up because it imitates just one part of a hunt: the chasing, while all the other parts: sniffing up the prey, killing it and eating it are missing. So not only do the repeated fetch-games stress the dog, it also frustrates it because one part of the hunt is repeated without leading to any reward. It’s a core example of the coitus interuptus when it comes to hunting. Not only Adrenalin but also the stress hormone, cortisol is involved. And cortisol has a very long half-life.
She said: It’s not difficult to stress a dog up. It’s much more difficult to calm him down, as cortisol has a very long half-life.
That’s why wrestling-games, pulling-games and fetch should be avoided if you want a balanced dog.
Dorte in Denmark 🇩🇰
Dorte Nielsen says
“..predatory games in which the dog becomes excessively fixated on, chases after, or becomes worked up by the object should be strictly limited. My preference is that they not be played at all.” That is exactly what I was told by my first excellent dog trainer.
She said fetch games would stress the animal up because they imitate just one part of a hunt: the chasing, while all the other parts: sniffing up the prey, killing it and eating it are missing. So not only do the repeated fetch-games stress the dog, it also frustrates it because one part of the hunt is repeated without leading to any natural reward. It’s a core example of the coitus interuptus when it comes to hunting. Not only Adrenalin but also the stress hormone, cortisol, is involved. And cortisol has a very long half-life.
My trainer said: It’s not difficult to stress a dog up. It’s much more difficult to calm him down, as cortisol has a very long half-life.
That’s why, if you want a balanced dog, wrestling-games, pulling-games and fetch should be avoided.
A number of times I have advised dog owners with nasty, troublesome and intolerable dogs to put the fetch- pull- and wrestling-games on the shelf, and the results have been remarkable every time.
Dorte in Denmark 🇩🇰
My Papillion is ball obsessed. She loves fetch, but only with balls, and she will play other games with balls. (Her favorite is “Stick the ball somewhere I can’t reach it and throw a fit until the human gets it back for me.”) Banishing fetch as a game wouldn’t do much, because it’s very much the ball that gets her going, not the chase. In fact, often, about half way through the game, she wanders off with the ball to enjoy it on her own.
That said, it took months of work to get her to the point where she could do anything where a tennis ball was present. She would get so wound up that you could literally put a treat in her mouth and it would just drop out because she didn’t notice. Worth it, since tennis balls are everywhere.
Great post! As others have said, it seems like “no fetch” should not be a hard and fast rule but instead should depend on the dog. My Chessie goes crazy for fetch, but we keep sessions relatively short and only do them at one particular park. On the way back to the car he is tired and happy and then he spends the rest of the day sleeping! I wonder if it primarily has to do with setting good boundaries around arousal – you can never prevent it entirely, but limiting/controlling it can make everyone happier in the end.
This is a great article. It’s a game many take for granted as something dogs “just do.”
My sheltie mix, Flick, overflowes with energy and excitement when it’s time to play fetch. However, at 10 and a half, with his joints becoming sore and his teeth mostly gone Fetch is something I now need to limit. At the same time I can’t bear to take this game away from him, he loves it so very much, and it is wonderful to see him behave so youthful. Unfortunately, there is no half way with Flick. He gives every activity his all. If the ball bounces he leaps for it (hurting his knees) if it rolls he slams down for it, even tumbling over himself (hurting his elbows and neck) and he lost some of his teeth years ago fetching sticks… I have been trying to find new ways to allow him the satisfaction of chase and retrieve without him harming himself. I’d love to hear any creative alterations you may have for this classic game to accommodate an over exuberant senior!
On the other end of the spectrum I have my newest dog, Reverie. A 2yr old Border Collie mix who is very soft and timid. The rescue called her “low drive” but as her confidence (and fitness) is increasing so is her drive, by a lot. Unfortunately it is unfocused and I am concerned that it will be trouble if I don’t get her to target her drive on appropriate things (instead of the chickens or other dogs.) She is uninterested, almost concerned, with toys. The first time I tried Fetch she ran from me in terror of the throwing motion. Once I saw her with a squeaky in the house and offered praise, she immediately dropped the toy and sulked away submissively. She has only been with me for 6 weeks so this may begin to resolve as we get to know each other. She is a great running, biking, and skiing companion (we live in Colorado) so she doesn’t necessarily need fetch… I wanted a driven active dog, which is why I chose a BC, so I want to encourage and build her drive and confidence… but I also realize I need to keep reins on that drive or it could backfire on us. My first instinct was to use fetch to build drive and to get her to focus on getting the ball instead of nipping the other dogs who are fetching. But I’m just not sure fetch is her calling. Do you have any suggestions for healthy ways to build drive and maintain control?
I own a few of your books, so if you have a book or chapter to recommend that would also be wonderful!
Amber Fruchey says
I play fetch with both my Boys and also do Agility.
I have just came back from back to back foot surgeries and it was the only way to really let my dogs run. I’m always leary of injury from this, whether it’s a bad landing from jumping in the air or diving hard at a fast speed.
I do find it useful for impulse control and quicker response to cues for the Great reward. I also start and follow up with a walk to warm up and cool them down. Otherwise we play tug games and lots of shaping games that work in small places and don’t require running.
