Hands up if you have a dog who loves balls, sticks, squeaky toys and other innate objects to the point that it is now starting to drive you crazy? My hand is raised here and Darcy’s ball obsession is something that I’ve been working on with him over the past few months.
At first it’s all fun and games, but the impact that a ball obsession can have on a dog’s body does not bode well for them as they move into old age so, as hard as it is, the kindest thing you can do is keep jarring ball chasing to a minimum.
It can also become increasingly frustrating if your dog continually ignores you when they are in this ‘zone’ and hard to understand why your usually obedient dog has suddenly gone deaf to your please to ‘stop’.
We of course think it is the dog that has gone crazy with its obsession when, from their point of view, we’re the ones that have become totally unreasonable. Wasn’t it in fact us humans that first started encouraging them to chase the ball, stick, frisbee (aka a ‘prey’ like object) mindlessly for hours on end for no other purpose than to exercise the dog?
The truth is the dog is just being a dog and doing what biology is telling it to do (ie: chase prey to survive!). And, when a dog is in this prey drive it is actually experiencing a drug-like induced high as their body releases endorphins that make them feel good, which as we all know can be addictive and therefore explains why they keep wanting to do it despite us trying to ignore them, hide the ball or stick, shouting at them to stop and so on.
So, how do we help them fulfill this biological need and get all the benefits that come with a good game of fetch or tug, but also know and understand when it is time to stop?
If this kind of play is done correctly it will not only help exercise your dog, build stamina and strength but it will also help your dog to learn to focus and engage with you even when it is in prey drive.
It is all about it being on your terms, not theirs (this is the golden rule of dog training across many behaviours by the way) and it is also important that if your dog is pulling up sore, or is starting to age, that you shift to games that are more gentle on their joints like tug-o-war or treat treasure hunt to help avoid osteoarthritis and other joint pain.
How to deal with your dog’s ball obsession
Play on your terms
The toy should always come from you and you invite the dog to play with it. Not the other way around. To give you an example, Darcy was always going to grab his ball and would drop it in front of people’s feet or in their lap and push it at them to play when they came to visit.
Of course most people think this is endearing so they pick it up and ‘wham’ the game has begun on HIS terms! Then he just keeps going and going and going…even when being ignored for 10 minutes he knows at some point they’re going to give in. And he is pretty much right. Sound familiar?
Now the toys go away in a box and I bring them out when it suits me and offer the game. When we’re done I say ‘finish’ in a firm voice and calmly put it away. He now knows that the game is done and settles down nicely so I reward that calm behaviour as soon as it is displayed.
You make the toy come to life
Sometimes when other (non ball or toy obsessed dogs are over) we do have safe play items brought out as I do allow the dogs to initiate play amongst themselves which helps me monitor and see how they interact and whether any resource guarding issues need to be addressed.
Normally after a bit of fun play between them the toys get left alone and I make sure I do not touch them or start a game until I am ready, so the toy becomes much less interesting.
Teach a solid give or take
Teaching your dog to ‘give’ a toy or ball is really important. You can work on this by making the toy / tug come to life (shake or tug) and then making it go very still. As soon as they let go say “give” so they begin to understand that cue and then say “ok” and make it come to life again so they know that means they can play/pull/fetch. This training needs to be done consistently and correcting (ie: marking the desired behaviour) so they can learn the action for each cue.
Remember all dogs are different and some can be trained the “give” with food or another toy or whatever motivates them most.
Make eye contact
Wait for, or encourage, eye contact before you throw the ball or invite tug play and mark with “yes” or “ok” as soon as they look and the reward with the ball or play. This helps ensure they are keeping engaged with you and watching and listening for your cues.
Do not inadvertently teach unwanted behaviours, like barking, lunging, biting, circling or always being in front of you by giving up the toy or throwing the ball when they are doing any of this. Wait till they are calm and watching you and then “ok” or “yes” to mark that behaviour and reward with the toy, tug or ball.
Finish – and mean it!
When you stop the game always ends with the same cue like or “finish” and PUT THE TOY, BALL OR TUG AWAY! Otherwise you or someone will give in and you are back to step one and your dog learns to ignore what you say as you don’t seem to really mean it anyway.
Always make sure that the balls, toys, sticks and tugs you are using are made of safe, non-toxic and sturdy materials to avoid injury and avoid using sticks from trees. Putting them away after play also helps keep your dog from chewing and ingesting foreign objects.
About the Author: Lara Shannon is a certified dog behaviourist and trainer, pet food nutrition specialist, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of World of Dogs and Eat, Play, Love (Your Dog).