Fetch is probably the most popular dog game, dogs love to play fetch and it ties directly into our dog’s psychology. Of course, playing fetch is as simple as throwing something, the dog goes and gets it, they bring it back to us, and the process begins again.
Dogs like fetch because it ties into the inner workings of animal instincts and brain chemistry. Particular breeds are keener on fetch than others and can credit their love of fetch to their instincts. For other breeds, fetch is simply a game for them to enjoy with their owner.
Because they are a big part of your life, understanding what makes your dog “tick” is essential to your relationship. Peering into the mind of your pup will help you recognize if they love to fetch due to animal instinct, brain chemistry, or a combination of both. This basic knowledge will help you to develop a better bond with your non-human best bud.
Instinct Is a Built-In Reason Your Dog Loves Fetch
Domesticated to be our pets thousands of years ago, dogs often played an integral part in human survival. Many breeds in particular were domesticated and trained to become an essential component of the “hunter/gatherer” lifestyle necessary for humans to persevere and thrive. The human would kill an animal, and the dog was sent to retrieve it for the human. This is believed to be the archaic beginnings of fetch.
Another primitive way dogs were used to assist humans with their day-to-day survival was to herd and protect other animals such as cattle. Trained to chase the cattle to ensure they stayed safely inside defined perimeters, these breeds were accustomed to running and tracking all day. They were also in charge of keeping predators away from their herd, also contributing to their need to run and be alert all day.
Wild dogs also contribute evidence towards a dog’s natural instinct to chase. Although so many of the dogs we come into contact with are domesticated we will still see hints of a hunter. Wild dogs will chase after their prey as a way to survive, often we are told to slowly back away from predators like this if seen in the wild. This is because the urge to chase is in some cases just as strong as the urge to eat. For example, my golden retriever will see a squirrel whilst walking through the woods. In fact, I’ve seen him corner a cat and not know what to do next, it was just the chase he was interested in, naturally, he returned to my panicking shouts.
Breeds of dogs such as retrievers, shepherds, collies, and spaniels were most commonly trained to hunt and protect. They are also some of the breeds today who are most likely to love playing fetch. However, you will often note that these breeds don’t simply run after the thrown item and retrieve it.
Why Retrievers Love Fetch
Retrievers, known for their skills as hunters, will often pick up the tossed item, and before returning it, will frequently be seen shaking it vigorously. This ties back to their hunting days centuries ago, if the animal they were sent to retrieve wasn’t quite dead, the retriever would vigorously shake it.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you will notice that retrievers tend to be soft-mouthed dogs and this comes down to preserving the condition of the game they are fetching for their owner.
The link with instinct can easily be noticed when a retriever retrieves their toy during fetch. In addition to this when you arrive home every day you are greeted with a toy, my golden retriever gets quite frantic if he can not find a toy, in some cases he will just pick up a sock or something else he can find.
To learn more about the history of Golden Retrievers and what makes them so suited to fetch check out this article on the American Golden Retriever club.
Shepherds Play a Special Type of Fetch
Shepherds, used as herding dogs, tend to play a unique game of fetch. Accustomed to running around for extended periods to ensure the animals in their care were staying with the herd. This breed tends to run around before picking up the item thrown when playing fetch, making the connection between past and present clear.
If you are a proud owner of one of the breeds mentioned above, you can now see why your dog may take more joy out of a game of fetch than the average pup. They have an ancient instinct that makes them feel like a fetch game is tying them to their hunter/gatherer ancestors.
Additionally tied to animal instinct, most dogs tend to want to chase after moving things in general. Their closest relatives are wolves, coyotes, and other wild dogs, of course. Every canine on the planet has a “prey drive” since they are a carnivorous (or omnivorous, depending) branch of life.
There are also lots of other behaviors that may have archaic evolutionary roots, including the “retrieving” part of fetch!
Is Fetch Good or Bad For Dogs
You may not realize but there are positives and negatives to playing fetch with your dog, and it’s up to you to recognize when enough is enough.
I have spoken a lot about how important mental stimulation is for your dog. In fact, I have reiterated that it is just as important if not more so than physical exercise. This is where fetch becomes a great game to play, especially with the introduction of some helpful tips.
Every interaction you have with your dog can be positively stimulating, in fact throwing a ball for your dog will instantly initiate his sense of smell. Because dogs don’t see color, as well as humans, it can be hard for your dog to distinguish where the ball is, especially if it lands in a patch of grass. Check out our article on “What Is a Dog’s Favorite Color” for more info on your dog’s color senses.
Because of their lack of color sense, they will instantly use their nose to locate the missing ball, which stimulates the largest part of their brain the olfactory system, or smell. To improve the game further and improve mental stimulation, apply some scent onto the ball such as a treat or favorite toy. Once you have done this throw the ball into some long grass or other hidden area and let your pooch route for it. Here is some extra information on how dogs are able to smell so well and why it is important to get them actively sniffing out items such as balls you throw. “Why Does My Dog Smell Everything On A Walk”.
