The tao of fetch

My dog is obsessed with fetch. At least, that’s what I tell people. It’s the easiest way to explain why he focuses on fetch to the exclusion of almost any other activity a dog might find fun, like chasing a squirrel or wrestling one of his fellow canines. It makes it less surprising (although no less impressive) when I tell them that he spent 7 or 8 hours at a barbeque this past Memorial Day tossing his ball at people’s feet and having them throw it, over and over again, until he was too tired to move anymore, and then still wanted to play fetch again when we got home.

Post-successful retrieval.

Obsessed, for most people, makes sense for a behavior like that. But I don’t think it’s quite the right word. Obsessed, in its original sense, meant literally haunted or possessed by a demon. You can pretty clearly see those original religious overtones in our modern use of the word. If a guy is obsessed with a woman, the idea of her haunts him. He sees her face reflected in magazine covers and TV ads. Songs about beautiful women seem to be inevitably about her. Women glanced out of his peripheral vision are simulacra of her. All thought tracks in his mind inevitably loop back into thoughts of her. It’s like her ghost surrounds him, and everything he senses is filtered through her.

That doesn’t really describe Jasper and fetch. Jasper’s not haunted by fetch. It doesn’t surround his brain. I think it’s more accurate to say he’s fulfilled by it. There’s some deep part of Jasper that goes all the way back to his Labrador Retriever roots that needs to fetch, just as much as his Whippet roots make him need to run at top speeds. It’s like his brain is one of those toddler’s toys with a ball shaped hole, and no other shape can quite fill the gap.

People don’t get this. They ask me sometimes how I trained my dog to be so good at fetch, like I had to bribe him with treats to bring the ball back. That is how I taught him the rest of the limited commands that he knows, and I guess that is how other people might try to teach their dogs to fetch, but that wasn’t the case with him. 

The first day I got Jasper, he was a scared, shivering, smelly little thing, and I spent the entire first day coaxing him to walk alongside me and feel comfortable in my presence. I slept that first night by his crate, ready to soothe him when he inevitably woke up. The second day I got him, I took him to the fenced in play area beside my apartment building and I tossed a toy for him. He ran to get it, I called for him, and, after a moment’s hesitation, he brought it back. I gently took the toy from his mouth and tossed it again. This time, he had no hesitation. He brought the toy back and waited eagerly for me to throw it again with the first semblance of confidence I had seen him with in the short while I had known him.

It took him much longer to figure out the hunting trick he likes to do now, where he tosses his ball onto the walking paths next to the dog park like a lure, then makes eye contact with each stranger who walks by until one throws the ball for him. That only happened one day after his incessant desire for fetch had tired me out, and I just couldn’t throw the ball for him anymore. But, that luring, too, was entirely self-directed behavior. I didn’t tell him to do it. He just did it, and then he never stopped doing it.

I think, maybe, the essential problem is that Jasper is a cute dog and his fetching involves people, so people try to understand his behavior in a human way. They try to look at him and imagine what they would have to feel to behave the same way he does. They try to analogize his behavior to how they feel when they play a sport or indulge in their own favorite hobby. They try to tempt him to play only with them by throwing the ball as far as they can or trying to get him to compete with another dog, and don’t get when he’s indifferent to both and eventually, inevitably, just goes to another person to play fetch with them as well.

They don’t realize that the better way to understand his behavior is to ask why they play fetch with him at all, why he’s able to connect with them with a look and a head toss in a way our close cousins the chimps never could. If they realized, and if they looked within themselves, they’d notice a dog shaped hole there, one that is difficult to fill another way. 

Humans have shaped dogs over millennia and imprinted tasks deep within their furry souls. We’ve made them need to herd, protect, guard, and, yes, fetch. But the things, and animals, we shape shape us in return. 

Or, in other words, do not ask for whom Jasper fetches. He fetches for thee.

Jasper as a puppy. This was his first real snowfall, and he spent an hour or two jumping into the snow any chance he got, even when we were walking on the sidewalk. At some point, he realized that all this snow-jumping had made him really cold, so he did the logical thing and just laid down in the snow, shivering and refusing to move. That’s why I had to pick him up, wrap him in my hoodie, and carry him back to the hotel we were staying at. This story has nothing to do with fetch, but it’s one of my favorite memories of him. On a side note, he repeated this exact same mistake the following year, and I had to carry him again. Only this time, he was 50+ pounds, so the carrying was a lot less pleasant for both of us.