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Playing fetch with your dog, whether with a ball or a frisbee, is a classic activity for a reason. It keeps your dog fit, entertains and tires them out, strengthens your bond – and it’s lots of fun! However, there are also some serious risks posed by the kind of movement involved: the bursts of speed, explosive jumps, awkward launches, and quick direction changes can all place strain on muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments. One of the most common causes that we see for injuries like torn cruciates (like a torn ACL in humans) is from overzealous fetch, frisbee, or ChuckIt play. Fortunately, there are some easy adjustments you can make to game time that can help keep your dog much safer (without sacrificing any of the fun!).

(1) Pick a Strategic Play Area

When choosing your fetch location, try to find areas that have a minimum of extra activity. The more people, other pets, and wildlife around mean more chances for your dog to become distracted (potentially bounding off after a new playmate or potential prey) or overexcited (if there are other dogs interested in joining the fun). Extra roughhousing increases the chances of over-exertion, strain, or injury – it’s safer to keep the game just between you and your dog. Also keep in mind the footing of your play area – slippery surfaces like wet grass, overly dry (brown) grass, dry fallen leaves, mud, snow/slush/ice, or even gravel can make it difficult for your dog to maintain good traction and stability as they run and jump.

(2) Retractable Leash = Flexible Control

Consider using a retractable leash during game time, particularly as you’re starting to teach your dog some new, safer fetch habits. Flexi-leads generally don’t offer enough control when you’re out for a walk together, in this case it’s a good way to allow your dog to range further from you than a conventional leash while allowing you to keep an eye (and hold) on their activity. One important thing to keep in mind while using a retractable leash is the shorter throwing distance you may have to work with – ensure that you don’t throw your toy further than the length of the leash, or your dog will come to an unexpected and jolting stop!

(3) Try the Fetch ‘Fake-Out’ 

The risky elements of these activities are the speed, explosive jumps, and quick direction changes – by minimizing the opportunities for your dog to make these motions, the risk of injury decreases substantially. One way to do this is to separate out the parts of the fetch cycle – dividing the running from the catching. If you first make a ‘fake-out’ throw (pretending to toss the ball or throw the frisbee) your dog will likely head away from you in search of their toy. Once they come to a complete stop at a good distance from you (likely while giving you the side-eye…!) then you can make your real throw. Throw it toward them – rather than in a different direction – and they’ll be well positioned to move to catch it without needing to race at top speed or quickly change direction. 

(4) Wait For It…

Another way to decrease the chances of a body-jarring jump or knee-twisting direction change is to complete your toss first, and then allow your dog to retrieve their prize. This has the added benefit of training for impulse control as your dog waits at your side (the leash can be a helpful training tool as they cultivate their patience). After you’ve thrown the ball or frisbee and it has come to a complete stop/landing, your dog can run as fast as they like to pick it up and you won’t have to worry that they’ll need to stop short or make a sudden twist. 

Adding these habits into your playtime might seem a little like dampening your dog’s unbridled enthusiasm for fetch or frisbee. However, by paying attention to how your companion moves, playing it safe, and helping them protect their joints, you’re making sure that you’ll be tossing discs and balls together for years to come.