As science sheds more light on the popular game of “fetch”, it is fascinating to learn that “fetch” may not be that “fetching” after all. Stressed dogs in particular 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 a dog. 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. It takes time to come down, following a typical “half life” graph.
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. How much of the residual hormone is coursing through dog’s body and how long would it take for all those hormones to leave the body? And what if you repeated it, day after day. How wired up would you be with all those steroids? Imagine!
It is a commonly held misconception that dogs need this kind of exercise 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. But 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 is worth checking his diet, his thyroid levels and general health.
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.
Healthy games include nose games like treat search and mental games like dog puzzles. These are calming on a dog and go a long way in addressing stress issues in a dog. Many dogs prefer their owners’ attention over the notion of running mindlessly after a ball. He brings the ball to you, hoping for some attention. Just give him that. Talk to him. Tell him a story. Dog Pulse uncovered that just as fetch increases heart rate, search games bring down the heart rate. Slow walks build core muscles, and sniffing on walks exercises a dog’s mind, calming him down and tiring him.
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.