The Trouble With Fetch

Many, many times in my career I have advised a client to cease playing fetch with her highly adrenalized dog as a part of our work together to help her dog have better overall mental health. It is not about never throwing a toy for these dogs; it’s about replacing their current avenue for exercise with a healthier one. Though the feedback I have received from my clients on this remains 100% positive (and they are reasonably skeptical when I suggest it!) opinions on this abound, and the topic has appeared in a lot of excellent blogs lately.  For anyone who is furrowing their brow wondering what could be wrong with tossing a ball in the park, know the culprit isn’t actually the game; it’s how the dog feels about it.

Hi, my name is Sparky, and I’m a fetchaholic…

Is your dog a ball-addict? Obsessed with the chuck-it? While to say a dog has an addiction or an obsession is gross anthropomorphism, we can often describe their behavior as appearing desperate, frantic, anxious, or excited. We can do this because there are actions both voluntary and involuntary that we can assign to these emotions. A dog that will run until his tongue is swollen, his eyes bloodshot, and his breath labored, has prioritized something above his own personal cooling mechanisms and care. While this might be normal for a wolf in hot pursuit of a deer,  it is less normal for a labrador in hot pursuit of a hunk of rubber. In the case of the wolf, things are life and death; that is why he will exert himself in this way. In the case of our dogs the game of fetch is often also life or death in their minds–this is why it’s not a healthy emotional state for them to be placed in day after day. Consider the stress hormones pumping through the blood of both the wolf in pursuit of his meal and the deer in pursuit of her life; these are the same hormones rushing through your dog’s veins when you toss the ball. It takes time to flush the system of these hormones; but we return to the park night after night.

Not all exhaustion is created equal

It is quite possible for a person to be exhausted and drained; while it is also quite possible to be exhausted and fulfilled; satisfied. If I spend an entire day in air travel I am exhausted when I reach my destination.  I sleep hard, but it does not feel good. I am often still tired the next day. Conversely if I get up early, drive to the mountains and hike all day, I am exhausted when I return home. But it feels amazing. I feel peaceful, tired, and fulfilled. I sleep well and awake refreshed, if sore. Why are these two things different? The body is exhausted; the person may look the same, slumped in a chair or hotel room bed. They look different because one thing produced stress hormones and the other relieved them. This is the cardinal difference between standard types of exercise for dogs (fetch in the park, regimented leash walks, even agility class) and what I call decompression walks.

The very special power of the decompression walk

Do you have an activity that allows you to unwind from the daily stresses of life? Reading a book, sipping a hot drink at a favorite coffee shop, watching the sun set on the horizon from your porch; these are typical ways human beings release the stress hormones in their bodies. The decompression activity dogs and people share is the long walk in nature. Like dogs, we vary.  Beaches, forests, mountain climbs; to each their own! What they all have in common is a disconnection from the buzz of daily life, physical exercise, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural world. The further from traffic noise and cell service the better; and for some of us solitude is also vital. My ideal is a dirt path mostly shaded along a rushing river that ends at the alpine lake from which the river flows; snowy peaks in the background–not a sign of human life as far as I can see (aside perhaps from a good two-legged hiking companion). One of my dogs agrees fully; the other likes a long sprint on an open beach, feet kicking up the surf. Kelso, I choose to believe, is racing through a field of mountain wildflowers for all eternity; that was his heaven. It doesn’t actually matter where or how; what matters is that when you’re through you feel it in your bones. You’ve touched something primal; you’ve relaxed without the aid of prescriptions, beverages, or electronics. When you’re home you eat, you rest, and you are better prepared both mentally and physically for what life demands. Your dog craves this on a deeper level; while you can meet a friend for coffee, catch a matinee, or crack a favorite novel he is stuck in our world; eons from the scavenging village dogs and hunting wolves from which he descends.

What is best? 

Because I talk about appropriate exercise all the time I get this question often: so what kind of exercise is actually best? The answer is, of course, it depends. I have known dogs that became so highly adrenalized from an off leash run in a field that they took days to recover. Plenty of dogs are very triggered by off leash dogs approaching them, so off-leash legal areas might be off-limits for them. We can’t sit our dogs down to ask them, so the best thing to do is the only thing we can ever do with reliability; observe behavior. One of my dogs exhibits increased problematic behaviors (dog-directed resource guarding and alarm barking at noises) when he goes on leash walks on concrete in my neighborhood.  The same dog exhibits a decrease in these behaviors and an increase in REM sleep when he goes on off leash hikes even if the hikes are short. For him, the answer is clear. You must observe your dog and try multiple avenues to know what the right answer is. There is nothing inherently wrong with a leash walk, a game of fetch, or a trot on a treadmill. We must observe our dogs to know what is best.

Last I checked, a ball wasn’t a sheep. Or a bird. Or a rat.

One of the most typical arguments I face when I gently suggest that people might put down the chuck-it and pick up the hiking boots is that certain breeds are highly energetic, highly intelligent, and require a “job” to do. I certainly don’t argue with this. But I don’t kid myself: agility courses are not sheep. A tennis ball is not a bird. Birch oil isn’t a rat. And a frisbee certainly isn’t a flock of cattle.

We who chose to live with creatures whose genes make them highly specialized for certain tasks are mostly falling short. That doesn’t mean we can’t do our absolute best, and in my experience, our best is usually a mountainside more than a suburban park.

Anita Gosnik