Even though dog training and dog care, especially online, are full of ALWAYS’S and NEVERS, you don’t need to stop with fetch games cold turkey.
Our post Fun with Find It!, not just Fetch from last week, gives you lots of ideas so that you can break up repetitive fetch games, add some variety and improve the quality of play time in terms of behavioural health and enrichment for your dog.
All sorts of absolutes are shared online about stopping with fetch games and dumping the ball launcher. Fetch is a most popular game for pet owners and their dogs, and I really don’t want to throw the ball out with the fetch games.
The PDSA Paw Report, 2019, found that almost 40% of dogs only get out of the house for up to 30 minutes at a time, and that 13% of dogs not getting out daily at all.
And a 2019 survey of 1500 pet owners by dog food Forthglade found that less than half of dogs are walked daily.
In the case of some of these dogs, their owners may incorporate some structured enrichment program (beyond food dispensing toys and food puzzles), but for most, this is unlikely.
Given this worrying trend, I certainly do not want to start limiting owners’ efforts when it comes to providing adequate physical and mental outlets for their pets.
It may not surprise you that one of the first things I do with clients is help them improve and refine enrichment for their pets, helping them meet their pets’ needs before we can start with training interventions.
That’s what #100daysofenrichment is all about; encouraging pets and their people to have fun and brain games together with as much guidance and support as possible. And play most certainly forms part of that program.
Fun with Find It! and fetch and other stuff too
Here are some clips from today’s trek around the Phoenix Park. We start with just sniffing and roaming – I want him nice and warm before he does anything strenuous. For the most part, he is trotting and loping around, at will as much as is possible and safe.
Intermittently we might do recalls, Go Find It! games, or just silly stuff just as part of engagement and joy in hanging out together.
When he’s good and loose, we might play fetch; not every time, not in the same places. Sometimes I don’t even bring a ball.
But, we do our best to follow the rule of doing a different move each time to cut down on repetition, and making play time more than just fetch. So, we might have several rounds of this.
Don’t just think about variation in toy games, but on your walks and outings in general. Engage your dog in lots of different activities and interactions, bring them to areas that allow for sniffing and running, different gradients, different footings, different levels of cover.
Rather than abolishing, we have responsibilities to help refine. And rather than going after pet owners, we have responsibilities to shape behaviour and apply differential reinforcement, rather than aversive approaches.
Add in Find It! games, along with sniffing, and lots of adventure time, rather than taking exercise and entertainment away from dogs. Concentrate on making it more dog.
And it seems that our dogs’ ancestors may have a tendency toward inter-species play based in human social cueing, with even wolf pups showing a tendency toward fetching for an unfamiliar human. (Wheat & Temrin, 2020) This type of interaction is likely a long-standing part of our relationships with dogs.
Despite this, fetch is far from my favourite doggie game or means to exercise active dogs.
Now, before I have card-carrying members from Fetchaholics Anonymous after me, I am not saying your dog can’t play fetch games. But, if fetch is the predominant form of exercise your dog gets, this is very much for you.
Confession time. I have my own ball-addict who will and has chased and caught a ball repetitively many many times in his life. But, for Decker, this forms a tiny proportion of the exercise, play and entertainment he has access to, especially as he ages.
Fetch isn’t a dirty word, but…
I don’t want you to think that we can’t talk about fetch games but, it’s important that we take care.
For lots of reasons, intense, and especially, repetitive fetch playing may be having impacts on your dog that is detrimental to their health.
Some problems with intense and repetitive fetch, especially when it forms a lot of the dog’s exercise, may include:
it’s just about the ball, and chasing the ball, and catching the ball, and biting the ball…rather than being real play between human and pet.
And, when those plastic ball launchers are used, it’s even more detached, with even less contact.
it’s probably not really play at all, and whether the dog is having actual fun, is up for debate. Real play is about the connection between players, and this intense fetching is just about the ball…the human could be replaced by a mechanical arm.
Indeed there are automatic fetch machines that you can buy, so that no human is necessary (like the iFetch).
repetitive movement like running, catching, jumping over and over is damaging to the body and likely will have long term effects.
Because intense activity like this causes dogs to become really wound up, they may not be as sensitive to pain so may continue to exert themselves even when sore or uncomfortable.
intense physical, or mental exertion causes the body, via stress responses, to accommodate to rise to the challenge. This usually involves physiological, behavioural and neurochemical adjustments so that the body can cope.
These responses narrow the dog’s focus, hones their fetch skills, at the expense of sensitivity to much else.
This is what we call increasing arousal and exposing the dog to this on a regular basis without care and without facilitating the dog’s body recovering again, may lead to the dog’s baseline for arousal to be raised.
This may mean that the dog is quicker to lose control, finds it harder to calm themselves, and may show signs of problem behaviour relating to over arousal.It’s no surprise then that intense and repetitive fetch games, and other similarly exerting exercise, is one of the first things I will reduce and refine in most modification programs designed with pet owners.
