If you have an active, busy, clever dog (like Felix, my young Border Collie) you’re probably often looking for ways to tire them out. Many people use repetitive ‘fetch’ to achieve this but it’s not an ideal game to be playing.
What’s wrong with ‘normal’ fetch?
I know, I know. Fetch is a great favourite! It tires your dog but doesn’t wear you out in the process. I have intermittent health issues so I TOTALLY get why that might be appealing. However, it’s not a healthy long-term strategy for exercising any dog. Here’re a few of the reasons:
Repetitive ball chasing is hard on the dog’s body.
Yep, all that bolting from a standstill, then sharp turns and leaps to catch the ball are a recipe for injury. If your dog doesn’t rupture a cruciate landing awkwardly, there’s a high chance they’ll get repetitive strain injuries to shoulders and forelimbs from the sharp turns.
Watch your dog carefully. I bet they almost always turn the same way, on the same foreleg. Just like people, dogs have preferences for which way they move; that outrun and turn is highly likely to be a patterned behaviour.
Flat out chasing, grabbing and returning is also not the type of exercise that the dog’s body was designed to do over and over again. No dog ever chased and caught 20+ rabbits in quick succession, day after day. This is effectively what your dog is doing when you play repetitive fetch with them.
The other downside of playing ‘plain’ fetch is that you get diminishing returns. As your dog gets fitter, you just end up having to throw the ball more often to achieve the same level of exhaustion. The more times the dog chases, the more likely they are to end up with injuries.
Repetitive ball chasing is not good for a dog’s mental health.
Ok, I know your dog comes home tuckered and sleeps like a dead thing after a good bout of fetch. However, I bet they’re not so calm when they’re awake again?
There is a huge difference between healthy mental stimulation that promotes calm relaxation (sniffing does this) and the exhaustion brought about by intense arousal and hard, explosive exercise.
But I have a ‘high drive’ working dog!
Yep, working dogs need to work – or have pseudo work. But there should be a balance between the physical and mental stimulation provided by that work. Working sheepdogs don’t just run around like jet-propelled maniacs! They move with consideration and control. Their minds and bodies are focused on the task. All dogs that are employed use their brains as much, if not more, than their bodies. Repetitive fetch lacks this mental element that’s SO important for true calm and relaxation.
Many high drive dogs (herding dogs in particular) get addicted to the fetch game and, just like any addict, they struggle to cope without their daily fix. This can lead to all sorts of emotional problems linked to chronic over-arousal; everything from generalised anxiety to hyper-vigilance and reactivity.
If your dog is a ‘stress head’ look at how you’re exercising them. Daily brain baths of adrenaline will not be helping your dog become a mellow pup!
So, what to do instead?
You need to provide adequate exercise (and that means ‘lots’ for some dogs!) and you need to engage your dog’s brain for them to feel emotionally satisfied. Here’s a great variation on the standard ‘fetch’ game that does the job perfectly – and still doesn’t wear you out when walking miles is off the menu for you. Your dog won’t need anywhere near as many toy throws to be nicely tired – and mentally satisfied.
Introducing ‘Find & Fetch’.
Basically, this game is a combination of scent work and retrieve all in one. Note: your dog does need to bring the toy back to play this game.
First, you throw out the toy while your dog waits to be released (or you gently restrain them by collar or harness). By having your dog wait until the toy has landed you avoid all those potential injuries from sharp turns and awkward landings.
Your dog then has to use their nose to hunt out the toy. This engages the brain’s ‘seeking system’ leading to the release of ‘happy chemicals’ when they successfully find the toy. Scent work is the most natural way of providing this ‘positive high’ for your dog. (You can read more about the power of scent work here.)
I start by teaching the cue ‘find it’ by scattering small treats or kibble on the ground and giving the cue. Most dogs will instantly put their noses down to hunt out the food. I start on a hard surface then graduate to short grass, and then longer grass.
Once your dog instantly starts sniffing when you give the ‘find it’ cue, you’re ready to start introducing a toy. The following video demonstrates the steps I used to teach Felix the Find & Fetch game.
This is a recreation of the steps (I didn’t think to video it when I first taught him the game). I stayed at each level for much longer (and over multiple sessions) than you see in this video.
PLEASE DON’T PLAY THIS IN AN AREA WHERE THERE MAY BE SNAKES!!! We don’t have snakes here in New Zealand so it’s totally safe to chuck toys into long grass. Please be sure there are no hidden dangers in the grass area you choose for your game.
I hope you and your dog enjoy playing the Find & Fetch game. It’s a staple activity in our house; Felix is a VERY busy boy and this helps him be calm and settled when long rambling walks are not an option. I don’t need to do very many throws – 5 into long grass at a long distance is enough to wear him out seeking his toy. It’s the scenting aspect that tires and calms, not the physical exertion. You don’t have to play tug like we do; you can reward the return with small food treats or even the opportunity to hunt the toy again. Have fun!
All the best,
~Sarah and the Gang