It’s been a tremendous help for impulse control, startline, contact work and teaching my young Boy that the faster he brings it back the sooner he can chase it again ( he loved to play keep away and parade around with the toy prior).
My seven year old Rottie mix LIKES to play fetch. Sometimes 10-12 throws, sometimes 2-3. I watch for signs the game is boring him, and stop. If I get out the chuckit, he is a little excited at first, but it never seems obsessive with him. He often wants to carry the ball to the park, but seldom makes it all the way. He gets distracted by a new smell and drops the ball.
Julie Clayton says
I agree that repetitive chasing of moving objects isn’t a sensible way to play fetch. There are loads of much better, much more interesting ways, to train a dog to retrieve.
In terms of excitement levels, I think it partly depends on the dog, and partly its early experience with fetch/retrieving. I have two retrievers who do a lot of Gundog training – one is bonkers, and I spend all my time calming him down around retrieving. The other is extremely sensible, and I spend all my time revving her up around retrieving. The difference is that the first (bonkers) dog wasn’t asked for any steadiness or control until too late, and the second (very sensible) dog was asked for too much control too soon. I’ll get it right with the third dog!
I think though, to deprive retrievers of retrieving isn’t the way forward. So fetch is very much here to stay in this house. That never involves chasing a moving object though – unless used as a reinforcer (for the sensible dog).
Tony Soll says
Izzy, my 11 year old BBC (Brooklyn Border Collie) lives to fetch. Indoors, it’s play, but also how she relates to people. I believe that she thinks that we need to play so that when one of her human friends walks in, they get something to throw for her. Outdoors is different. She rarely fetches unless there’s another dog there, especially a Golden or Lab – most of her besties are either. They retrieve the ball and she “retrieves” them.
She gets next to her “boyfriend “ Boo, a Lab, after “herding ” him up on the table . Then she stealthily steals the ball from him – which he always allows – and the game begins again. This has been going on for about 7 years most afternoons.
I should add that she self-regulates and stops to do something else if it gets too intense. She gets more worked up herding dogs in the big dog run by the Brooklyn Bridge. We also do a lot of urban agility-walking on low walls, jumping over hedges, etc.
My 2-year-old BC mix loves fetch and would play it all day to the exclusion of almost anything else (well not some cuddles or food but most other things get set aside if a ball comes up)(except tug of war with a human which is the Funniest Game Ever). What I found was that growing up he loves playing fetch with other dogs when he knows they’ll bring the ball back and play by “the rules”, and he’s not toy possessive (it’s a game, the other dog won the fetch game and got the ball first, so he comes back and waits for the next throw), but he doesn’t like it when other non fetching dogs interrupt his fetch session with solicitations to play (will definitely give a warning small bark or growl and move away). Fetch is restricted to some areas and he knows that in the yard we play fetch, and that a certain green area in town is fetch zone. I’m careful not to introduce any fetching to other places as they would become loaded with expectation of play (the little rascal thinks that one occurrence makes a habit). He stops when told the key phrase “it’s over”, will get bored after a … certain amount of time, he definitely doesn’t whine or exhibits any of the other behaviors, and has a very low prey drive. He’s also very good off leash, we go on 5 mile off leash runs on paths with joggers, bikes and other dogs and children without any problem.
Neither of my dogs is extremely fetch obsessed. They do each have their favorite outdoor games where they can go from chill to warp drive in an instant. Duncan loves to bark and run the fence line with the neighbor dogs (playful and nonaggressive on both sides). Missy goes nuts for hunting small animals in the yard. A few weeks ago she was completely under the shed except for a fluffy tail waving wildly, trying to catch some critter. I had to lure her inside with her dinner bowl, topped with a few liver snacks to get her attention.
My boy dogs, both retriever mixes, have had little prey drive. The girls, however, are/were dedicated hunters (Missy the Border Collie/Springer Spaniel and Meg the Whippet/Rhodesian Ridgeback). Meg didn’t surprise me given her breeds, Missy has just a little, since she is so unflappable about anything else.
My new rescue ADORES fetch. We have been playing it in our unfinished basement and he begs to play every evening after dinner. He is a amstaff with a very high prey drive and definitely gets revved up and round eyed while playing. I prefer that he get this urge out in this setting rather than with my cats! I have also taken the opportunity to introduce some impulse control training. He has to sit and wait for me to say “OK” and also inject some sessions of sit/stay while I toss the ball. My goal is to have him capable of listening when aroused, but he do get a little nervous when I see that crazed look in his eye when he is waiting for that ball to be tossed!
I’ve practically stopped playing “fetch” with Cecil because he kept hurting himself and I realized that I was regulating his speed by throwing the ball. That was bad, because I had no knowledge of his internal state or any pain he may be experiencing and so I kept over-exerting him.
I realized that he is perfectly good at regulating his own speed, thank you very much, and he loves to zoom and dive at me and I trust him. He now seems to prefer ridiculous possession games to fetch. Our most ridiculous game is one where he offers his ass for scratching while carrying a toy. I scratch his butt, but I’m also supposed to suddenly try to steal the toy from him when he least expects it. He loves this game and keeps initiating it. And the cool part is neither one of us knows who is going to win a particular round, so it stays interesting!
