Have you ever wondered exactly why your dog gets a kick out of playing fetch? It doesn’t seem like anything special to us humans – tossing a piece of twig or an old tennis ball into the air doesn’t really top watching a movie or reading a good book for us. For dogs however, little games like fetch go a long way to entertain and engage them in active play.
In theory it doesn’t seem like much - throw stick for dog, dog retrieves stick, repeat. While the process is really straightforward, the concept is one we’ve seemingly taken for granted over time. Not all dogs make the natural association between a ball being thrown and retrieving it. So why do dogs get so entertained by their master throwing a stick?
We’ve all been that person at the park when your dog was a pup, throwing a tennis ball for them and watching them look into the distance, dazed and confused, unsure about why exactly you just threw a ball away. Dogs like to fetch things to impress their masters, but this doesn’t necessarily become apparent to them unless you show them exactly how to fetch.
Here are some of the reasons why dogs fetch, which will show you why it's an activity worth teaching...
For thousands of years, dogs have been conditioned to fetch by humans. Whether they were hunting game or sniffing out food to retrieve for their master, the conventions of fetch generally comes naturally to dogs. The relationship primarily between human and canine was mutual – humans were hunters and gatherers while dogs were social creatures who hunted by day. Dogs had the natural urge to partner up with humans and ever since this early bond, we’ve been inseparable!
Pack mentality and attention
Playing fetch with your dog is a great way to shower your dog in attention. It also helps establish the hierarchy or relationship you have with your dog. Understanding who is boss (don’t forget, that’s you!) is extremely important. Dogs see your living arrangements as who is in their pack, so having them play a game where they bring a toy back to you is a subtle but effective way of showing them who is in charge. Research shows that from an early age, spending quality time with them is important for positive reinforcement and bonding, so playing a game together like fetch is ideal. Over time, as dogs have become more acclimatised to home life through domestication, they have come to rely on their masters for entertainment. Engaging games that involve you and your dog will encourage their natural instincts of pack bonding.
Image Courtesy of Bart Swanson - Kruger National Park South Africa
Exercise Feels Good
When we humans exercise, endorphins are released into the brain that stimulate positive energy and feelings of satisfaction or happiness. While it may not feel like this is the case when you’re running 10kms on the treadmill, the science is true!The same goes for dogs, and they need plenty of exercise and socialising to maintain a happy and healthy lifestyle. Playing fetch goes hand in hand with exercise because it will get your dog up on all fours in an engaging game that involves them running around to play.
Which breeds are good at playing fetch?
There are plenty of breeds that really enjoy playing fetch. This can be attributed to their history as retrievers or hunting dogs. While most dogs find that fetch comes naturally, every dog can learn to enjoy the game in their own way. Yes, some breeds are better at playing fetch than others and the reason why so many dogs enjoy it is because they’re attracted to things that they can chase, catch and shake. If they can see it, hear it or smell it - then chances are they’ll want to play with it.
Terriers are notoriously good at playing fetch because their natural instincts are to hunt game and retrieve it to please their master.
Fetching will generally come pretty easily for these kind of dogs, which includes breeds like Jack Russell Terriers, Fox Terriers and Scottish Terriers.
This is not to say that bigger dogs don’t like playing fetch – every dog can learn how to play and enjoy playing – after all, even an old dog can learn new tricks! While all dogs love to play, we can’t guarantee they’ll thrive. This brings us to our next point –
Not all breeds are good at fetching
It’s okay if you find that no matter how hard you try, your dog just isn’t into fetching. Sometimes, even with the most enthusiasm, your dog may not really understand the fuss about fetch. This isn’t the end of the world! There are so many other fun games you can play together, like tug or catch. Your dog may actually benefit more from playing with interactive toys or puzzle toys that require more thought and less physical exertion.
Some breeds that aren’t notorious for fetching include Border Collies andGolden Retrievers (ironically). These dogs will happily chase and catch the toy that you’ve thrown, but are unlikely to want to retrieve it on their own accord. This is because their natural instincts encourage them to keep the toy for themselves, just as if it were food in the wild. They have no interest in sharing or bringing it back to you. These may be their natural instincts, however as your dog has been domesticated, there is nothing stopping you from teaching them how you want to play fetch so they don’t hog the toy and keep it for themselves.
Picking the right toy for Fetch
A common mistake people make before playing fetch with their dog is that they select the wrong kind of toy to play with. Well before you start to teach your dog the ropes of fetch, make sure you have the right equipment. Different toys have different functions and not all toys are made for fetch. Using a ball is always a good choice for playing fetch, especially if your dog is still learning how to properly play. Bigger, bulkier toys are not easy for dogs to pick up, while smaller toys may become lost during the game, so always consider the size and breed of your dog before deciding on a ball to use.
Interactive toys are ideal for playing fetch with. Dogs react well to toys that throw long distances and make any sort of noise. This can include flying discs or pimple balls that have a distinct sound when they are thrown or bounced.
Another consideration to make when selecting the right toy to play fetch is whether or not your dog likes carrying toys in their mouth at all! It’s completely natural for dogs to not like carrying things around, and if this is the case then sometimes a plush toy will be more beneficial as it is softer.
Frisbees are ideal for fetch because dogs absolutely love them! What some people don’t realise is that there is a difference between Frisbees made for dogs and ones that are made for humans. A common misconception, some people assume that all Frisbees are the same when in actual fact they are not. Frisbees that are made specifically for dogs have rounded off or protected edges so your dog won’t risk accidentally cutting the skin around their lips or damaging their teeth or gums.