I am not at all suggesting that the above is an example of peer reviewed research, or similar, but it is a quantitative representation for something I, and many colleagues, have observed time and time again.
Fetch brings every thing up, while sniffing, especially structured and goal-oriented, brings it all down again.
Both provide the dog with exercise, and can cause tiredness that so often seems to be the goal, but sniffing appears to be all the more satisfying, mentally and physically, despite not bringing a high level of increased physical exertion. We can give the dog what he needs, without the nasty side-effects.
Too much of a good thing
Observe the dog that is engaged in or anticipating a repetitive fetch game: tense muscles, intense focus, dilated pupils, exertion breathing, tongue hanging out until the moment of the toss and then the mouth tightens, as he holds his breath, concentrating on the ball.
Chewy is desperately waiting for the ball to be kicked or tossed, letting
him experience that high again.
This describes the behavioural responses to stress. Stress can be good or bad; the good allowing the dog to get this job done…the bad may include all those side effects when we take this too far for too long.
Just like human marathon runners or other daredevils, dogs can become adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers too.
They are seeking that next high, brought about by the chemical releases associated with exertion, and trying to put themselves in situations that allow for that chemical hit that goes with those spikes in arousal.
Fetch is a fix, for a lot of dogs.
Play Find It! Instead
Turn fetch-time into a Find it! game by hiding the ball for your dog to hunt down, rather than just chasing.
This provides for better enrichment by ticking so many more enrichment and predatory needs boxes for dogs, while also maintaining physiological responses at a more even keel.
Rollercoaster games are structured to make sure that your dog hits that high, and then comes down again, over and over to really help prime their systems for recovery from arousal.
Not just that, you can think of your dog’s day like a rollercoaster, making sure that you are helping him come down after every spike in excitement in day to day life.
These games are my go-to to help dogs cope with arousal better as they are just so effective, and it’s all through play which brings lots of its own benefits for pets and their people.
Play with a toy or ball on a rope for versatility.
A tired dog is not necessarily a good dog so don’t make exhaustion your goal.
Fetching until your dog is exhausted, just raises those arousal baselines, while neglecting to provide a balance of mental and physical exercise. Your dog gets wound up and then has nowhere to go; even though their body might seem tired, the rest of them is buzzing.
Enrichment and appropriate challenge facilitating behaviour health are better for everyone and exhaustion shouldn’t play a part.
The toy is not the game
Don’t make play about a toy or item. These are merely conduits through which fun and connection happens between pet and person. Play for real.
If you can be substituted by a mechanical device, it’s probably not play and it’s certainly not connection.
This takes practice. Even a fetchaholics like Chewy and his awesome human can learn about playing for connection rather than for ball-throws.
It’s going to take more input and effort from the owner and that’s why this can be a tricky sell.
You are not just an automatic fetch machine. You should be much more than that to your dog.
Play is not about winning
For play with connection, make sure that the dog is in possession of the toy most of the time. While it’s important that we teach our dogs reliable toy releases (more here on teaching releases) for many reasons, getting the toy back or keeping the toy, “controlling” the game, or making sure the human wins, have nothing to do with it.
That’s not play. That’s competition. And where’s the fun in that?
Make the fun happen with you, while your dog just happens to have the toy. This is particularly important with puppies; we are laying the foundations of our relationship with them, and that’s best done through play. (Who doesn’t want to play with puppies?!)
When we need to get a little more responsiveness in there, we can use this same approach. By making sure that you make the toy fun, your dog will want to bring it you and have you involved because that’s what makes it great!
The joy in playing is that we play for play’s sake. A ball, food rewards or other extrinsic things may or may not be present, but the point is that the play, and all that brings, is what we’re in it for.
For Decker, him getting to hold and bite on a toy, even if it’s not the focus of the game, helps to give him a better outlet for his excitement and something else to bite, other than human bits.
Playing without a toy takes even more practice, especially with a dog who likes to bite on things when wound up (that’s Decker!).
Play skills are some of my most favourite things to work on with pets and their people. And it is quite literally a game-changer for you both.
The high expectations of dogs, and their behaviour, are such that pet owners presume that their dogs will just play with them, and that human behaviour easily elicits play in dogs. Not so.
Play is just like any other behaviour (except that it’s truly magic) in that it requires practice and building. It’s the cornerstone to excellent pet-person relationships and it’s fun – this should be any easy sell!
Go play, ‘cos your dog is here for a good time, not for a long time!
#100daysofenrichment is the best way for you to provide your pet with the most enriched life.
With lots and lots on play too:
Regardless of our opinions or feelings, the welfare needs of the animal do not change.
That realisation, for me, has always been a game changer. And it’s why we are so invested in developing skills in understanding how to measure welfare in animals, particularly companion dogs.
Welfare is a measure of how well the animal is coping with its environment, and that’s generally the set-up we provide and expose them to.