Related to this article: I really enjoyed Jean Donaldson’s post on this very subject. It’s called “Intensity Isn’t Bad” and it’s on the Academy site. I do work to maintain control of Cecil because he is pretty high-drive and used to be really mouthy, but I want him to have at least one zoomie-like experience daily.
Alice R. says
My Arlo came with a natural retrieve: at 8 weeks he would run after any toy I threw, pick it up, and run back to a flying leap into my lap (he was a tiny thing). One of the biggest regrets of my dog life is that I was so busy laughing and soaking it up that I never got it on film. As he matured, he realized that the games you can play are endless: return it six feet away and see if you can make them get up, wag it in their face to make sure they know how wonderful it is but don’t let them have it, just squeak it with joy all over the house, and my personal favorite, lay several in a very careful row right in front of them so they know clearly what they should be doing. His favorite summer game to chase after balls and frisbees thrown around the yard from the second floor deck and run back to the roar of the crowd (even if it’s just one or two) for copious petting while retaining ownership until you’re ready to go again. He is mad for that one, but I don’t see the concerning behavior mentioned, and he self limits when he’s pooped settling down nearby for a good chew on it. Luckily, he’s not a powerful chewer so that can be allowed. I’m so glad this isn’t a worry for us, my life would be much sadder without this joy in it. Great topic, Trisha, such a happy post and comments…
Great topic. We go back and forth on this at our house. We have a cattle dog that is a frisbie fanatic (chuck it’s with a hole). I try to be careful where I throw it because he will go after it. He once scraped all the fur off one eye brow and cheek diving between landscaping rocks on a bad throw. I try to be careful not to throw too high but he loves the leaping catch with a full twist. He will regulate – dropping it to go get water, but he can recharge in 5 minutes. He cannot be walked – he is afraid of other dogs on leash since being bitten in the face twice by off leash dogs and no amount of conditioning has been able to overcome this. He needs the exercise so for now he gets his frisbie. We are moving soon to a large acreage property and I hope we can either wean him from the frisbie or at least cut back. I don’t like how obsessed he is with it and I do think it wires him up. We don’t allow balls around at all as he loses his mind with them. My English Shepherd loves his long walks on open space and as soon as his recall is solid I’ll let him go off leash. He likes to just carry around a toy while I’m throwing the frisbie for the other dog and I’m not encouraging him to start.
Great post! We had a lab who was ball obsessed. Once when we walked the beach with him without a ball he managed to find 4! He also lived with chickens and ducks in his outside pen and never hassled them, even while fetching. Now we have an F2 labradoodle rescue puppy who is only just learning fetch and easily gets distracted from it when outside. I take him for long walks in the woods and, when we get home, he is more worked up and aroused for a while before falling asleep. I could see an argument that any form of exercise arouses a dog…but we don’t use that as a reason not to exercise our dogs. It might even be good practice for a dog who gets aroused to go in and out of that state in a safe, controlled way. Then your description of your dog’s different reactions to snow nails it. Each dog is different. Each relationship is different. Thank you for your work!
Charles G. Couturier says
“I’m curious about you and your dogs. Do you have a dog who gets aroused while playing fetch? Costs and Benefits from your experience?”
I’ ve decided quite long ago, that the best possible way to tame my Shiba predatory instinct, was to team up with her, that is, becoming her accomplice, instead of struggling against it. So fetch is a bit component of our relationship.
However, in spite of the danger it may represent, we do prefer using branches, and not balls. Because it allows us to play 2 games at once: Fetch (i.e. launching at an flying object) but most important, smell detection:
Sorry it’s in french. But what you see there, is what I discovered some day:
My dog will always bring me the stick I threw. If she can’t find it, she will come back empty handed, and will obviously get rewarded anyway (for her honesty).
People seldom realize at what level our beloved dog worship our smell. By playing fetch this way, I allow my dog to look for this beloved smell of mine. The impact on hormone balance, that I donno.
Diane Mattson says
Bridget loves fetch, but not obsessed. She’ll have a blast, and then quit on her own. She doesn’t get overly riled up, just enough to have a good workout.
Had a Springer years ago. He would never quit on his own, and would have probably killed himself if we didn’t stop.
So guess that probably wasn’t best activity for him.
Love the Maggie pictures. We have a ton is snow too, up in northern BC. Bridget enjoys playing in it, but we’ve been having some cold snaps, which she is definitely not fond of. Enough already!
Michelle Gasson says
I have a border terrier who I have taught to fetch in order to teach him other fetch related tricks. He has limited prey drive and only gets worked up enough about fetching the article cos he knows he gets a treat as a trade when he brings it back to hand. We have limited spaces to run dogs in NZ which is sadly getting more and more dog unfriendly. Who knew!!!! So for bigger dogs that need to run in limited space Fetch is often it.
