The Problem With ‘Fetch’

‘Fetch’ is a common game to play with dogs.  They enjoy it and it allows them to exercise without us having to do much work, other than throw the ball or stick.  Surely there’s no problem with that?!

Unfortunately, evidence is showing that playing fetch can be damaging to our dogs’ health, both physical and mental.

What are the dangers of playing fetch/ball?

Mental problems

Border Collie lying down with ballMany dogs get extremely excited when playing fetch.  They can become obsessed by the ball, or whatever other toy you use.  This state of high arousal increases the levels of adrenaline and cortisol racing around your dog’s body, which is not healthy for long periods of time and can make a dog more susceptible to infections.

The adrenaline rush caused by ball throwing can also lead to addiction-type behaviours in dogs.  Some have likened a daily game of fetch as going bungee-jumping every day.  It might be fun occasionally but it is not very healthy to do it all the time.  It can give dogs the inability to ‘switch-off’ and relax, meaning that they are constantly on high alert.

Joint and muscle damage

Dogs have very shallow shoulder joints and no bony attachment of their front legs to the rest of the body.  The front legs are attached to the rest of the skeleton by a group of muscles alone.

The front legs are very important for a dog’s movement.  The forces exerted on them by sudden acceleration and deceleration are immense.  Often when chasing a ball or other object, the dog will also slip on the underlying surface when braking suddenly, and will twist or jump to catch the ball, adding extra impact when landing.

It is rare for a dog to be encouraged to warm-up gently prior to playing fetch, so these impacts are more likely to lead to muscle tears.  Small, frequent muscle tears and joint impacts will build up over time.  As the dog has four legs, a mild damage will not always be noticeable as the dog will be able to compensate with the other limbs.  However, this can lead to abnormal weight-bearing on the other legs which again can lead to problems such as arthritis developing.

Mouth trauma

Doberman puppy chewing a stickAnother danger of playing fetch is the direct damage from the object thrown.  Sticks are particularly dangerous as these can splinter, or perforate the dog’s body if they do not land flat.  Sticks can cause horrendous injuries of various parts of the body.

Balls can also be dangerous.  Tennis balls have quite an abrasive surface which can lead to dental wear over time.  There is also the risk of choking if the ball gets stuck in the dog’s throat.

What are the alternatives?

There are loads of alternatives to ball throwing which will not impact on your dog’s physical and mental well-being.

  • Search games – Hide toys or treats around an area and encourage your dog to go and find them
  • Terrier looking up at ownerTeach new behaviours – training using positive reinforcement will encourage your dog to use their brain
  • Do heelwork exercises – go for walks with intervals – this will be great for both you and your dog in terms of building up fitness.  Start with a slow walk for a couple of minutes, then speed it up for a minute, then ask your dog to do a few sit-to-stand behaviours, then do another fast walk, do some side-walking or backwards walking and so on.  This is great for fitness and keeping your dog focussed on you and motivated.
  • Do core exercises – walk your dog over poles or other low obstacles to teach them to be focussed on their whole body.  You can also use exercise balls (see video below).

How to do ball throwing more safely

There are ways of making ball throwing safer, however it is recommended that you do not undertake this activity if your dog already has joint problems (80% of dogs over the age of 8 will have arthritis).

  • Warm up gently beforehand – take your dog for a brisk walk first, do some core exercises and gradually warm their muscles up before you start throwing the ball.  This will reduce the risk of muscle injury.
  • Golden Retriever getting ball in waterMake sure the surface is soft and not slippery – do not play ball on wet grass, mud, ice or snow.  Consider throwing the ball into water so that your dog swims to get it, rather than having the sudden deceleration but make sure the entry into the water is not slippery.
  • Throw the ball in a straight line and keep it low
  • Stop before your dog gets tired – it is your responsibility to look after your dog.  The reward they get from chasing the ball is high so they will continue even if it is hurting them.
  • If your dog becomes lame, stop the game immediately.  Do not start the game if your dog is showing any signs of lameness or has done in the previous few weeks.
  • Use a ball on a string – this will reduce the risk of choking as you will be able to grab hold of the ball and pull it out of your dog’s mouth if necessary.
  • NEVER throw sticks

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