However, I think it is important to note that the emphasis is on REPETITION. The problem comes in when this is what the dog does most of the time i.e. this is the dog’s main form of exercise and the dog is typically going out and fetching a ball by jumping, breaking, turning and skidding 50 times on a walk. There are other ways to allow a dog to enjoy interaction with a ball or toy, without causing enormous physical strain:  

  • The ball can be tossed a short distance to the dog to catch easily without any running, breaking or jumping.

  • The ball can be hidden for the dog to find.

  • The ball can be thrown into a body of water to retrieve, so that swimming is the main form of exercise – swimming being incredibly beneficial and low impact, even for dogs with existing joint problems.

  • The ball can occasionally be thrown with a bounce so that the dog can catch it smoothly on the move, without jumping or breaking (not always easy to do, but with practise you can get this down to a fine art).

  • The ball can be tossed to the dog as a reward for performing a simple or complex exercise.

  • The ball can be carried by the dog, if he enjoys having it in his mouth

  • The ball can be buried on the beach and dug up again by dogs that enjoy digging with toys.

 

These are just a few safer ways to allow engagement with a ball, without throwing it a hundred times and endangering the dog’s health. However, many of the concerns I have seen expressed recently are not about physical health, but mental health. Theories have been put forward that fetching a ball is stress-inducing for dogs or an unhealthy addiction. The picture is given of the typical border collie running long distances, over-and-over again, to retrieve a ball tossed from a ball thrower, seemingly unable or unwilling to stop. The argument is that a dog in this situation is not happy and in fact feels compelled to fetch the ball in a state of anxiety and stress – one article likened the situation to a sheep forever escaping whenever the poor dog herded it back into the fold! Another argument was that the behaviour mimics hunting and hunting behaviour is stressful for dogs to carry out, because it involves raised levels of certain hormones, including adrenaline.

 

As a behaviourist, I have a problem with this kind of thinking for the following reasons:

 

  • Rehearsing segments of the predatory sequence is internally reinforcing. Why do cats repeatedly catch mice and birds, even if they don’t eat them? Because it is fun and enjoyable to do so. Why do border collies herd sheep? Because it is internally reinforcing to carry out eye-stalk-chase behaviours. (Internally reinforcing basically means that dopamine is released in the brain producing feelings of pleasure.)

  • A release of adrenaline does not mean that you are stressed in a negative way. I am learning to ride a horse – when I canter or jump I get excited about it! If you measured my adrenaline levels, no doubt they would be raised. Does this mean that I am stressed and the activity is taking years off my life? Of course not! In fact, engaging in this activity makes me feel alive and refreshes me for the rest of the week. It helps me combat the stress from work and whatever else is going on in my life. Yes, constantly having very high levels of adrenaline would be unhealthy, but a short period of slightly elevated adrenaline does not equal “bad” stress.

  • For many dogs, fetching is not purely about rehearsing predatory behaviour, it is also about play. Dogs rehearse predatory behaviour patterns (as well as defensive and reproductive behaviour) when they play. Play is incredibly important for boosting mood (it release opioids in the brain) and builds confidence.

  • It must be considered that when we are dealing with dogs where a portion of the predatory sequence has been strongly selected for, like your herding breeds, they HAVE to have some outlet for that behaviour or they will experience MASSIVE FRUSTRATION, leading to behaviour problems. If you do not give most border collies something appropriate to “herd” they will find something inappropriate to fixate on. They may be inclined to be “compulsive” in the way that they focus on a particular object, but I would argue that we selected them to be this way and that if we deny them the opportunity to do things like “herd” balls or frisbees, they will start herding kids, other dogs or even flies and shadows. Over 15 years ago, we found and adopted a very neglected and abused Rottweiler mix. When we first had her, she would chase birds to excess (my husband ended up having to jump into a freezing dam in the middle of winter, because she would not stop swimming after two geese and there was real danger of her tiring and drowning) and stick her head down mole-hills and refuse to budge. She was completely fixated on potential prey and walking her was very difficult. Quite accidentally, she became hooked on a ball (she happened to stay with my in-laws and their ball mad Labradors while we were away for a few days) and from that time on we had no more problems with her chasing birds or other wildlife and the fixated “mole-ing” also came to an end. Clearly, interaction with the ball provided an outlet for a very strong behaviour that had to be channelled somewhere.

