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CANINE CONNECTION: Restrict reps for rarin’ retrievers

When your dog is gifted with a strong retrieval drive it’s only natural to incorporate retrieving into your pup’s daily exercise routine.

When your dog is gifted with a strong retrieval drive it’s only natural to incorporate retrieving into your pup’s daily exercise routine.

What could be easier than tossing a ball or Frisbee over and over again? 

Having had my share of eager retrievers in my home I am all too aware of the benefits of that exercise, but I am also aware of the pitfalls.

Dogs can suffer from repetitive sports injuries just like humans can. To compound the problem, dogs with strong retrieval drives tend to be stoic, often ignoring pain during exercise because the thrill of the chase overrides the discomfort.

Any time a repetitive action is performed over a long period of time the muscles become fatigued. That’s normal, but when an activity continues past the point of fatigue it puts stress on the muscle fibers and the muscles become overworked and weak. Once the muscles become weak the tendons and ligaments can suffer inflammation, tears and in the worst cases complete ruptures.

In any case these are all very bad things, not only for a dog’s health and well-being but also for an owner as rehabilitation can be long and costly.

Does this mean we should never exercise our dogs by playing fetch?

Umm, no, but it does mean you should be more aware of how long you are playing fetch with your dog and the importance of varying the routine.

Start by figuring out which side of your dog is dominant. Dogs are either right pawed or left pawed the same way we are either right or left handed. To figure this out you simply toss a retrieval toy and your dog will turn on one side more often than the other to catch or return the toy. This will determine which side of your dog is more dominant. This is important because the dominant side is the one that will most likely suffer repetitive injuries. To counter this, make the effort to encourage your dog to use both sides of its body as equally as possible. This can be harder than it sounds because dogs are creatures of habit, so you might have to use another type of toy that slows your dog down before it picks it up, or toss the toy into a bush so the dog has to search for it rather than twist in the same direction once it has picked it up.

Another great option is to toss the retrieval toy into a pond, lake or slow moving creek so the dog has to swim to the toy. Swimming puts far less impact on joints and muscles and is an excellent overall body conditioning exercise and a great way to strengthen a dog’s core and stabilizing muscles.

Fido not much of a swimmer?  Well there is an app for that now. Seriously, there are facilities that offer swimming lessons for dogs . . . just Google it!

An alternative to water retrieves are playing fetch on sand or soft surfaces, never on hard compact soil or pavement, and limiting fetching to no more than 15 minutes at a time to minimize negative impact on joints, muscles and tendons.

Adding obedience to the fetch game – such as having the dog sit down before the toy is tossed or coming into heel position upon the retrieve – is a great way to get a dog’s brain involved and break up the repetitiveness of the exercise.

Like most things in life, moderation is the key to longevity and if your dog is not much of a retriever, I will discuss what to do about that in the next column!


Joan Klucha has been working with dogs for more than 15 years in obedience, tracking and behavioural rehabilitation.