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Karen B. London
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Explaining a Glitch in Fetch
It makes sense after all
Super Bee is fetching

We were playing fetch with Super Bee, a friend’s dog, and her unpredictable behavior was making the game less fun for us. All was smooth when we threw the ball and she went to retrieve it. One hundred percent of the time, she gleefully ran it down, picked it up, and brought it back. The difficulty occurred in the transfer of the ball back to us so that we could throw it again.

Though she reliably dropped the ball and let it fall to the ground, she sometimes darted at the ball and snatched it up again, only to drop it once more. She didn’t do it every time, but she did it enough that it was a problem. Besides interrupting the flow of the game and being a little annoying, this glitch in the game created a risk that she would hurt my sons if either of them reached for the ball at the same time that she went for it.

I adjusted the game so that I was always the one to pick up the ball, and then I handed it to my sons alternately to throw it. I only reached for the ball after a pause of a few seconds, which seemed to be after she had made her choice about whether to go for the ball again or let me pick it up so it could be thrown for her. It didn’t guarantee my safety, but I managed to avoid trouble. I also noticed a pattern.

Whenever the ball stayed in place on the ground or rolled toward her, Super Bee let me pick it up without making an attempt to take it again. However, if it rolled away from her, she charged at it and grabbed it in her mouth. My best guess is that when the ball rolled away from her, she acted as she did when the ball had been thrown—she retrieved it. The ball was moving away from her, which seemed to be the stimulus for that behavior. It was as though she was on autopilot and couldn’t stop herself from retrieving a ball moving away from her.

Super Bee is an enthusiastic and possibly obsessive fetcher who can’t help but chase after a ball when it is thrown. Even when she is hot and tired enough that she might rather rest in a cool spot, if someone throws a ball, she will go after it. When we play with her, we make sure to stop fetch games long before she becomes fatigued or overheated.

Now that we understand her tendency to “retrieve” balls that roll away from her after she drops them, we only reach for balls that don’t do that. If a ball is moving towards her or is not moving, it’s safe to pick it up. (Another option would be to cue her to drop the ball directly into our hands, which would eliminate the possibility of it rolling.) Taking the unpredictability out of the game makes it more fun and safer, too. Because we understand what is happening, my sons and Super Bee can play fetch without my intervention (though I still supervise!) When it seemed like she was grabbing the ball again instead of letting us throw it, her behavior seemed irksome. Knowing that she is simply retrieving a moving ball because she can’t help it, it’s easy to find the behavior interesting and to wait patiently until she drops it again.

Does your dog ever do this?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Carolyn | November 6 2013 |

Absolutely. Someone recently commented that my dog is "OCD" with regard to balls and fetching. Not so with anything else. It is the ball moving that gets her. We too chose to stop before she self destructs.

Submitted by Sally | November 11 2013 |

My dog is just the opposite. If she has the ball or it is rolling towards her, it is hers! Otherwise she will roll the ball (the floors have a bit of a tilt) or push the ball with the back of her paw, which signals, it is mine to get and toss so we can play some more.

In the local field, however, it is like she is making sure I get my needed walking. I chuck the ball, she races for it, picks it up, then drops it where it is. Once, I think, she has decided I have gotten my exercise, she races after the ball, picks it up and brings it back within 10 feet and drops it. If she is winded, and too tired, she races after the ball, picks it up, bring it within 10 feet, and holds it between her paws so we have a break. She is a Kerry Blue Terrier, 6 years old.

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