Is Fetching Really All That “Fetching” for Dogs?

Sep 25, 2015 | Animal Behavior, Pet Guardians

Playing fetch is a common canine/owner activity but is it always the best thing for our dogs? Graphic © Can Stock Photo

Playing fetch is a common canine/owner activity but is it always the best thing for our dogs? Graphic © Can Stock Photo

As science sheds more light on the popular game of “fetch”, it is fascinating to learn that “fetch” may not always be that “fetching” after all for some dogs. Stressed dogs in particular may take longer to recover if they are playing fetch. This article discusses how this game affects a dog’s body.

Fetch can ignite the hunting instincts in some dogs. This becomes evident when one considers that many dogs do not need to be taught how to run after a ball, but only how to return it. Sometimes dogs are natural hunters and instinctively run after small moving objects that resemble prey. In fact, the concentration of cones in their eyes is such that they see moving objects in the periphery of their vision twice as well as they see static objects right in front of them.

The Dog Pulse project in Norway studies this phenomenon as well by measuring the heart rate of a dog and identifies points where the dog’s fight or flight response is triggered when playing fetch. When this hunting instinct is triggered, the dog gets a boost of adrenaline. Just as we would, if we were doing something extreme like bungee jumping. With repeated exposure to adrenaline, another hormone is released in the body, cortisol. Cortisol is a type of steroid.

These hormones are great in short doses, for emergencies. They are very powerful and provide a lot of power to the body and muscles. The body gets faster, stronger and tougher. But something that powerful cannot be emptied as quickly as it’s pumped in.

In some cases, adrenaline is known to have remained in circulation for seven days and cortisol is known to have remained in circulation for up to as much as 40 days. When an animal hunts in the wild, after that adrenaline rush, he sits down to eat his meal and lets the hormones wear off. But when we throw the ball, we throw several times each session. Imagine bungee jumping several times over. Imagine taking that many shots of steroids, every day. It might be worth considering how much of the residual hormone is coursing through a dog’s body and how long it would take for all those hormones to leave the body. Every dog’s physiology is different; some may show the effects while others may not.

It is a commonly held belief that dogs need to play fetch to remain healthy. As part of my education I have been studying street dogs and how much they move around. While my results are still pending publication, I can say with confidence they just don’t run as much. Maybe they just need to conserve their energy. However, they do explore a lot more, use all their senses and get at least 16 hours of sleep a day.

If a dog is overweight despite say around 45 minutes of exercise a day, it may be worth checking his diet and general health, and considering a check up with the veterinarian.

Sometimes clients point out that their dog brings the ball to them asking to play. This is true. Adrenaline addiction is as real an addiction any other. I may reach for that next cigarette, but that does not make it good for me. Not all dogs are “addicted” by any means. Some dogs genuinely love the game. Further, many dogs have an innate joy of engaging in a wide range of dog sports.

For the dog who does not appear to be so engaged in a game of fetch though, consider alternative games include nose games like treat search and mental games like dog puzzles. Often – but not always – these can be more calming on a dog and can go a long way in addressing stress issues. Some dogs prefer their owners’ attention over the notion of repeatedly running after a ball. When he brings the ball to you, maybe he is just hoping for some attention and it’s fine to give him that if that’s what he wants. Talk to him. Maybe tell him a story. Dog Pulse uncovered that just as fetch increases heart rate, search games can bring down the heart rate. In addition, slow walks build core muscles, and sniffing on walks exercises a dog’s mind, helping to calm him down and tire him. Food for thought indeed.


Dog Pulse. (n.d.). Retrieved from Dog Pulse Org.

Horowitz, A. (2010). Inside of a Dog. In A. Horowitz, Inside of a Dog. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In R. M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Hold & Co.

First published in Bangalore Mirror, June 8, 2015, Times Group

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