Jann Becker says
Our first dog was a Border Collie/Aussie mix and, not surprisingly, really into Frisbee. Sam would do the Flying Mid-Air Catch with a look on his face like it was the most fun ever, but when he was older he got significant arthritis in his hips. I know it’s common, but I can’t help wondering if there was a connection between that and all those landings on his hind legs.
Sally Pyner says
I am really interested to read about this topic. We were lucky enough to re-home Jess when she was 2 (she’s nearly 5 now). When we first got her she didn’t have an interest in chasing a ball and my children wanted to engage her in fetch games to have more contact with her in play. She did however madly chase birds, trains, anything that went zooming by and could not be re-called. We gradually got her used to ball-games, resistant as she was to dropping the ball once she’d fetch it. She also started to have less and less interest in chasing birds (which we were happy about). However, she is now obsessed with the ball. As soon as we get to the beach or the dunes, she barks and barks waiting for the ball. What we thought initially was a great thing for her to play with us, has become obsessive and we don’t know how to still enjoy the benefits of her reduced interest in chasing birds, but not have her totally obsessed with the ball. She is a Red Setter / Border Collie cross.
Tracy Nichols says
I have a bull terrier that is completely obsessed with balls. She will play fetch endlessly and if a ball is present it is difficult to get her to stop asking to play. She also uses a ball as a comfort measure (as she is generally an anxious dog) and will pick one up and carry it in her mouth if she gets too excited. She is also prey-obsessed and will track any animal and sit over its hole for hours in the backyard.
We definitely see that playing fetch with the ball is detrimental to her well-being over the long-term as she gets too agitated when she needs to stop or when no one will play with her. (In the house she will “spit” the ball out of her mouth and watch it roll across the floor and then whine at it. Eventually, she goes to fetch it and starts the whole process over again. A clever game but very annoying). We have taken away her access to balls and stopped playing with her except when we take her to the dog park. This has helped in many ways except she hasn’t found another way to comfort herself when she gets overwhelmed.
Ranger has never really been interested in fetch except as something other dogs do and should do right. Years ago he ‘taught’ a pibble mix how to actually fetch the ball. The pibble loved chasing the ball but didn’t care about bringing it back. Ranger wasn’t having any of that nonsense on his watch so as soon as pibble picked up the ball Ranger would herd him back to his people, bark a short, sharp, commanding, drop it kind of bark, and wait for the game to happen again. Soon pibble was fetching like a pro and Ranger went to find something else to do. It was fascinating to watch Ranger use his herding instincts to train another dog to an unrelated task.
Finna came to us without any idea about how to play. I knew she could become ball obsessed and over the top aroused if I wasn’t careful so I built her game of fetch from the ground up with great care. The first thing I did was make sure there was a clear “Finished” cue. When I say we’re done we are done period no begging and pleading for one more throw. The second thing I did was to turn fetch into a reward. Finna needs to earn at least some of the throws by doing the behavior I cue. Because it’s often a reward for doing other things I think it’s hard for her to get obsessed with the fetching alone. Training her anytime I thought she was getting over-aroused I’d stop or I’d interrupt with requests for other behaviors so she never got to practice being a fetch fanatic. The last thing I did was to give her the right to end the game herself. Now as often as not she’ll call it quits. She does this by bringing the ball partway back and just waiting for me to signal “finished” or by simply not bringing it back at all. The result is I have a dog that loves to play fetch but isn’t obsessed by it and doesn’t get over-aroused playing it. Finna’s a dog that easily could have become a fetch fanatic; she has that kind of personality but knowing that I managed to keep the game and avoid the pitfalls of creating a dog that lives for fetch.
Lee Charles Kelley says
I used to be totally gung-ho for fetch. I still am to a lesser degree. It’s not that fetch is problematic in-and-of itself. It’s a matter of how hard the dog gets to bite the toy. Biting toys in play releases a lot of stress.
But tug-of-war is, by far, the better option. The dog not only gets to bite down hard on the tug toy, he gets to do so in concert with his owner or trainer. And as long as the dog’s partner releases the toy so the two of them can play together, 90% of the time, it’s a win-win situation.
Can you imagine if police dogs and military dogs were never trained via fetch and tug? These games — played with a ratio of 90% tug and 10% fetch — are the most important training games of all.
I have a 5 year old golden doodle, who loves all kinds of games, but especially fetch. I learned years ago from a lovely trainer to mix up fetch and games with other activities. So, my dog knows that when he brings the ball back, that he should sit. The next time I throw it, I might tell him to “wait”–hold still while I throw it, and wait for the command to retrieve. I also play a game called “give and take”–in which I say “give” and he gives me the toy. When I say “take it,” he must take it gently, hold it, and wait for the next command–which just might be anything. I might ask him to heel for a while, doing some circles or quick turns, then roll the toy or toss it straight up, or whatever. He gets in lots of romping, but he is also focused on me the whole time. When we’re done, or when I’m done, I might tell him to “leave” his toy, or to bring it in with him. Instead of one or two long sessions a day, I play with him off and on all day long, trying to make up new ways of surprising him, which he loves, and keeping him focused, which I love.
