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The dangers of fetch

I see more plastic ball launchers than I see dogs in the park these days. I get the intention – keep your dog busy, distracted, close by, worn out. Simple.

But all the sprinting, skidding, jumping, leaping, diving, twisting and braking is doing more physical and mental damage to your dog than you realise. Over time, repeatedly launching a ball for a dog to run and fetch can cause significant damage to their muscles, joints and cartilage. Veterinarians have found consistent correlations between fast-paced games of fetch and musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis. Dogs often cope with arthritis-related pain for years before they begin to show signs of it, which has adverse effects on behaviour

and wellbeing. Arthritis can also precipitate consideration of euthanasia or an earlier death.

Mentally, repetitive games of fetch can cause an obsessive fixation to the exclusion of natural canine behaviours such as sniffing and actually interacting with the environment. The organisation ‘Canine Arthritis Management’ have compared ball throwing and chasing to an addiction for some dogs, who “will go to great lengths to get a fix” and even ignore pain warning them to slow down or stop altogether. This is because repeated ball throwing and fetching increases arousal which simultaneously increases the production of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol (accelerating heart rate and blood pressure), which can sometimes take several days to return to baseline. This also negatively impacts the dog’s impulse control and frustration tolerance and can leave the dog experiencing chronic stress.

Just like us humans, dogs should warm up first before going straight from 3 hours on the sofa to a ferociously fast-paced game of fetch. So, if you are going to use a ball on your walks, make sure you warm up your dog first. Start slow and steady, throwing low, straight and short distances. Don’t play on unstable or slippery surfaces, don’t throw the ball downhill, don’t bounce it ridiculously high, and take frequent breaks to give your dog the chance to decompress, bring their heart rate back down and their cortisol levels back to baseline.

Alternatives to games of fetch:

- ‘Find it’ games – get your dog sniffing and interacting with their environment by hiding their favourite toy or food and asking them to ‘find it’. You might need to start with smelly food and then progress to a favourite toy once they’re familiar with the game. Dogs sniff to gain information which provides significant mental stimulation. Sniffing is also a behaviour that helps them to self-regulate, reduces heart rate and blood pressure, has a calming effect and aids the production of feel-good endorphins.

- Barkour – build confidence by exploring different surfaces, levels and textures within their environment. Encourage them to put their paws up on a tree stump, jump up or walk along a low wall, etc. Develop bodily awareness by luring them under, over and around things.

- Change it up – walk in a new place to let your dog experience new sights, sounds and smells. Dogs have a strong motivation to seek out novelty as novel stimuli is much more mentally stimulating than familiar stimuli


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