Why do Dogs like to Play Fetch?

May 17, 2015 / Animal Factoids / 0 Comments /
A picture of a dog playing fetch with a ball. This is supporting media for the article 'why do dogs like to play fetch'.

It’s a strange notion, playing fetch. Why on Earth would any animal (especially one as clever as a dog) so desperately want to have a stick or ball thrown for them to chase and bring back, only to repeat the process again and again. There doesn’t seem to be any reason behind it, yet dogs LOVE to play fetch…

There are actually a couple of reasons why they would enjoy this seemingly mindless activity, which when combined, may make them love it. So here is why dogs like to play fetch:


1. Evolution

Dogs truly are mans best friend, and were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago. At this point dogs were not what we think of them as today – they were little more than wolves. Their role as domesticated animals was toto guard, and to assist with hunting (either by killing animals, or more likely by bringing the animal back). 

15,000 years ago a fundamental part of the relationship between man and dog was for the dog to bring things to the man. For several thousand years, a dog’s ability to ‘fetch’ would have been a deciding factor in whether it was kept, domesticated and bred, or not, and so this desire to bring things to humans has been bred into modern dogs over many many years.


2. Exercise

Dogs enjoy exercise! It might sound strange to some, but those who have experienced a ‘runner’s high’ might be able to relate a bit more. Dogs, and humans release neurotransmitters that play a major role in stimulating reward regions in the brain during and after exercising. Nothing releases these neurotransmitters more than a super fast sprint, which makes it all that much more enjoyable.

Its just so happens that the activity which releases these neurotransmitters plays on their primal instincts to ‘fetch’ for their human counterpart.


3. Dogs like attention

Dog getting attention for playing fetch - one of the reasons dogs enjoy playing fetch.Dogs have exhibited jealousy and attention seeking behaviour similar to that of children – and they enjoy being the centre of attention to people. Playing ‘fetch’ with a dog often come alongside praise and attention from their owner which they enjoy. Just think back to the last time you played fetch with a dog, no doubt when the dog ‘fetched’ the ball/ stick you stroked it and probably repeatedly said ‘good boy/girl!’. You gave it undivided attention, which no doubt it enjoyed.

If repeatedly bringing back a stick resulted in undivided attention from a loved one, I’m sure more than just dogs would play fetch.


4. We train them to do it!

Its probably the very first trick you teach a dog aside from not going to the toilet inside. Dogs may have a primal affinity to playing ‘fetch’, which makes it an easy trick to learn, but most dogs don’t pick it up straight away. They sometimes get the object then go off by themselves to chew it (which hunter-gatherer would not like!). It takes a bit of teaching for the dog to actually get the stick, bring it back, and drop it at your feet.

Summary – why dogs like to play fetch

Dogs are programmed to want to fetch, its been bred into them for thousands of years, and this is probably why they quickly catch on to playing fetch today. In addition to this, the sprinting part of the game releases chemicals in the brain which trigger reward centers in the brain, which makes them enjoy playing fetch. You then have the dog’s desire for attention from their, which they get when they play fetch, which further reinforces their enjoyment of the game.

Images courtesy of Anne Marie and Sonia Modeo

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Dogs like to play fetch because its been bread into them, they get a ‘runner’s high’, they get attention from their owner, and lastly, because its the first thing their owner will teach them!