- For Indoors
Indoor fetch toys should be soft. When playing fetch indoors, consider any valuables that may become an obstruction in the house. Tennis balls may be safer if they’re rolled around the house instead of thrown.
Think about the area that you will be playing fetch in when you’re indoors.
Considerably, every house is different and those who live in apartment blocks or units with very minimal space won’t have the luxury of roomy areas to play fetch indoors. Make the most of whatever space you do have indoors for playtime. It is important to always scan every room for any potential hazards before starting play. Avoid staircases and balconies where possible because the last thing anyone wants is for playtime to turn nasty with a slip, trip or fall. Where possible, play in carpeted areas so your dog won’t start slipping and sliding on the floor as they go to fetch.
- For outdoors
When playing fetch outdoors, consider the space you’re playing in. Backyard spaces can be confined, so larger balls will be the most suitable. If you have a pool, and the weather is warm – fetch can go airborne, and waterborne! There are plenty of floating toys that can be thrown around on land and into water for summer fun.
If you’re playing in a wide, open space or in grassy land – tennis balls are great however they do get easily lost here. Look for big, bright coloured balls or toys that are easy to spot from a distance. There are ranges of toys designed specifically for night play that glow in the dark or reflect – so if you’re taking your dog out to play at dusk or later, these toys may be a good option for you. Toys that sound when they’re thrown are also ideal for outdoor play, particularly for dogs with impaired sight and vision.
Introduce your dog to their toys
If you find that your dog isn’t immediately interested in playing fetch with a brand new toy, it may be because they aren’t familiar with it yet. An important part of buying your pet new things to play and interact with is properly introducing them before play. In some situations, making a big deal about rewarding your dog with a brand new toy is the best way to increase interest in the toy itself. Reward your dog with a brand new toy after a check-up at the vet, or why not try wrapping a toy in old newspaper or wrapping paper and giving it to your dog as a present? This adds extra excitement to the act of rewarding, so your dog will be interested in what you have to give them.
Make sure to spend time playing with your dog and their new toy so they have the opportunity to associate it with positive playtime and don’t just see their new toy as an item you’ve given them to keep them occupied. Playtime needs to always be about you and your dog – besides, when they’re left alone who else are they going to play with?
As with everything, your dog will need a lot of positive reinforcement to solidify their new skills. Praise them and treat them when they get it right. Continue playing fetch and rewarding your dog for successfully retrieving their toy and over time you will be able to phase out rewarding them with a treat.
Teaching fetch through tug of war
If your dog isn’t a fan of fetch or hasn’t learned how to play yet but really likes playing tug of war, you can use this to your advantage when teaching your dog how to fetch. Start by frazzling up your dog with a toy you usually play tug with. Once they are involved in a tug of war, steal the toy and then throw it for them to fetch. This may take a couple of attempts before your dog cottons on, so keep persisting and reward them when they finally retrieve the toy.
Once they start playing fetch without the need for you to play tug first, reinforce this by rewarding them with a treat. They will soon establish this routine as playing fetch when they come to recognise the conventions of the game.
Throwing the toy
Once they’ve learned how to play, make throwing the toy engaging by suspending the throw a little longer to rile up your dog. After a couple of basic throws playing fetch, if you’re not in the mood – your dog probably isn’t either. Remember that you are your dog’s master and they willnaturally feed off your emotion and energy so if you aren’t enjoying yourself, then chances are your dog won’t be having a fun time either! Get excited about play time with your dog, it’s a great opportunity for you and your dog to get outside and get active! What more could you want?
Retrieve and Drop
So your dog has fetched the ball – great! Now drop! Drop? Drop it….drop! We’ve been there. Once your dog has the toy they don’t always want to give it up. Getting your dog to properly pick up the toy, retrieve it and drop it at your feet requires a lot of focus and enthusiasm. Use treats to leverage the toy from your dog if they don’t want to return it to you. Alternatively, try and tempt them with a new toy! Again, don’t forget to praise them once they’ve dropped the toy so they remember that this is exactly what you want them to do in the future. Once you’ve cracked this, you’ll find fetch will become seamless and you can play a faster game with your dog.
Fetching other things
Once you have taught your dog the basics of fetching, you can move from balls to other things like newspapers. Fetching is not only a fun and entertaining game for you and your dog, it will become a valuable skill. Some popular ideas include:Try teaching your dog to retrieve the newspaper if you have it delivered, or have them fetch their own lead before you go for walkies. Fetch isn’t just a fun game, it also transforms your pooch into a little house helper to get things done faster! There are so many benefits to fetching.
Teaching your dog to fetch may be a little tricky at first, but it’s a skill that will pay off in the long run. Imagine a beautiful Sunday morning where you don’t need to brave the cold just to run outside and get the newspaper. Your dog will be able to go get it and bring it right back to you as you sit in bed. Think about returning home to your dog greeting you excitedly with your slippers at the ready. Or when you’re about to go for a walk, they’ll already have their lead at the ready so all you need to do is clip and go! The possibilities don’t end there – we’re almost certain some of you have come up with awesome new things you’ve taught your dog to fetch for you. Leave a comment below and tell us what you’ve taught your dog to fetch and how you did it.