  • When you have something that your dog is incredibly focused on and will do anything for, you have excellent control over your dog. I don’t mean control in a bossy “the dog must do as I say” way – what I am referring to is the ability to get your dog’s attention and focus in high pressure situations, to avoid danger and negative learning experiences. Dogs that are focused on playing with a ball with their owners often avoid trouble, because they will choose the ball over anything else of interest in the environment. When passing something that might otherwise bother your dog (like another dog on lead lunging and barking), having the dog focused on the ball can prevent them from becoming stressed by the commotion or even thinking about what the other dog is doing at all. Our youngest dog happens to be on the “over-friendly” side and he tends to want to greet total strangers enthusiastically, which does not go down well with him being large and a Rottweiler. However, he has learned that if he comes to heel whenever he sees a person approaching and stays at heel while we pass by, he will get his ball afterwards, so for him the ball trumps anything else in a way that food would not do and keeps him out of trouble.

  • One of the biggest problems that people often have on walks is that their dogs are more interested in other people and dogs than in them, because they find interactions with other dogs or people more fun and reinforcing. If, however, a dog learns that their owner is a source of fun, through playing with a toy, then this is motivation to stay with the owner rather than run off and engage with everyone else. Again, this helps the dog to avoid many potentially problematic situations and improves recall.

 

There are certain practical arguments against ball games. Some owners claim that they had dogs that became “obsessed” and would not stop bringing the ball to them at home. Others found that their dogs would continually harass them on walks until they threw the ball and that their dogs seemed incapable of walking without a ball. As a result, they avoid ball games with new dogs altogether. However, these are training and management issues. A ball can easily only be brought out for walks or training or specific play sessions and then put away again, if necessary out of sight and out of mind. Dogs can have their walks varied so that not all walks involve fetching or playing with balls. For example, our dogs mainly get to interact with the ball on beach walks and in training. Much of the time we hike with our dogs or walk on narrow mountain paths and the ball is tucked away in the bag or in a pocket and only brought out as a reinforcer for behaviour we want to encourage or as emergency control in potentially stressful situations. Some walks are 90% ball free, but the walk might begin and end with a few searches (hiding the ball for the dogs to find). Then there are also times, especially in summer, where the entire outing will consist of swimming for the ball – as this is good hydrotherapy for us and the dogs! The point is that it is not just ALL about balls. We mix it up and incorporate different types of walks and activities into our weekly exercise routine and outings.  

 

All dogs are different and, of course, not all dogs want to play with a ball or any other toy. However, for dogs that do have strong chasing and retrieving behaviours genetically programmed into their make-up, I believe that denying them any opportunity to retrieve or interact with a ball or other favourite toy is detrimental to their emotional wellbeing - unless you have a herd of sheep, goats or ducks that you can let them loose on daily! Can too much ball throwing be a bad thing? Yes, of course it can – it can be physically detrimental and with incorrect management, it can take over a dog’s life and become annoying to live with. However, I would argue that many dogs that do become so fixated on a toy have a tendency to become fixated on something anyway – rather let it be something safe and harmless that we can control, rather than something in the environment that could lead your dog into engaging in behaviour that is unacceptable to society or finding a harmful “addiction” (such as tail chasing, chronic paw licking or shadow chasing), which we cannot control in any way.

Playing Fetch – the new prime evil?

 

There have been quite a few articles that have come out this year, strongly advising dog owners against allowing their dogs to fetch a ball. What used to often be advised as an outlet for energy and an opportunity to rehearse the predatory sequence on a safe, controllable object is now viewed in some circles as a harmful addiction that is detrimental to a dog’s emotional well-being. But before we all start throwing our dogs’ favourite balls out with the bathwater, let’s have a proper look at the pros and cons of ball (or some other toy) fetching and whether all the fuss is really warranted:

 

There are many reasons why repetitive ball or toy fetching can be harmful for dogs. Purely from a physical point of view, the repetitive movements involved in fetching a ball can cause wear and tear on joints. Jumping, breaking, skidding and sharp turns can place strain on muscles and joints and lead to ligament injuries. Most vets advise against this type of repetitive movement – in fact, many vets seem to agree that hiking is the best and most natural form of exercise for dogs and that standing and repeatedly throwing a ball on a field as a primary form of exercise for your dog, is likely to lead to injury or joint problems in the long run.

Kommetjie Canine College

Kommetjie

Cape Town

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