I completely agree with von Reinhardt’s view – for certain dogs – which happen to include my rescue Border Collie who seems to have known little beyond endless ball throwing in her previous life. I can see the build up of reactivity, lack of control and general inability to calm down with chasing after anything, be it a ball or squirrels, or whatever. 1st one is OK, but as she chases more and more she becomes less able to control herself.
Introducing an element of self control, such as waiting while a toy is thrown then retrieving it is fine, it’s the all out chase that doesn’t seem to suit her, despite the fact that she will do it again and again forever.
Recently I’ve been teaching her a sort of herding game to exploit her natural BC strengths – I send her off in a wide arc clockwise or anticlockwise then she drops the moment I call lie down, then I throw a ball straight to her to catch as her reward. She LOVES it, gets to run at top speed purely because she wants to run at that speed rather than because she has to to catch something, and just looks so happy and satisfied – and doesn’t lunge at the first dog she meets afterwards.
A BC’s whole purpose in life is to stop movement – so they get their reward when they catch a ball rather than when they chase it, the chase is just a necessary part of stopping it. Having a ball that they’ve controlled already go off and be thrown away from them again certainly keeps them working to control it again, but leads to a frustrated collie. A working sheepdog who had a sheep keep breaking out of the flock to have to be herded back in again wouldn’t be succeeding in its job and going home with a happy swagger after a job well done!
This is obviously very Collie specific, and for other breeds the reward may well come from different parts of a game of fetch and so have different impacts on the dog.
My Minerva is the opposite-when she’s already revved up is when she likes tug or fetch. If she’s too excited she’ll zoom around and thwack me with her front feet, which I do not like! Usually I can redirect her to grab the ball-with-the-rope and I’ll spin/tug her in circles and throw it a few times. On the good days she’ll redirect herself and I get no foot thwacks.
Such an interesting topic.
I was once told (by a national level search and rescue trainer) that there was no such thing as something being TOO REINFORCING! I disagreed then and I still do! I could not use tennis balls as true rewards for my then SAR Border Collie as she was soooooo obsessed that when she just SAW A TENNIS BALL her pupils stayed dilated (even in the presence of a pen-light), she would mouth gap and cues that would at any other time elicit a quick response would not even get as much as a glance.
I likened her response as that of a 13 yr old teenage boy seeing his first pin-up……NOTHING ELSE existed at that very moment!!!!!
She was able to be rewarded with games of frisbee and fetch with other toys, etc. Very specific to the little yellow orbs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Wonderful comments so far. I find myself with the majority here- I don’t think there is any problem with fetch games…as long as fetch games aren’t a problem 😉
I think there is plenty of merit in being mindful of the behavioral and emotional states that we want to create in our dogs, and how our chosen activities influence those states.
I have seen plenty of dogs who are over-the-top with fetching, in my personal view. In the worst cases, I’ve seen dogs that would run themselves until they literally dropped, vibrating with excitement, and over-aroused to the point of aggression if other dogs approached. Even the dogs who are moderately obsessed- to the point that they ignore all other stimuli at the dog park (scents, dogs, people) and spend their time dashing back and forth in the field rather than going for an exploratory and companionable walk along the trails make me a bit sad- I feel that they are missing out on more socially and mentally nourishing activities by being so focused on fetch as the “convenience food” of dog exercise. (Fun, easy to organize, great when space and time are limited, but probably best in moderation)
I do subscribe to the general philosophy that the best way to be happy with my dogs is to pursue emotional balance. I also observe that reinforcing calm is often overlooked as a training goal by both owners and trainers, despite the positive impact that doing so can have on creating a harmonious life with our dogs. I have also observed that it was very difficult, if not impossible, to reinforce calm in my dogs by encouraging them to behave excitedly. Now what constitutes excitement (and more importantly, over-excitement) varies wildly from dog to dog, but I do think that it is worth pointing out that excitement and happiness are not the same thing.
I feel I’m blathering, so let me try to clarify- I’ve always found that it was fine to play excitedly with my dogs for a few minutes at a time, but I found that my dogs were much better behaved generally- easier to introduce to people and dogs, easier to bring into novel situations, easier to work from home in the presence of- if I sandwiched those moments of high-adrenaline play between calming activities- long walks principally.
I’ve also learned to be wary of adding exciting stimulus to situations where my dogs are already highly stimulated. Squeaking a toy might have distracted Otis from what he was fixated on for a moment, but when he turned back, he was more intense than ever. Giving Sandy a treat to distract her from incoming guests might occupy her for a second, but then she’s more beside herself with joy than ever. That doesn’t mean that these tools don’t work- just that they needed to be used judiciously and in the context of trained behaviors that actually did accomplish my goal. ( I should admit that while I managed to mostly crack the code when it came to interrupting Otis, Sandy is still frantic with joy when guests arrive- since she doesn’t jump up, we just let it go- she gets over it in a minute or so and reverts to her usual gentle decorum 😉 )
One last plug for my personal training preference- the house rule that I have been most pleased with out of all those I chose to reinforce over the years- No Roughhousing Indoors (including all running, tug, and fetching games)- has been one I put in place out of sheer logistical necessity when I adopted a Great Dane, but I have been so grateful over the years because what I unintentionally created was a sense that the house was a place for the dogs to rest and relax, to enjoy calm and non-competitive companionship. The back yard was available for wild play any time, but inside time is Quiet Time. The peace and ease created by that choice has been like gold, all these years.
