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Do not play 'fetch the ball'

Ball, stick or frisbee - what's so special about them? Why does the dog chase after them so eagerly when you throw them? Fetching can be both fun and an obsession for some dogs.





Retrieving can be a very interesting variety to everyday walks and is a fairly common way to provide the dog with much more movement. However, for some dogs retrieving is fun, while for others it can become an obsession. Some dogs may chase after a thrown toy, stick, stone. They catch it, return to the man and immediately begin to demand a new throw. In a way, their behavior becomes unbearable. They bark, are restless, nervous and eagerly waiting for you to throw something for them. Such desperation is associated with the animal's personality (excitability, not very strong nervous system) and, in fact, the dog's breed. Some dogs are more prone to and are likely to develop ball fixation (golden retriever, pointer, cocker spaniel, labrador) and have a natural hunting instinct. Other breeds usually consider retrieving as boring and not worth their effort (German Shepherd, boxer, rottweiler).


Unfortunately, the road from nice fun to morbid fixation is quite short. What people often see as innocent fun, from a dog's point of view, is behavioral addiction and coercion. Therefore, today I would like to focus on those more negative aspects of throwing a dog's ball or other items that have consequences, which the guardian is not always aware of.


At the beginning, I will just point out that there is a difference between throwing something for a retriever dog two or three times during a walk, and throwing a monotonous ball e.g. for several minutes without a break. Such monotonous ball games can, unfortunately, lead to many health and behavioral problems in your dogs.


Fixation on an object - what is it and how does it arise?


A few years ago, a 28-year-old computer game lover from South Korea starred to death. How did this happen? He sat at the computer for 50 hours and only walked away from it to the toilet. The cause of death was heart failure due to fatigue.


A similar fate befell a 26-year-old Chinese after a two-week computer marathon. There are more such examples. And what do they have to do with dogs? The same mechanism of addiction.


We talk about fixation or obsession when the dog cannot see the world outside of an object. He is completely focused on it, strongly stimulated and can play with it indefinitely, even though he is very tired. It may seem like a great deal. Because the owners are bombarded with information about the importance of providing their pets with a lot of movement. Lack of movement is considered one of the most common reasons that a dog in the absence of the owner destroys objects, as well as barking or howling. He walks on a leash, and he is restless at home. Lack of time for regular activity with a dog often makes guardians feel guilty for not providing him with the right amount of movement. Throwing a ball that the dog can fetch (and what's more, he does it willingly) seems to be a very good, and at the same time simple variation of a monotonous and not too long walk. In addition, the dog is focused on the ball so much that it does not notice other dogs, runners, cyclists and all distractions, which normally make it difficult for us to work with the dog. So we have a "perfect dog" who is always with us (and actually with the ball), does not run away, does not look for trash on the ground, does not deviate from other dogs, etc.


With time, however, it turns out that the constant pursuit of the toy does not make the dog run out and calm. On the contrary, his condition improves and the level of emotional hyperactivity is constantly increasing.


source: Youtube: Buddy the Rescue Dog

What might seem like doggy joy in the above movie is really an unhealthy excitement. As you can see, a game where the dog does not need its guardian at all. An automatic ball launcher is enough for him. So it's hard to say that throwing a dog ball can have a positive effect on the relationship with the guardian.


Where does arousal come from?


Running behind a moving object is a behavior with which dogs are born and which they have no influence on. Instinct tells them that you have to chase what is moving. The pursuit is part of the hunting chain, i.e. the behaviors necessary to conduct effective hunting. In nature, wild canines sometimes track the victim for hours. If the hunt is successful, and the prey was large, it happens that they regenerate for many days.


Free-living dog researchers found that only 10 percent of them spend time during the day on stimulating activities. They devote the rest to sleep, rest and other quiet activities.