How do we do that? We ask the animal!
Behavioural observations provide one of the least invasive means of measuring how the animal feels about what we do to them, from their point of view.
No matter the conditions in which the dog lives, and no matter our opinions and feelings about that, the welfare needs of that dog remain unchanged.
Last week we talked about dogs’ needs, the things dogs must have to have a good dog-life. How this manifests for an individual dog will depend on a range of factors, that might include:
genetic history: selection history and the behaviour of related individuals can help us predict the extent of this influence
early rearing conditions: for dogs to become family dogs, they must be reared in an enrichment environment, exposed to the human world and learning to just be around humans, especially during their first weeks of life
continued experience and exposure throughout adolescence: the teenage years will see a ton of behavioural development, brain change and body maturation making this period a most important stage in forming a healthy dog
resilience and recovery from stress, self-calming and arousal control abilities: this is what dictates how well a dog will do in the human world and modifying these abilities is tricky as dogs age, and even not possible in some cases
medical history: physical and behavioural health cannot really be separated
training history: even without a structured training program in place, every interaction between the dog and its environment, which includes humans, will have an affect on behaviour
These factors combine, impacting the welfare needs requirements for that dog.
My job is largely helping and supporting dog owners in the provision of their dog’s welfare needs.
Modern life presents many challenges for the companion dog, and its owners and meeting a companion dog’s needs is harder than ever before.
Being a pet dog isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; a pet life isn’t necessarily welfare centric, just by virtue of us loving dogs or welcoming them into our families.
A sedentary ‘sofa’ life may not be the best dog-life for an individual even though that has become somewhat of a standard wish often stated on behalf of dogs.
Our opinions or feelings about what makes a good dog-life don’t change what the dog actually needs.
The dog is telling us; their behaviour provides us with feedback so that we know how well they are coping with the things we expect of them (or not).
Asking the dog is the easy part, we just have to listen to what they are telling us, and then do what we can to give them a good dog-life.
#100daysofenrichment helps you to learn to observe your dog and ask them what they need – it meets dogs needs by helping pet owners with ideas, plans and supports. Join in, dip in, have fun!
Domestication has done wonderful things in producing an animal that likes to live with us and is pretty tolerant of us and our human ways.
Our dogs don’t have much choice in most of what happens to them – they don’t choose to be born, they don’t choose the human they go home with, they don’t choose to live a life of virtual social isolation while their humans work long hours or they are confined to kennel accommodation for chunks of time, they don’t choose to have such limited access to their world especially their olfactory world, they don’t choose a sedentary life; they don’t really get to choose too much of the things we expose them to in our human world.
Because of just how awesome dogs are, they appear pretty tolerant so we often assume they are living a good dog-life and that we are meeting their needs.
But, are we?
What is a good dog-life?
I often say that dogs are here for a good time, not for a long time. We can help them live every day to the fullest and have the best dog-life by prioritising their needs.
Before we can consider “obedience”, before we can achieve success working on behaviour ‘problems’ and before we can expect them to live up to our human ideals, we first consider the dog’s needs. No point going much further without this.
Dogs must have:
social contact and interaction with humans. We have spent many many thousands upon thousands of years making dogs like us more than other dogs.
The best company for a dog is human company and it’s especially important for young dogs to just be around human life. That’s how they develop appropriate social skills, which is pretty tricky if they are socially isolated for much of the day.
dogs need to be able to interact or not, having the time to choose, and have safe spaces for relief from interactions.
Humans often assume social interaction means contact and human-like contact such as hugs and petting. Dogs like to be close to their nearest and dearest and the ultimate in bonding is to lie in contact with you – no petting or hugging required!
appropriate challenge through mental and physical enrichment is always our central focus – if you get that right, the rest of it falls into place
functional spaces are important to dogs; they, like humans, prefer to have specific areas for feeding, sleeping, resting, hanging out, playing, toileting and so on.
They don’t need a “den”, because they aren’t denning animals but will appreciate their own space and choice to interact.
An enriched environment makes sure that the dog has access to and choice in functional space.
predictability and controllability are the ultimate in stress busters; “I know what’s about to happen to me” AND “I have behavioural solutions to deal with it”
One or the other isn’t enough, for a stress-less life, your dog needs both.
Welfare is assessed from the animal’s point of view. Dogs have needs that we must meet and might have to make specific efforts to meet because these needs might not be a normal part of our human life, with which we expect our dogs to cope. Think dog so you can give your dog the best dog-life.
#100daysofenrichment does just this – it meets dogs needs by helping pet owners with ideas, plans and supports. Join in, dip in, have fun!
Day 100, here, is the same as Day 99 because you don’t get a Sunday Fun Day to repeat – this way you get to re-do and revamp Pockets Puzzles!
Well done and thank you for taking this journey with AniEd. Please let us know what you have learned, what you have loved, what has challenged you or your beliefs and, most importantly, how your pet has benefited throughout.