Oh! I forgot to answer the question, and to remark on how lovely the photos of Maggie are, of course. My two most recent dogs are not fetch fanatics. Sandy will only do it at all if there is already another dog fetching for her to upstage. Then she steals the ball and executes a picture-perfect retrieve so that she can bask in the usurped admiration. She couldn’t care less about the ball or frisbee or fetching in general, and would honestly prefer the person NOT throw it again, so that she can rest on her laurels as The Best Dog.
Otis was not a natural retriever, but I did teach him to do it. Over the years, our game evolved though, until it went like this: every few days when we were crossing the field at the park and there weren’t too many other dogs around and he was a little bored, he’d touch my pocket with his nose. I’d take out his ball and throw it once. He’d dash after it, gambol around with it for a few minutes, occasionally dropping and pouncing on it, then bring it back to drop in front of me so that I could pick it up to carry it while he wandered off to do something else.
My dog growing up, however, was a retriever to the core and she would fetch until our arms fell off if allowed to do so. I don’t recall her getting excessively hyped up afterward, but we didn’t play all that regularly, and it wasn’t her primary form of exercise.
Weirdly, I did have a CAT that was obsessive about fetch. She had one of those toys that was a couple of feathers on the end of a plastic wand, and she would chase that thing along the floor until she was panting. Even after the feathers had long been chewed off. Whenever we walked into the living room she’d run over to her toy and pat it with her paw while staring entreatingly at us. One day, hoping to end the game, I tossed it across the room. She ran after it, and dragged it back. To our slight consternation, we learned that she would do this basically indefinitely. The obsession continued until we added another cat to the household who tried to join in the game.
She drew herself to her fullest, huffiest height, cuffed him roundly about the ears, and stalked off, refusing to play ever again.
Buddy loves to chase the ball & Missy (who is completely uninterested in the ball) loves to herd Buddy while he chases the ball! Buddy occasionally gets annoyed & snaps at Missy. Unfortunately I don’t toss the ball for Buddy very often as Missy barks like crazy until I throw the ball (she’s saying “throw the ball, throw the ball….”) & I have never been able to break her of it. Needless to say Missy is my high drive girl & Buddy is my Velcro boy. I try to walk them off leash in the woods as often as I can. I call it the smell walk. I do use a couple of human treadmills to exercise my guys – usually 30 minute sessions twice daily. For Missy, it drains energy & helps her neurosis (she really should be herding). For Buddy, it helps keep his weight in check & his rear hips loose (he’s starting to get some arthritis).
Margaret McLaughlin says
I use fetching only as a training reward tool, never just for exercise. Nina values a tennis ball above anything else, & will work very hard if she thinks I might have one–we actually had issues earlier in her obedience training where she would just keep offering the behavior that had just been rewarded with a ball. It was a lot of work to teach her that only cued behaviors would be rewarded; dropping 7 times on recall without a cue–no dice, no soap, no ball.
The guide-dog school I puppy-raise for does not allow us to play any fetch games with our puppies, since a dog distracted by a moving object is not one to trust with a blind person. We actually work on impulse control around toys & other moving objects, & one of the IFT (In For Training) assessment tests involves rolling a ball past a puppy from behind. The goal behavior is to glance at the ball & then check in with the handler. Truly ball-obsessed dogs in training may be career-changed to the US Customs, since they need maniacs who will search an entire airplane or shipping container for a couple of ball-tosses.
Hi Trisha, I’ve been lurking on your site for years and love the guidance and advice you provide, as well as the thoughtful contributions by the community you’ve built here. I am in in Australia so our seasons are reversed and I love seeing the pictures of your dogs frolicking in the snow while we have total fire bans and heat waves!
My toy poodle (my first small dog, first indoor dog and first poodle) is a little ball mad nut – so much so that I cannot allow him to have toys in the presence of other dogs – he will ALWAYS choose the ball over any other reward. That said we go to a paddock on our own for a game of fetch about once a week. While he does react much as you describe in your article he clearly loves the game so much I just don’t have the heart to completely remove fetch from our schedule, instead I apply mitigation strategies. I slow the game down by insisting on breaks to splash about in the water trough, or I’ll occasionally get a chance to throw the ball while he isn’t looking resulting in a good game of find-it and if the ball goes in my pocket its game over and we practise tricks or basic obedience for a little while. I am wondering if flyball would help curb or encourage this ball driven madness?
Happily is exuberance on fetch certainly hasn’t increased his prey drive, the ducks, swans and native birds are all quite safe in his presence. We have a trio of Australian magpies that often join us for breakfast and he happily shares his kibble and games with them – it’s a joy to watch a line of birds and a poodle all jumping up in turn to receive their biscuit. Sadly I am always too busy dolling out treats to get a photo.
