What Is It with Dogs and Playing Fetch?

Oct 1, 2018

What is it with dogs and playing fetch?

In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist relates his own dogs’ fetching instincts to their ancestral roles and the masters they served.

I have a three-year-old Labrador retriever that loves to fetch. No surprise, really; he was bred from two hunting dogs who love to fetch, and is a breed known for its love of fetching. Furthermore, since the day we brought him home from the breeder, we have been teaching him to fetch. He is a family pet, sure, but for me he is an important tool. I bought him to help me hunt ducks, grouse, geese, and other small game. That’s his job. Well, one of his jobs; the other job is filling a vital role in our family, in his pack.

Now sure, we taught him to fetch, and really it came naturally to him, but sometimes he shows traits we did not train into him. These are likely remnants of old genetic code, an ancestral drive handed down from generations past. You see, Labrador retrievers were not originally a bird hunting dog, a sport dog. Really, hunting for sport appeared relatively recently in human history. Sure, we have records of old world gentry and royalty using dogs and falcons to hunt for fun, but most people relied on hunting as a source of income or food until the last century or so, when some level of disposable income was incorporated into lifestyles, and conservation departments developed hunting licenses and seasons to fund conservation and manage populations. Subsistence hunting really began to change to more of a recreational pursuit with the benefit of providing food. Labrador retrievers have been playing a role in hunting as it developed both for food and for sport. Before that, though, if you look back before people decided to use a retrieving dog to fetch back ducks or doves, they were used to retrieve other items for work. Labradors were used by fishermen to retrieve ropes, floats, and even fish that fell out of nets or slipped off of barbless hooks.

If you have spent a lot of time with a lab or two, this probably comes as no surprise. My first lab, a chocolate female, was a fetching machine—on the clock. She didn’t care to fetch just to kill time, but when it came to hunting, she would fetch like mad. Once, I shot a wood duck that landed on the water, and proceeded to dive as wounded ducks are apt to do. My lab followed suit, disappearing under water. The duck went under a floating leatherleaf bog, and she followed, disappearing out of sight. I panicked, jumped out of my skiff, and reached blindly under the bog until I felt a kicking leg and dragged her back to the surface coughing and gagging. She was ready to die to fetch that duck.

The thing about her, though, is that she loved retrieving fish. She would bring dead fish from along shore. She would try to grab the fish out of our water garden or the aquarium. She would even pick up and carry around the frozen fish lying on the surface of the lake by where we were ice fishing. Once, she scared the dickens out of me by grabbing a freshly boated fish still on the hook; thankfully she didn’t get hooked herself.

My current lab, a male, is the same way. We had to train him not to fetch the goldfish from the water garden. We can’t take him in the fishing boat with us because he tries to retrieve anchor ropes, bobbers, and fishing lures. He loves coming along in the boat on a fishing outing, but he can’t control that instinct to try to help with our fishing efforts. And when its time to clean fish, keep a wary eye out, because he will try to carry one off.

Dogs are amazing creatures, if you think about it. Although they have been bred by humans for centuries, and used for work and play around the world, they are still not far removed from their distant wild relatives, like wolves, coyotes, and foxes. Their instincts serve them well in work and play, and their pack mentality keeps them a central figure in our homes.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.