During the chase, adrenaline - a short-term stress hormone - is released, which mobilizes the body to exertion and prepares it for possible injury. Because in order to hunt the victim, a strong motivation of the body is required - accelerated heart rate, sharpened (though selective) attention, accumulation of energy in the muscles (increase in blood glucose), stopping "insignificant" processes at the moment, such as digestion, tissue regeneration or growth This is the so-called "fight or flight" response, whose evolutionary sense lies in saving lives. The dog chasing the ball remains under constant physiological stress for the first 2-3 minutes. This is a condition that is associated with major changes in metabolism. The stress response is programmed in such a way as to end with the passing of the need for mobilization. The body then returns to balance. To deal with such stress (eustress - (good stress, beneficial stress) is a motivating factor, leading to life achievements and development of our own personality) we are perfectly adapted, both we and the dogs. But if the ball (or another object) is constantly thrown and the chase lasts more than a few minutes, then the stress does not end. The optimal level of stress (i.e. the maximum level of eustress) is exceeded and the second type of stress begins - Distress (harmful stress), i.e. stress that carries suffering and mental disintegration. The dog's body begins to produce another stress hormone - cortisol, called the long-term stress hormone. Adrenaline quickly disappears from the bloodstream, and it takes up to several days for cortisol.


When can we say that the stress level has been exceeded? Let's imagine the situation that we have been driving the car for a long time and the only thing we dream about is going to bed and falling asleep. However, once we are in bed, we can not sleep because "we are continuing". Even more clearly, the mechanism of stimulation can be seen in children who, after an exciting movie or a visit to an amusement park, find it difficult to calm down or fall asleep.


Why is ball fixation harmful?


1. Disturbed socialization with the environment and forgetting to satisfy other needs


For dogs, natural behavior related to a sense of security is to observe the environment. By noticing changes early, such as the appearance of a human or another dog, your pet has time to evaluate the situation and decide whether to ignore the newcomers, say hello to them, or try to avoid meeting ...


However, dogs heavily fixed on an object cannot see the world outside of it. They don't explore the environment, they don't notice other dogs, they don't want to sniff or play other than by repeatedly chasing this particular object. By focusing his attention only on the ball, he can notice changes in the environment too late and react with aggression. In addition, in very serious cases, strongly fixated dogs do not even deal with physiological needs outside. They do it only at home when the "beloved" toy disappears and the need for excretion reaches the dog's consciousness.


2. Fixation increases hyperactivity


Dog, which initially has high energy levels and problems with self-control very often get ball fixations. Guardians try to "run" them, throwing the ball. From the walk, the ball needs to be thrown more often, and the dog is increasingly desperate to fetch it. In this way, not only do we wind the dog more, but we also unconsciously work on its condition. Maybe so it turns out that at the beginning of 5 minutes of throwing the ball will tire your dog, but after a week you will have to throw the ball for half an hour, then an hour etc. In this way you cannot channel his energy, he needs more and more. Therefore, playing ‘fetch the ball’ is not a good idea at all for dog fatigue, a varied walk with elements of obedience and olfactory work will be much better.


3. Risk of depression and other body disorders


A dog who is obsessed with a ball is also constantly aroused, unable to calm down and rest. The organism of such a pooch is under constant stress, which, unfortunately, negatively affects his behavior and health. If the dog retrieves every day or this game is interspersed with other stimulating activities, we risk that symptoms of chronic stress will appear. Chronic stress causes constant insecurity, helplessness, withdrawal, inhibits the learning process and problems with focusing attention, reaction thresholds are lowered, it disturbs the digestive system (chronic diarrhea), causes an increase in blood pressure and ulcer formation, reduces dog's immunity, damages the adrenal glands and impairs reproductive capacity. In extreme cases, it can also lead to sleep disorders, neurosis and even depression (i.e., apathy, loss of appetite, inability to feel pleasure, hypersensitivity to pain) or breakdowns.


Symptoms of chronic stress in a dog:

  • As soon as you go to the hall, he immediately stands up and waits for a walk.

  • He never has fetched enough.

  • He pulls on a leash on his way to the park.

  • In the park, he doesn't leave you behind, forcing him to fetch.

  • During even the deepest sleep his body is stiffened, sleeps shallowly, less than 16 hours a day and he wakes up the slightest movement in the surroundings.

  • Has tight, hard muscles of the hindquarters and neck.

  • During a walk, when you stop, squeak, bite the leash or kick a hole in the ground.

  • He sometimes gasps or squeaks for no apparent reason.

  • Suffers inflammation, allergies or diarrhea.

  • Has a tendency to chase other objects that move quickly - bicycles, cars, runners.




4. Disturbed relationship with other dogs and an introduction to defending resources


Fixation on an object is a common reason why a dog starts defending this object. When another dog in the park, curious about the play, runs up to the priceless toy first, the fixed dog feels threatened. He may want to defend his property by using uncompromising methods.


