From tennis ball launching nerf guns to chuckit! ball throwers, right through to automatic ball launchers, what is it that makes ball games so fetching for dogs?
Or are we getting it all wrong? What does your dog really want you to do with their favourite ball?
In this blog, I’m going to reveal all… including why your dog ball throwing game might need a bit of tweaking if you want a happy and well balanced dog.
Table of Contents
Let’s start with the elephant in the room….
Are ball launchers good for dogs?
Ball launchers are not good for dogs. They encourage your dog to run at high speeds with little to no warm up for their joints, and results in sharp twists, turns and sudden braking which all put your dog at high risk of injury.
Aside from the physical impacts, your dog’s hyper arousal and obsessive focus on the ball can lead to reactivity, a lack of focus, and guarding/aggressive behaviours.
But none of this means you have to ditch the ball, it can be a powerful reward if your dog is ball motivated.
I’ll get on to how to use your dog’s love of the ball positively shortly, so you can skip the downfalls and develop a healthy relationship with ball games. But first, let’s explore why ball throwing for dogs is so popular – and why you probably can’t see the risks.
The surprising truth about your dog’s ball launcher
Google searches for automatic dog ball launchers are sky high – and this is part of the problem. When you use a ball to play with or to reward your dog, it needs to be interactive and thought through.
Yes, I know that may sound a bit dramatic… Afterall, everyone’s doing it right?
You arrive at the local park and there are plenty of people and dogs enjoying a game of fetch with their beloved ball launcher. The dogs look like they’re having fun, their humans seem to have enviable focus from their dog, and their dog isn’t running off chasing other dogs….
What’s so bad about all that?
I often speak to owners who started using a ball with their dog for a bit of fun. They really wanted their dog to play fetch and thought it’d be a good way to pass some time and tire their dog out.
Then the dog’s ball becomes a crutch. It’s how you get your dog’s attention, how you stop them running off, and how you make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise with minimal effort.
As the dog becomes more and more obsessed with the ball, behaviour problems start to creep in.
Perhaps the dog is barking and nagging for the ball before you’ve even left the car park.
Maybe your dog is becoming aggressive when other dogs come near – they don’t want to share their ball.
Or your dog’s developed a reputation as the biggest ball thief in town and you’re now reduced to carrying spares to placate angry dog owners who want their dog’s ball back!
Ultimately, if you’re looking for an easy way to tire your dog out with minimal involvement from you, you’re going to run into problems.
Using your dog’s ball obsession positively
We don’t get to choose what our dogs find rewarding. If your dog loves a ball, that’s fine! And it can be used positively to reward your dog, keep their attention around distractions and to give them physical AND mental stimulation.
You can 100% use a ball with your dog without doing it to the detriment of their joints or their behaviour.
What most people don’t know about dog ball throwing
Have you ever struggled to get your dog to give their ball back? Or wondered why on earth your dog is parading around with their ball like the cat who got the cream?
Whilst many of us think our dogs love chasing and bringing the ball back, the truth is what dog’s find rewarding about ball games is often misunderstood.
Looking at your dog’s breed and their behaviour, can help you uncover what it is about fetch that your dog finds so rewarding. You can then use this to use the ball in a positive and healthy way.
For example, Retrievers and other gundogs like to carry a ball. It’s what they were bred for afterall. A gun dog who was bred to retrieve gets a lot of satisfaction from carrying their prey. And they may enjoy parading it around and showing it off too!
Collies and other herding breeds love to control movement. You guessed it, that’s what they were bred for! They want to stop the movement of the ball – so you can throw the ball to them rather than away from them, and they’ll get the dopamine hit without the damage.
Terriers? Well, they likely want to shred the ball and tear it to pieces! NB – another fact about tennis balls in particular is most are made from abrasive materials that are REALLY bad for your dog’s teeth.
Here’s a tennis ball toy that’s made from non-abrasive and non-toxic materials…. Plus it has an added enticing sheepskin floof that’ll delight your dog!
5 ball games that won’t damage your dog
Instead of turning to a ball launcher or a frantic game of fetch, here are some healthy alternatives that won’t get your dog’s brain or body in a fizz.
1. Find it games
Find a nice bit of long grass and hold your dog by their collar or harness. Throw the ball, wait for it to land – then release your dog to find it.
