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The problem with playing fetch!

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

One of the most common things I hear from my puppy training clients is “I want to teach my puppy to play fetch!” I can see why dog owners want to play fetch with their dogs. They see it as a way to play and bond with their dog and a way to tire their dog out especially when they only have 20 minutes to walk them in the morning before work.

However what dog owners often don’t realise is the more exercise your dog gets the fitter they become. You are essentially building an athlete! Fetch has also been linked to arthritis in dogs. There was an excellent news article in the Express last week explaining why ball throwing is dangerous to your dogs health. You can read the article here: "Ball throwers blamed for giving dogs arthritis." It highlights the strains and stress ball throwing has on dogs. Jumping up, running from a standing position and sliding to get the ball are all ways playing fetch can damage your dogs body.

Similary, the notion that “a tired dog is a good dog” is a bit misguided. Not all exercise is created equal. Some activities, such as prolonged ball and Frisbee fetching or uninterrupted play with other dogs in the park, actually increase arousal and stress. Dogs that go for a run with their owners or have uninterrupted play with other dogs in the park or a 20 minute game of fetch come home with high adrenaline which can take up to 4-6 hours to go down and often high cortisol levels (stress hormone) which can take up to 48 hours to go down. This prevents your dog from feeling fully relax and mentally tied.

There are other ways you can build a strong bond with your dog and come home after a walk with a happy, calm and tired dog.

Alternatives to playing fetch

Scent games:

Teach your dog to find food treats or their favourite toy while you are out on a walk. Hide some treats in the long grass, on fallen tree branches or low trees. Then cue your dog to "find it". Instead of using the ball to play fetch, hide it behind trees or in the long grass.

Scent work is fun way to give your dog more mental stimulation, it helps to build your dogs confidence and a great way to bond with your dog. It helps to keep your dog calm and is a way to hone in on your dogs natural instinct. Sniffing is the ONE thing ALL dog breeds have in common. Want to find out more on Why mental stimulation is better than physical exercise I wrote a blog post on it here. Below is a video on how to train your dog to find their ball.

How to get started:

  • Start by dropping the toy next to you and then cue your dog to "find it"

  • Once your dog starts to learn what "find it" means you can cue them sit, stay and hide the ball behind a tree. Gradually increasing the difficulty as times goes on.

Sniff walks:

Sniff walks can be done on a short lead or on a long training lead which must be attached to the back clip of a harness. Take your dog out on a slow and relaxing walk with lots of opportunities to sniff. Sniffing will be calming and relaxing for your dog. This will help tire out your dog mentally without straining their body. Instead of insisiting on rushing the walk and getting annoyed every time your dog sniffs a bush, tree or lamp post let them take in all the smells. Even if you only have 20 minutes to walk your dog that day, don't be fixated on getting around the block. Even if you just get to the end of the road and back in that 20 minutes your dog would have mentally tired themselves out and be in a much more zen mood for the rest of the day.


Break your walks up by stopping now and then and asking your dog to do a behaviour they know well. Like a sit, stay while you walk around them in a circle. Hand touch, weave in-between your legs or a spin! These are just a few simple but fun ideas you can do while out on your walk.

New environments:

Take your dog to new places. A beach, woodland, a hike up a hill. Just how we enjoy going on holiday and seeing new places. Our dogs benefit from going to new environments too. Going to the same park day in and day out can become tedious for us and for our dogs. We often end up walking around the park look at our phone, rather than being engaged with our dog. The walk starts to become a negative experience for the both of you which won't help with your dogs cortisol levels. Going to new places regularly and engaging with your dog will make walks fun and interesting. You will both start to look forward to your next adventure!

Tug games:

There is a misconception that playing tug with your dog is bad as it could make your dog "dominant" This is not the case at all, in fact playing tug with your dog helps build a strong bond, keeps your dog focused on you and is a great alternative to fetch.

The rules to tug:

  • Teach your dog a "drop" cue

  • Keep play low to encourage all four paws on the floor

  • Move the toy side to side rather than a push pull motion

  • Keep your toy in a draw and only take it out when you want to have some one on one play


Playing fetch can be over-stimulating and is a high impact activity on your dog's body which can lead to injuries and arthritis in old age. Throw the ball chucker away, keep your phone in your pocket and go out on an adventure with your dog instead!

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