STOP TRYING TO MAKE FETCH HAPPEN: How Playing Fetch Can Make Behavioral Problems Worse
I want to let you in on a little secret- I really, really don't like fetch. It's probably last on the list of "Ways I Like to Tire Out My Dog." And to explain why, let me paint you a hypothetical (but definitely has actually happened) picture...
Let's say you have a young, energetic, hyper-active dog. You realized soon after bringing this dog home as a puppy that a great way to tire them out is to throw a toy for them down your hallway. They were really good about bringing the toy back to you, so you keep playing the game. Soon you graduate to throwing a toy in the yard to tire them out. As a puppy, they could only go for about 15 minutes before they tuckered out. But then they started to mature, and suddenly your fetch sessions lasted for 30 minutes to an hour. So you bought a chuck it toy, and took your dog to a nearby field where they had to run significantly farther to retrieve the ball and bring it back. Half an hour of some long distance fetch, and your dog is pooped. "Ah-ha!" you think, "I've solved that problem." You continue bringing your dog to the field, keeping up your long distance fetching. Then one day you notice you've been throwing the ball for an hour, and your dog is still going full steam ahead. You also notice, that even after an hour or more of intense fetch, your dog comes home and is still acting nutso. What gives?!? Well, therein lies the problem with fetch and the biggest reason I don't like relying on fetch to try to tire out a dog. If your dog has a natural retrieve (and we only rely on playing fetch with dogs who do) then they're not having to think too hard about the game. Chase toy, pick up toy, sprint back to owner, spit toy out, repeat. That's not very hard.
For dogs who LOVE to play fetch, you're just pumping them up full of adrenaline, and because their brain is on autopilot, all that adrenaline has nowhere productive to go. This is why we see dogs who come home from an hour of playing fetch, but still can't settle down even though they are physically exhausted. This is also why dogs need more and more and more fetch to feel tired- you're essentially creating a super athlete with impressive cardiovascular stamina that can go and go and go and go.
Enter my version of fetch.
But before I even get there, I want to make sure my dog has a few nice behaviors in their repertoire.
First, I need to know that my dog can retrieve. The last thing I want my dog to learn is "grab toy, run away from owner, and entice them in a game of catch me if you can." That's a hard no from me. So the first thing we work on, is how to retrieve. I use a combination of play and more structured training (typically using shaping) to teach this behavior. Check out my playlist on YouTube for more.
The other big behavior my dogs need to know is a reliable release; I want to know that when I tell my dog to drop the toy, they do. Another game I am not a fan of is keep away, so I don't want my dog learning that one either. The way that I teach a retrieve, this behavior is built right in. Lastly, I want my dog to be willingly offering TONS of focus. I don't like having to ask all the time, but at the very least I want to know that if I ask my dog to look at me, they will. The last thing I want my dogs to have is some pretty good impulse control. Playing fetch, even when done the "right" way, can still be exciting. I want to make sure that my dog is able to control themselves enough that they aren't leaping all over me or barking their head off while we play fetch. I also would like them to be able to hold a sit or down even when I throw the ball.
You'll see why all of these behaviors are so important in a second! All of this is typically hard for young puppies to do, and it's why I don't introduce fetch with my dogs until they're around a year old. Not to mention- fetch is really not a great activity for growing puppies to do. It's not good for growing puppies to stop short or turn tightly, let alone do that repetitively. But when a puppy plays fetch, that's exactly what they're doing. Sprinting, coming to a quick stop, turning & twisting their bodies to catch the ball, and then sprinting back to their owner... and coming to yet another quick stop. Those motions are really bad for puppies' joints, which are still growing and developing.
So, how do I play fetch? I make it more into a scent work game, where my dog has to find the ball rather than just chase after it. Incorporating a scent detection exercise into this means that my dog is having to use a LOT of brain power, and that means that not only will my dog be physically tired, but they will be satisfied. Working your dog's brain is so, so much more important than working their body! Here's how the game looks for me:
1) Dog must sit or lay down. If they don't have a great stay yet, then I will hold their collar to encourage them to stay in a sit or down.
2) Toss the ball. Depending on your dog's skill level, you might start by just tossing it a few feet away, or you could throw it as far as you can. Obviously start easy, and slowly increase the difficulty.
3) Before I release my dog to get the ball, they have to give me some eye contact. Once they do, I release them to get the ball (or whatever toy I'm using). When they find the ball, I always cheer for them. This is especially helpful if you're launching that toy 50+ yards away! 4) When they bring the ball to me, they have to drop it when asked. Then we start over from Step 1 again! When your dog is a master at the game, you can have them sit or stay facing you, so they're unable to see where the ball goes when you throw it. You can also play the game in longer grass to increase the difficulty as well, since they won't be able to see the toy when it hits the ground. Doing the game this way not only helps make sure my dog is getting a mental workout as well as a physical one (because they're using their nose to find the toy), but it's also a great impulse control game, AND a built in engagement exercise since focusing on you is part of the rules! So, if you're going to play fetch with your dog, please try this out!