I feel that fetch is a healthy part of some of my dogs existance. My dog Bosco (a 72 lb mix breed) loves to chase a ball thrown with a chuck-it, but only for a short time. I have noticed that playing with him in the yard for 10-20 minutes per day keeps him lean, fit, and, contrary to the ideas of this article, makes him much calmer and less nervous in general. It also makes him seen much more bonded and secure with me and thus more responsive. He gets excited when he sees I have the ball, but remains controlled enough to sit and wait for me to throw it, things I have trained him to do if he wants me to throw the ball (an he really wants me to throw the ball.) I try to do it with just he and I, as the presence of another dog can make him get nervous or defensive. He enjoys it, I enjoy it, I notice many positive effects with no negative ones, so for him I rate it a healthy exercise. I can see for other dogs where obsession or overly hyper response is problematic one would need to temper or curtail such games or define strict protocols with their friend on how exactly such games are played. A blanket condemnation of fetch games for all dogs, however, is excessive and misguided, as my own experience and those of many other commenters clearly demonstrates.
Our Irish terrier Quinn LOVES to play with a Frisbee, so much so, we cannot say the word “Frisbee” unless we are on our way to the garage to get it out of the cupboard. All other times it is referred to as “the round thing”. Quinn will chase after the Frisbee until he gets tired. He lets us know by running past us, Frisbee in mouth and heading back to the garage. Our little Shih Tzu mix, Ben, on the other hand, goes nuts for his Frisbee but his method of playing is: throw the Frisbee, Ben chases it down, flips it up so he cannot see where he is running, and then races off around the yard. Finally he’ll drop it and use it as a chew toy and he has no desire to return it to the thrower. If he does return part of the way, then he wants a game of tug-o-war with it. But bottom line, he gets just as excited as Quinn when the Frisbees come out of the cupboard. Quinn has 2, one to throw and retrieve and the second one better be ready in hand for the next throw. Ben has one…..chewed up and it barely flies when thrown. Two different dogs; two different games of Frisbee!
Ron Watson says
How you play matters. Flirt pole type play; that titillation of the prey-drive only is not the same as getting operant drive.
I play and teach disc dog freestyle, and I shudder at the state that some dogs are allowed to go into while playing the game.
Mind’s off, eyes rolled back, and it’s ON!
Anything that does that with the neuro-chemical stoke that comes along with it can become a problem.
But playing the game with the rules of a clicker, thinking and moving at the same time is not the same as just whipping a toy around or doing mindless tug work.
Unsolicited Attention for the activation of the toy; hand targets offered; successfully performing a behavior to activate a toy; and most of all, split attention between handler and toy are key for healthy play with toys.
My dogs get stoked to play. Their teeth chatter and they leap around in hopes of playing again. But as soon as we start the game they lock on to the handler and look like driven, thoughtful dogs.
Creating operant drive and and off switch is our thing. It can be done, and not all drive based play is unhealthy, physically and mentally.
There is only one thing Olive loves more than a good “Chuck it” ball and that is swimming. Swimming is not an option in Vermont in the winter, so as long as the ground is not too icy or the grass too slippery, we play ball. When she first came to live with us, she unearthed a rubber ball in the yard and carried it around and chewed it fiercely. There was no drop or play or interest in doing anything but chomping on that ball (anxiety in overdrive). Fetch was how we eventually got her to release and wait and return. It was step by step and took quite a while for her to realize she would get the ball back. Then she was a bit obsessed with fetch, so we taught her “that’s for later” if she was wanting to play when it wasn’t time and then “okay, last one” signals that it’s almost over. When we say last one, she fetches the ball and goes right under the porch (her cave). I’d say she is serious about play more than overly aroused; she has a very good estimation of where and how the ball is going to land.
Playing tug and floppy stuffed animals and things she can shake are what get her too aroused to the point of snarking and resource guarding. So, we just don’t do that anymore. Balls and fetch are a form of exercise, a tension release, and play that is not needing to be guarded from Phoebe. We do need to monitor the height of the throw and the distance and the duration because she isn’t put together too well and her hips, knee, and shoulder are weak. And sometimes I go just a bit longer than I should because she is so happy and it’s worth a dose of metacam.
On the other hand, the antithesis of fetch-induced arousal is Phoebe (part Lab!). One day I was throwing the ball for her, and she stopped mid-run and stared at a cottonwood seed floating in the air. She was mesmerized by the drifting, fluffy seed and forgot what we were doing.
I have two dogs that could not be more yin and yang.
John Parsons says
I consider play important because it is interactive. The physical exercise is a nice by-product. I think either the human or the dog should be able/allowed to say “That’s enough.” If the dog gets over aroused, it is the human’s responsibility to end the game. Perhaps a few minutes of training would be in order. Another option is to take the dog for a walk where it can stop and sniff to its heart’s delight. All of my ideas involve interacting with your dog. I think that is the most important action we can take as responsible owners.
Chris from Boise says
Thank you (I think) for yet another book suggestion. My bedside table sags under the weight of tomes, but I just put “Chase!” on hold at the library.