Unfortunately, this is where some of the negatives come into play. Over-exercising a dog can cause joint and muscle issues further down the road. It is especially important not to over-exercise puppies or smaller dogs, remember your dog will constantly want to play fetch until they just can’t run any longer. Of course, it’s unlikely you will make it past this time, especially if you have a working breed as they just keep going….trust me I know.
As discussed previously physical play can stimulate your dog mentally too, so they are going to be getting enough exercise. Try playing on some softer surfaces to limit the amount of pressure on their joints, it is also important to ensure older dogs dog injure themselves during play as they probably won’t even notice until later. Check out our article on how to manage your dog’s energy levels.
Can Puppies Play Fetch
Playing fetch with your puppy can be a great way to bond and give them some mental stimulation to help with their development. Owners should be cautious not to overexert puppies when playing fetch and ensure that the items they use to play fetch are safe for puppies.
Mental stimulation is one of the best ways to help your puppy’s development both socially and for behavioral reasons. If your puppy is younger than 6 months, it is important not to play fetch for too long as their bodies are still developing physically and may not be up to the task. As your puppy approaches the 1-year mark you will be able to play more and more with them, it is still important to monitor how long they have been playing.
How you play fetch with a puppy can depend heavily on the breed type and if they are working or a toy breed. Toy breeds are much smaller and are not often bred to withstand fast-paced games. Working dog breeds can take more physical games but will often not notice when they are getting tired or have hurt themselves, so making sure you pay attention to their behavior can help.
Try playing fetch with a puppy firstly indoors, teaching them basic recall can help get them outside and off lead quicker. Off-lead walking is one of the best ways to exercise your dog and can help a puppy learn about the world around them much easier. It can also limit frustration that in puppies can lead to destructive behaviors. Have a look at our article on “How To Walk A Dog Off Lead” for some great advice on how to start walking off the lead and some things to consider before and during your walks. In addition to this, we also speak about the perfect age for letting your pup roam free off lead, check it out here “What Age To Let A Puppy Off The Lead”.
If It Feels Good, Do It: Fetch and Your Dog’s Brain Chemistry
While it may be hard to believe that your beloved pet’s passion for fetch might simply be attached to its need to feel good, it is true. There are a couple of different ways that your dog’s brain tells it a good old game of fetch is precisely what it needs to feel satisfied.
Fetch: An Exercise for Your Dog’s Brain
We have all been there. You’ve had a long day. You’re tired. You just don’t want to go to the gym and work out. But something inside of you begins to tingle as you think about that feeling you get from exercising. Your brain releases endorphins as sort of a “thank you” for doing your body good. The same thing happens to your dog when he plays fetch.
When your puppy plays fetch, the part of the brain that stimulates its “reward region” is turned on. So, your dog knows that every time he runs for that ball and brings it back to you, he is going to have that “happy feeling” hitting his head. That feeling reinforces your dog’s desire to make you toss the ball, retrieve it, give it back to you, and repeat. As long as your pup is happy, it seems a small price to pay.
Dogs Also Feel Affection from Fetch
Another “brain booster” that dogs get from playing fetch is the feeling they get simply from playing with you. Every time you throw the ball and return it to you, you reinforce to your dog that you love him, and you want to spend time with him. That is a huge reason a game of fetch could go on for, in your case, what seems like forever.
While it can get annoying to you pretty quickly, your dog doesn’t see it that way. Instead, they feel that you are totally into the game just like they are, and you are making them feel like the most special pup in the world.
No matter the breed, most dogs enjoy fetching because of basic brain chemistry. There are also plenty of other games you can play while walking your dog. Our article on “Games To Play While Walking Your Dog” has some great ideas for you and your pooch.
Do Dogs Naturally Play Fetch
For some dogs, there is a natural desire for playing fetch, especially amongst working breeds. As discussed earlier dogs love to play fetch because they have the natural instinct that is built into them, mainly through their built-in prey drive. Chasing anything that moves away from them stimulates those natural responses that dogs have built into them. Of course, prey drive is not the only reason dogs naturally play fetch. Dogs are also a sucker for the game because their brain tells them it will make them feel good and because they want to bond with you. This can also be considered a natural reason for playing fetch, of course not all dogs receive that feeling and just think you are being the stage for throwing a ball and collecting yourself.
If your dog does naturally love to play fetch, then you should have lots of throwing materials on hand at all times and be prepared to play with your pup a lot. It’ll be good for you, too.
While it has never been a mystery that dogs love to play fetch, until now, the reasons behind that obsession may not have been clear. Dogs love to play fetch for a variety of reasons. First, their breed may bring about an instinctual need to play fetch because they have an urge to get in touch with their hunter/gatherer roots.
Second, their brain chemistry drives other dogs. Some love that “happy feeling” that comes from the brain releasing endorphins when exercising. Others love to fetch because they enjoy the bond that builds between you. Whatever your dog’s reason for wanting to play fetch, it is a small price to pay to make your dog happy.
Dogs love the game of fetch and it’s always interesting to delve deeper into why they love this game so much. Well as you have found out, it’s not just a game to them, it’s a challenge, hopefully, you can take this knowledge and apply it to your dog. If you enjoyed this article check out some of our other content on our homepage.