FETCH! The good and the bad

a dog chases a ball

Like baseball for humans, fetching a ball has to be the great American pastime for dogs! I mean, one of the first toys we buy for our dogs is a ball. Then we try to get them all excited and throw it and feel a sense of triumph when they excitedly leap through the air to retrieve it.

Why do dogs like playing fetch?

Fetch is thoroughly gratifying for a dog. It allows them to show off their athletic prowess, appease their instincts, bask in our undivided attention, and lastly, it helps to burn off some of that never-ending energy. They’re naturally good at it and we know how they like to show off! No wonder it’s one of the most favorite play time activities here at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts!

Strangely enough, some dogs just aren’t into it. My dog Rex could care less about playing fetch. When we’re outside, he perks up and wags his tail like he’s amused at my antics when I’m attempting to motivate him to chase a ball. It’s like he’s teasing me. I throw the ball and he feigns interest by watching it fly through the air and land, then he wags his tail as if to say, “Wow, mom… you throw really good. Thanks for that”, then he walks off and sniffs the grass. Big fail. Well, he’s a “companion” dog breed… what do they know about retrieving anyway?

What are some of the best dogs to play fetch with?

Retrievers and working dogs are the real fetch machines. It’s kind-of obvious that retrievers would want to um… retrieve. Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers live for it. Herding dogs like Border Collies and Australian Shepherds enjoy “rounding-up” and retrieving balls or other toys. Hunting dogs like German shorthair pointers, Rat terriers, English Spaniels, and Poodles enjoy the pursuit and retrieving in a game of fetch. Sighthounds are particularly good at fetch – because if it moves, they’ll chase it! Dogs that require a little extra mental and physical stimulation, such as Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds, and miniature Schnauzers always appreciate the exhilaration of a rousing game of fetch. And I swear that some dogs will fetch just to appease us. These are the ones that will “politely” go after the ball, pick it up or maybe bring it halfway back to you, but are then easily distracted because they don’t really care.

What’s interesting is how a dog will return the ball (or frisbee, or toy) to you. Your little terrier might just shake it, shred it and “kill” it before they bring it back to you. A retriever isn’t interested in killing the “game” (aka, the ball), but rather just returning it to reap the rewards, then leave the dirty work to you. Some breeds will want to eat it! And your German Shorthair pointer won’t even come back to you unless they found the ball! They’re serious.

Fetch has so many positive aspects. It’s a great bonding activity with your dog. It’s good exercise. And it can actually enhance your dog’s behavior because it releases pent up energy that could otherwise be used destructively. Lastly, it positions you as “alpha” in your dog’s eyes: they obey your command to chase and retrieve an object for you.

How can fetch be a bad thing?

Believe it or not, fetch can go from a healthy enthusiasm to an exhaustive obsession compulsion for a dog. OCD in dogs can be diagnosed. OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, in dogs is most often referred to as “Canine Obsession Disorder”. PETmd states that compulsive disorder in dogs is characterized by a repetitious, relatively unchanging sequence of activities or movements that has no obvious purpose or function, to the point that it interferes with normal behavioral functioning.

What type of behavioral functioning problem might a dog with compulsive disorder exhibit? A dog may begin to show a lack of interest in playing with their other canine pals, but rather fixate on the object of their compulsion. They may overexert themselves resulting in excessive fatigue, overheating and/or dehydration. They could show signs of anxiety when they can’t get to the ball (or whatever resource), with symptoms such as excessive panting or drooling. They may become possessive of the ball to the point of snapping at others – canines and human – who attempt to take it. Even the gentlest of dogs can become verbal and/or aggressive when you try to stop playing. Not only that, but it’s a major nuisance to the dog’s family.

Retrievers, spaniels, and other sporting breeds are genetically predisposed to fetch obsessions. That doesn’t mean they will develop an obsessive compulsion, but the motivation has been enhanced by selective breeding. Environmental stressors such as conflict in the home, or stressful living conditions may also be the cause. Then, of course, there may be no obvious reason at all for the behavior.

If your dog suffers from true OCD, they appear to go into a state of complete mental absorption – almost like a trance. Their body may become rigid, eyes fixated and glazed. They may even drool. PETmd says that their behavior will intensify over time and cannot be interrupted even with physical restraint. Wow. That’s kind-of frightening, isn’t it?

If you feel your dog is beginning to show signs of being overly attached to a particular resource, to fetching, or to any repetitive behavior, it’s time for you to take control. The compulsion must be managed, and the sooner the better. Compulsive behavior in puppies usually occurs between the ages of 6 months to 1 year old. When these behaviors are treated early, the outcome is much more positive.

Our Trainers can help

For most dogs, professional dog training, combined with physical exercise and rewards for good behavior will turn the obsession of fetching back into an activity of pure joy and enthusiasm. Your dog will be trained to control their impulses when balls and/or other resources are present. Certain rules will be learned, such as:

• The pack leader is the one to initiate the game.
• Fetch can only be played for a certain amount of time, determined by the pack leader.
• When not at play, the ball will be inaccessible to the dog.
• Barking or biting after a game is not acceptable.

While working with our Trainers, there are things that we can do at home to support their efforts. First of all, we should never punish our dog for a compulsive behavior. That will only make it worse. Instead, encourage and reinforce good, calm behavior when exhibited by your dog. Provide a well-structured home environment with a regular, predictable routine. Seek to find and eliminate any stressors in the dog’s life.

Are you having a particular behavioral problem with your dog? Give the Professional Dog Trainers at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts a call. In Glen Allen, the number is 804-672-2200, and on our South-side, the number is 804-794-5400.

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