This will decrease the speed at which your dog hurtles after the ball and take the pressure off your dog’s joints.
You can increase the mental stimulation by extending the tasks you ask your dog to do before being released to go and fetch their reward. For example, ask for a sit, a paw or a nose touch and then reward your dog
2. Hide and seek
A treat ball like The Clam from Tug-e-Nuff, holds treats inside which gives your dog an extra layer of mental stimulation and reward. Sniffing utilises your dog’s brain and naturally calms your dog down – so when they sniff out their ball they then have to open it up to retrieve their treats.
3. Catch the ball
Teach your dog to catch the ball and you’re removing the frantic chasing and sudden screeching to a halt. Your dog gets to stop the movement of the ball and to parade around with it and show it off.
Through throwing the ball to your dog rather than away from them, you bring their arousal levels down, resulting in a calmer game that’s still intensely rewarding.
4. Tug and Fetch
Using a dog ball on a rope gives you the opportunity to play two games in one. Throw the ball a short distance, release your dog to fetch it, then reward your dog with a game of tug when they bring the ball toy back.
Or allow your dog to carry their ball around, safe in the knowledge that they’re less likely to swallow it with the long handle.
5. The cupcake ball game
This is a brilliant calm dog game that allows your dog access to lots of balls without any crazy shenanigans. Grab a cupcake tin, some tasty treats and a bundle of balls.
Place a treat in each cupcake section and then pop a ball on top. Lay it down and let your dog work their brain and body to remove the balls and retrieve their treats.
Don’t throw the ball until you read this!
Repeated, high energy ball throwing can cause behaviour problems in dogs. But it can also do a lot of physical damage… and often suddenly.
Injury is common in dogs who chase balls frequently. Especially puppies who are not fully grown and have soft growth plates.
As a dog slams on the brakes to get the ball, they are putting excess pressure on their shoulders, feet and neck. This puts them at risk of early arthritis, cruciate ligament tears and ruptures and spinal problems.
You are also building a canine athlete. Just like a human who regularly trains, your dog’s stamina increases… and the end result is that your dog will need MORE exercise to tire them out.
How long should I play fetch with my dog?
There’s a big difference to continuously throwing a ball for your dog and sporadically engaging in a game of fetch during your dog walk.
Instead of setting yourself up for a 15 minute game of fetch, throw the ball once or twice for your dog and then let them walk, sniff, or carry the ball for a bit.
Your dog needs the chance to use their nose, take in the environment and calm their nervous system. A frantic game of fetch will only serve to heighten your dog’s arousal levels, making them full of adrenalin and less likely to relax, focus or listen to you.
Realistic weaning off your ball launcher obsession
I’m a realist, and I understand that whilst you now have a better understanding of the downsides of ball throwing for your dog, you’ve built a habit and ditching it cold turkey isn’t very appealing.
I get it. If you asked me to give up crisps with no alternative, I’d quickly return to my pringle munching obsession.
Start by leaving the ball launcher at home and taking just a ball or a ball with a handle and try out these 7 simple steps for a healthy game of fetch.
7 simple steps to healthier games of fetch with your dog.
- Warm your dog’s joints and muscles up BEFORE playing fetch
- Walk first – then introduce the ball
- Take regular breaks – don’t continuously throw the ball
- Let your dog carry the ball instead of nagging them to give it back
- Avoid slippery surfaces like laminate, muddy grass and wet ground
- Choose a ball toy with a handle or rope – so you play tug as well as fetch
- Play in water where there is less pressure on your dog’s joints (be mindful of your dog swallowing water or swimming out of their depth
If you’re playing in water then please be mindful of both the current, depth of water, and the amount of time you’re playing fetch.
When your dog is fetching a ball in a river, pond or the sea, they are swallowing water. It’s important to keep the game short so your dog isn’t at risk of water intoxication.
You don’t need to ditch your dog’s ball entirely, but I highly recommend that you approach it more mindfully for your dog’s physical and mental health.
Wean yourself off of relying on fetch to hold your dog’s attention and tire them out. Whilst ball launchers for dogs may be increasingly popular, the truth about their impact isn’t nearly as widely spread. I’d love it if you’d share this blog to help other dog lovers learn more.