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Why I Don't Recommend You Throw a Ball For Your Dog

I don't recommend throwing a ball for your dog. Especially if you're using ball throwing as a primary way to wear out your dog, or if your dog has behvaioral problems such as aggression or reactivity.

What's wrong with ball throwing?

Dogs love it, but...

It's mindless, adrenalized, hard on joints, and for certain breeds and types of dogs can become addictive.

Let's look at this point by point:

Mindless: If the goal is to tire out a dog, we should be looking to tire them out mentally much more than physically. Yes, fulfill them physically, but tire them mentally. A physically tired dog can still be bored; can still be adrenalized, and can still have needs unmet. They are also just getting fitter, so where one hour of ball tires them today, you'll need an hour and a half in a month, and in a year you'll be quitting your job or going to a wash and launching the ball a quarter of a mile at a time with a Chuck-it.

A mentally tired dog tends to be relaxed. They will not require longer and longer mental workouts. They are going to be calmer overall.

Adrenalized: Ball throwing is like racing around Disneyland. It gets a dog fired up and crazy. Their brain will find slipping into a high-aroused state easier and easier. This can lead to anything from demand barking, to pacing, or hyper-vigilance and even aggression. Being in an over-aroused state can lead to over-tired dogs, and dogs that have become wired to make quick choices (to bite, to snap, to bark, to grab food off tables, etc...) They may also lose the ability to turn themselves 'off' and relax. This can actually lead to being over-tired, which impairs learning, and could easily look like the dog requires more exercise, not less.

Teaching a dog to do slow, steady exercise helps settle the mind. It's the difference between kids screaming on a playground, and kids hiking along a trail, or jogging with a parent. Mentally these are completely different states. If you want a calmer, more responsive dog, able to regulate it's own sleep and able to think prior to acting on impulse, slower, steadier exercise is a great place to start.

Hard on joints is pretty self-explanatory. Many dogs presenting for CCL (called ACL in humans) tears were playing ball when they began limping. Ball requires sudden stops, especially in a walled yard like we commonly have here in Tucson. All that starting, stopping, and turning, especially with the pain-killing effects of adrenaline can lead to damaged or broken joints and bones.

Even disc, if thrown properly is better on dogs' joints than playing with a ball. I do not make any exercise decision based solely on the risk of injury; injury, unfortunately is directly correlated to a fun and fulfilled life, but with all the other negatives encountered with throwing a ball, injury is just another reason to elect other methods to keep your dog fit.

Addiction is choosing a behavior over personal health and welfare. Ruby (pictured above) would run her pads off chasing a ball. She would run through cactus, she would jump into fire. If a ball is around she will pick it up and bring it to you. She cannot help herself. It is her go to behavior. She is fixated to the point that she really cannot think beyond the ball.

Addictive or OCD behaviors are more common in some breeds than others - the herding breeds (not surprisingly) are over-represented - German Shepherds, Cattle Dogs, Australian Shepherds, Malanois, and the working dogs: Dobermans, bull terriers (these guys are just wrecks of OCD behaviors!), and some retrieving and bird dogs.

If your dog loves, LOVES their ball, you can make ball playing far better for them mentally and physically simply by making a few changes. The easiest is to hide the ball between throws, turning the game into a mental scent work game, where the ball serves as a reward.

I am lucky that I live over an insanely steep cliff, and I can use the Chuck-it to throw the ball down the mountain. It can take Ruby anywhere from five minutes to an hour or more to bring back the ball out of the desert and rocks. She is using her nose primarily, and that is hard work. Four throws can eat up an hour. She doesn't have the damage to the joints because she cannot catch the ball on the fly; there are no back to back throws, so the mindless repetitive behavior so conducive to OCD is eliminated, and the scent work adds that all important mental exercise.

You can also recserve the ball for rewards for behaviors only.

Balls can be powerful motivators to build stamina for scent work, focus in the heel, self-control in the stay and more. Mindlessly throwing a ball in an effort to tire our dogs is an act of futility, and it squanders the great power we gain by having control of a well-loved object that our dogs will work for.

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