To fetch or not to fetch!?


Fetch is usually a quite stressful game for our dogs. There are tons of better ways to mentally and physically stimulate our dogs. We should always ask ourselves what were they actually bred to do and how can we satisfy that drive? The best example of ball-obsessed dogs is the Border Collie. They were bred to herd sheep. Can we replace this in real life without having sheep? Yes! :)

Why is fetch stressful?

If we look at our Predatory Motor Patterns or also called ‘Hunting Sequence’ we have the following steps:

  1. Track (very mentally stimulating)

  2. Eye/Stalk (starts raising the arousal level)

  3. Chase (very high in adrenaline)

  4. Grab (very high in adrenaline)

  5. Bite (very high in adrenaline)

  6. Shake/Kill bite (very high in adrenaline)

  7. Dissect (very calming)

  8. Eat (very satisfying)

When we now look at where Fetch takes place, it’s a constant repetition of just the high adrenaline activities. Fetch is considered as a goal-oriented activity rather than Play and is much more likely to turn into addiction and compulsive behaviour. Not all activities that humans consider play are in fact play, particularly when a dog is fixated by a ball. Some breeds are particularly at risk for developing an addiction to prey-oriented behaviour rituals. These breeds are outlined in Mechtild Kaufer’s ‘Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play’. The lines between innocent fun and addiction are blurry, but in a ball addict, the compulsion cannot be reversed and Kaufer describes some of the brain chemistry involved if you’d like some further reading.

Is your dog is desperate, frantic, anxious, over-excited, maybe obsessed with the ball? Whilst it is normal in the actual hunt for a wolf to run themselves to exhaustion, it is not normal for our dogs to run after a rubber ball as if their survival was dependant on it. After all, our wolves’ hunt is usually over after one pursuit as well. This life-or-death state of mind that our dogs are in when chasing the ball is stressful and not healthy at all, not even to mention the burden on their joints with the sudden stopping fetch entails.

The cortisol, or stress hormone, that your dog releases while playing fetch can take up to a week dissipate, so while they are physically exhausted, their brains are in overdrive.

It is much better to give our dogs mental and physical exercise that doesn’t increase their cortisol levels, at least not by much. Think of the exhaustion of running errand after errand on a stressful day vs. the exhaustion of having taken a nice hike in the hills. Let’s give our dogs opportunities to decompress, take them out on mooch-walks aka sniffaris. This will in fact even decrease their cortisol levels. Win Win!

If you have a Border Collie and you would like to learn more about your particular breed of dog and get more ideas of what drives them and how we can prevent lots of problem behaviours from occurring? Message us for a link to a free Webinar from Epic Dog.

What are some other suggestions for our dogs' mental and physical stimulation?

  1. Playing tug! There are lots of rumours on the internet that you shouldn't play tug with your dog. This is not true! As long as there are some rules and boundaries in place and your dog doesn't snatch things out of your hand, jumps on you and nips/bites you and knows the "Drop" or "Out" cue, tug is a great game!

  2. Tracking! Letting our dogs use their nose is the best thing we can do. Whether that's on walks or even better through setup tracks where they find hidden toys or even people. What great fun!

  3. Nose Work! Teaching our dogs to indicate a certain smell (maybe garlic or marmite (not vegemite ;p) or cinnamon). They search areas and bags and sit down once they found the smell. Just like a real drug detection dog at the airport!

  4. Sheep Ball herding! Using our collies' herding instincts without having sheep. We teach them the same cues as if we were real shepherds, but all they herd is balls!

  5. Multi Fetch! Teaching our dogs to retrieve more than one toy at a time. This is more mind challenging and lots less stressful than the common fetch. Teach your dog to stay while you toss the balls into deep grass for instance and then release them to track and retrieve the different balls.

  6. Hill Walks! Choose areas that your dog doesn't normally get to explore and take them for a bit of a hike in the hills. Just be careful around sheep and rabbits if your dog is a hunter!

  7. Bike Rides! Did you know that we import the amazing Walky Dog Plus® Bike Attachment that allows you to safely bike your dogs even around streets? Watch here!

  8. Beach Walks! Do you normally go to the beach? Then choose some alternative locations for a change? Do you never go to the beach? Well, you should! Your dog will absolutely love it!

  9. Mooching! And of course most importantly our mooch walks: pop the dog on a long line, go somewhere with deep grass, lots of shrubs and let your dog enjoy all the smells!