Scientific insights why playing fetch with your dog might be a bad idea

On 23rd November 2019 I had the honor to give a TEDx talk in Munich about a topic that is very important for me:

About how we tend to misunderstand our dogs, the consequences from that and how to make it better – for example with Animal-Centric Design.

The first time I was told that playing fetch with Peter can be a bad idea, was even before we adopted him. As Peter is our first dog, we looked for pre-adoption advice, and luckily found our dog school “Freude am Hund” (Joy with Dogs) where they explained to us that pleaying hunting games can be a pretty bad idea.

I would never have thought of that, as one of the things I thought I knew about being a dog mom was that I will throw the ball and my dog will chase it and bring it back! But I was wrong… Watch the video for the full story!

If you like it, I would appreciate if you leave a like :).

Potential Consequences of Playing Fetch With a Dog

Playing fetch is one of the most popular activities for people to entertain their dogs. For many breeds chasing after a ball is a natural instinct since they were bred for hunting (Coppinger, 2001). However, for a dog playing fetch is a so-called pseudo game to train their hunting skills and not a social game activity (Ganslosser and Käufer, 2017). While playing fetch the dog’s body releases dopamine and adrenaline (Ganslosser and Käufer, 2017; von Reinhardt, 2010). “It is probably the adrenaline release that makes prey games so attractive to dogs” (von Reinhardt, 2010). As outlined above, the massive release of adrenaline can lead to stereotypic, displacement and aggressive behavior. Besides that, the release of adrenaline and dopamine can also lead to addiction – a so-called ball junkie is the result (Käufer, 2014; Ganslosser and Käufer, 2017). Addiction and fixation have various further risks and side-effects. The person throwing the ball is not an active game partner anymore but has a passive role, and a dog even accepts a machine to replace the person resulting in a social isolation process of the dog (Feddersen-Petersen, 2008 cited in Ganslosser and Käufer, 2017). The addiction might also lead to withdrawals, accompanied by stress, aggression and further stereotypic behavior (Mason and Rushen, 2008 cited in Ganslosser and Käufer, 2017). Additionally, playing fetch can have serious implications on the joints of dogs. Besides the massive forces while jumping after the thrown item (Capon et al, 2019) the shifted body weight towards the dog’s front legs while carrying back heavier items (Bockstahler, Tichy and Aigner, 2016) can lead to serious implications on the joints of dogs.

What does that mean for us and our dogs?

Better alternative dog activities e.g. recommended by dog expert von Reinhardt (2010), are sniffing games. These activities have many positive side-effects such as lowering the dog’s heart rate (DogFieldStudy, 2019), contributing to dogs’ welfare as well as strengthening the dog’s self-confidence (Durantona and Horowitz, 2019).

References & Further Readings

Bockstahler, B., Tichy, A. and Aigner P. (2016) Compensatory load redistribution in Labrador retrievers when carrying different weights – a non-randomized prospective trial, BMC Vet Res, 12, 92 (2016), DOI:10.1186/s12917-016-0715-7.

Capon, H., Pountain, D., Tindall, L., Barr, R. and Bruder, M. (2019) From the Canine Arthritis Management Team: On Throwing Balls

Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. (2001) Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution. New York, Scribner.

DogFieldStudy (2019) At the Heart of the Walk

Durantona, C. and Horowitz, A. (2019) Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Vol. 211 (Feb 2019), pp. 61-66, DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2018.12.009.

Feddersen-Petersen, D. (2008) Ausdrucksverhalten beim Hund: Mimik, Körpersprache, Kommunikation und Verständigung. Stuttgart, Germany, Franckh-Kosmos Verlag.

Ganslosser, U. and Käufer, M. (2017) Auszeit auf Augenhöhe: Mensch-Hund-Spiel: Kleiner Einsatz mit großer Wirkung. Stuttgart, Germany, Franckh-Kosmos Verlag.

Käufer, M. (2014) Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. Wenatchee, Washington, Dogwise Publishing.

Mason, G. and Rushen, J. (2008) Stereotypic Animal Behaviour. Wallingford, United Kingdom: CABI Publishing.

Von Reinhardt, C. (2010) Chase! Managing Your Dog’s Predatory Instincts. Wenatchee, Washington, Dogwise Publishing.

Geier, E. (no date) Help! My Dog is Obsessed with Playing Fetch

Gerencsér, L., Bunford, N., Moesta, A. and Miklósi, Á. (2018) Development and validation of the Canine Reward Responsiveness Scale –Examining individual differences in reward responsiveness of the domestic dog, Sci Rep 8, 4421 (2018), DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-22605-1.