Fetch and retrieve–Don’t assume your dog is a natural

Chantal Mills kneeling with her hands on a dog laying down at each side.

By Chantal Mills

It’s the classic dog game but be aware that not all breeds and temperaments are keen to fetch. As can be seen above, Chantal’s dog, Bug, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, is okay with it. For keen fetchers, the challenge then becomes self-regulation. Photo: Matthew Ellis

Fetch and retrieve is a classic game played by many dog guardians. If you’ve ever had a ball-obsessed dog, or one that tirelessly retrieves sticks, you’re likely to be familiar with that look of sheer joy in the dog’s eyes when they realize the game is about to start. Not every dog is a natural retriever, however! If you have a dog that doesn’t show interest in fetching or retrieving, rest assured that it is not a skill that your dog must master. There are good reasons to proceed with caution, even if your dog is an enthusiastic fetcher.

Fun, fitness, and fine print

The game of fetch may seem, at first glance, like the perfect way to provide your dog with both exercise and mental stimulation. It gets your dog’s heart rate up and engages their mind as they strategize how to catch the object. My own dog, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Bug, insists that his day is not complete without a game of fetch and retrieve.

Bug not only enjoys fetching and retrieving, but like many retrievers, he was born to do it.

Denying him the opportunity to chase a ball and bring it back would feel cruel. He loves the game, and we, his humans, enjoy seeing him so engaged.

Bug does not, however, have an off switch. His drive is so intense that he would go for hours on end without realizing he’s tired, sore, hungry, or thirsty. In other words, he doesn’t self-regulate.

The self-regulation challenge

Dogs like Bug, who struggle to moderate their own behaviour, may be at risk of overexertion, exhaustion, and an increased likelihood of injuries. This obsessive behaviour and chronic overarousal can lead to increased stress and anxiety which are detrimental to your dog’s well-being.

If your dog becomes fixated on fetching and struggles to focus on anything else, or is agitated or anxious when the game ends, it’s time to add rest.

Because Bug becomes fixated on the game and does not know when to stop, we add in some other fun games between each repetition, such as “find it”. We might have him find treats tossed in the grass or find a toy we’ve hidden. This keeps him busy and entertained yet gives his body and nervous system a much-needed break.

To avoid overarousal, which is accompanied by the distinctively high-pitched “Toller Scream ”, we make sure he gets frequent breaks during the game.

Stress and strain

Another thing to keep in mind is the way you throw the item. If your dog needs to sprint, jump up to catch the ball, or make abrupt turns, it may strain their muscles, cause ligament injuries, and put stress on their joints. Uneven terrain and obstacles increase the risk of injuries.

Some of the strategies we use with our Toller, Bug, to lower the risk of injury involve throwing the ball a shorter distance and keeping it low to the ground.

The Water hazard

What a treat, on a hot day, to play in the water! Since dogs are susceptible to heatstroke, you may decide to take the game of fetch to a more refreshing location, such as the river.

If your dog enjoys retrieving items from the water, it’s especially important to give them breaks. Why? Because it could lead to a life-threatening condition called water toxicity. This happens when dogs ingest an excessive amount of water, which then dilutes their body’s sodium levels.

The game of fetch and retrieve can be a wonderful way to engage with your dog. It is also hard work. Keep your dog’s well-being in mind, provide regular breaks, and consider alternative activities such as a game of hide and seek, puzzle toys, nose work, playdates with other dogs, hiking and agility training.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go throw a ball . . .

From the desk of Chantal Mills, B.Ed., Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), CPDT-KA, Fear-free certified (FFCP)