Neither of our dogs is ball-obsessed. Obi will fetch it once, just to prove he can, but once is enough. It took Habi several months after we brought her home from the shelter (at the age of three) to learn to chase a ball; we ended up tucking a treat into a slit in a tennis ball to arouse her curiosity. One day we heard an odd thump…thump..in the living room. Peeking around the corner, we saw her joyfully throwing the ball in the air and pouncing on it. Our hearts sang.
For years a brief ball chase has been Habi’s stress reliever when we get home. She pesters us for attention as we put down bundles and take off boots, etc, till we remember “Oh – she’s over-stimulated by our arrival” and toss a ball down the hall. It’s a joy to watch her, now thirteen and tottery, charge down the hall after it and prance back with it. Once or twice is plenty, then she can settle down.
I’ve seen many ball-obsessed dogs while volunteering at our shelter, and to me it doesn’t look like a healthy state of mind. It seems that those dogs are often the ones suffering the most from kennel stress, and that a better approach would be to take them into a quiet room and read to them for a half hour, to help drain their stress hormones away at least for a bit.
Your quote from the book: “..predatory games in which the dog becomes excessively fixated on, chases after, or becomes worked up by the object should be strictly limited. My preference is that they not be played at all.” makes sense to me. Not having read the book, it sounds to me that von Reinhardt is not saying Fetch should never be played, but that it isn’t healthy if a dog becomes excessively fixated. As many commenters have noted, it’s possible for many dogs to become aroused during a game of Fetch (or Tug, or Water Play), but that a knowledgeable handler can teach the dog to take breaks and use other calming tactics to keep the dog from going over the top.
Cecile Lardon says
I suspect there are at least a couple of different issues here. One is the obsession some dogs seem to develop – like the description of on person’s post of a dog that wouldn’t even acknowledge play invites from another dog anymore. There likely are some breeds that are more susceptible to that kind of issue – I’m thinking dogs like border collies and labs. To me that sort of behavior is on the same continuum as spinning, paw licking, etc. And then there is the issue of predation. I have Siberian Huskies. They definitely hunt, and they have caught and eaten prey. When I play chase games with them I am very careful. There definitely is a point when the activity is no longer play. I stop long before that happens. I don’t provide squeaky toys for the same reason. Yes, the dogs have fun eviscerating something that squeak,s but I don’t even want their brain to go there. Don’t need to reinforce that rush.
I think we can all agree, “it’s only a problem, if it’s a problem.”
But when it IS a problem, when it becomes unhealthy and obsessive in nature, it gives us a teaching tool and them a learning opportunity. Because, (unlike obsessive tail chasing,) practicing this behavior requires our participation!
I appreciated the examples Barbara gave in her post… And I appreciate this blog for helping me stay mindful of what I’m doing, with the particular dog in front of me.
Pupper Dog came to us at about 4 years old, having good fetch manners. She would bring the ball back, drop it at your feet and back up and wait. She could also sit and wait if commanded before throwing the ball. She was slightly obsessed (enjoyed hikes sans fetch, but sometimes would find a stick and ask us to throw [once in awhile she tried to pull a tree root out]), but was not a high-drive dog in general. I think fetch allowed her to re-direct some of her anxiety, focusing on that instead of whatever was bothering her. When she was about 9, she lost interest in fetching (thinking back, she may have started to have some joint pain), although she still enjoyed it at the beach.
Sandy the Foster Dog learned fetch, but would only do it if rewarded with a treat when the ball was brought back. The action itself had no allure.
Mr. B the mystery mutt has zero interest in fetching or even catching things in his mouth (even edible things! They bounce off his head, and are scarfled up from the ground).
Jenny H says
I LOVE dogs who love fetch. In my experience they are quicker to train and more interested in training. They are more companionable and stay a healthy weight. For these dogs a game of fetch or catch makes an ideal reinforcer for training.
I’ve never found that food rewards make for reliability — easy to use and especially good for eliciting a behaviour. But sticking with food too long can mean that your dog doesn’t care to work if there is no food in the offing.
But so long as YOU are there, there is always the possibility of a game.
The only trouble is that in class/club fetch is hard to use — that’s when I use ‘catch’ 🙂 And IF you throw marble-sized pieces of food, then you are abiding by any Club rules that insist of using food rewards 🙂
Mel Blacke says
It is a play/prey drive thing and your dog has it in spades. That jaw clattering is anticipation and the fact that she shoves it into your leg is a good thing! I agree that dogs with this kind of drive are easier to train. They are more willing to invest and seem to have better concentration and seem to pay more attention to what is going on around them. I guess I prefer active dogs. If you play with your dog a lot from the time they are young, you become their favorite toy. It gets more reliable behavior from them and makes your recall stronger. Tug works better in class than fetch although if you use a ball on a string but they have to out on command reliably.
Mel Blacke says
I should have mentioned that the stronger this drive is, the more necessary a signal to end the play/training session becomes…..we use “all done.”
My dog is fully trained and has, in the past, gone out and brought items home to put in the basket for when I return. However, the past 12 hours my dog isn’t doing anything. I would check after a couple hours, and nothing. I went to bed and when I checked this am, nothing still. At what rate is the dog supposed to fetch things?? Seems odd over twelve hours and dog hasn’t returned anything.