So a dog running behind a ball or stick treats other dogs as potential rivals for prey because it is in hunting mode. If he has several skirmishes with his friends about a toy, he develops a fear of them and reacts with aggression or hides between the legs of the owner. In many countries around the world, including in Sweden, toys are not allowed in dog parks.


5. Disturbed relationship with the guardian


Although, at first glance, the pursuit of a toy may seem like great partner fun (a man throws, the dog chases, brings and gives him the object), but the reality is different. In this "play", there is no place for a man, he could be successfully replaced by a ball launcher. Throwing a toy does not strengthen the bond of a dog and a man, does not meet the need for contact. We should want the dog to want to be close to us and associate us with the source meanwhile, throwing the dog the ball, we teach him that departing from us is great, and the best reward (i.e. the moment of catching the ball) is far away from us. Definitely better fun, in terms of building a relationship between a dog and a guardian, is playing with a tug of war or play a sniffing game together.


In addition, owners, for whom the most important thing is for the dog to be obedient, are looking for ways that will allow them to control the behavior of the pet in every situation. So, because the game of retrieving is controlled by the owner, the dog will constantly stare at him, preparing for the next chase, and even try to force interaction by running the road or dropping balls or sticks under his feet. The owner considers this as evidence of a strong bond between him and his mentee, while the dog is only about the ball. If he gives up playing fetching, it may turn out that the dog will not come for petting or obey, because there will be no motivator in the form of a ball.


6. We teach a dog to chase fast-moving objects


A dog who regularly chases the ball will have a tendency to chase after many other objects that move quickly and which we have no influence on and we would prefer that the dog does not run after them, e.g. running children, people practising sports in parks, cars or cats. For a dog, it doesn't matter if it's chasing a cyclist or a ball. The very act of chasing him is a lot of fun. In the animal's brain, the nerve connections responsible for the excitable behavior are fixed. It is also worth mentioning that during the pursuit of the dog's brain there is an increased secretion of dopamine - a neurotransmitter that raises energy levels, associated with feelings of satisfaction, excitement and reward. Dopamine is a substance that appears whenever there is movement, excitement, pursuit, challenge. Her rebuke in the brain gives the dog a subjective feeling of pleasure.


This pleasure is addictive. Dogs need a dose of fatigue, both physical and intellectual. If they go only for short walks, always on the same route, and there is not much going on in their lives, they begin to look for a source of emotional arousal that would fill this void and satisfy the urgent need for at least for a moment. So, if the dog finds that the pursuit of a thrown ball, stick or car provides him with a temporary improvement in well-being and removes boring, he will want more.




7. Dangerous to health

Veterinarians agree that the most dangerous for canine joints, muscles and tendons are rapid acceleration, braking, sudden turns and jumps up - all these elements occur during the pursuit of retrieving. Unfortunately, most dogs do their best when chasing the ball and do not care about their health. Therefore, it is better not to throw the ball:

  • puppies

  • young dogs who have not yet completed their growth process

  • dogs who may have problems with joints, muscles, tendons or the circulatory system

  • older dogs

"Scientific studies show that limiting the movement of dogs during their growth period, i.e. until they are one year old, reduces the number of orthopedic problems in the future. In addition to young age, the contraindications to playing in fetching are obesity, old age of the dog, and the unfavorable structure found in dachshunds, bassets or molosses", says the vet Igor Bissenik specialized in the treatment of physical injuries in sport dogs.

Owners usually say that they play with the dog only as long as he wants it. They do not know, however, that natural painkillers released during play cause that the animal feels less fatigue or pain, so it will show them only when it is extremely exhausted, like if it has a limb injury. That's why he starts limping only after returning home. The dog, focused entirely on the object, can in no way signal even a serious injury.


Even if your dog is adult and fully healthy, always remember to warm up before and after exercise.

In addition, when jumping to the ball, the dog's body sometimes flexes unnaturally (backbone). In this pose (so-called "flying dog") the pressure on the vertebrae is enormous. In the UK, the Kennel Club Breeders' organization FORBID 'frisbee' competitions at dog shows, because the veterinarians decided that it was a too dangerous sport for dogs' health because at the shows they already had cases of (sprain) injury. So severe that it was needed to put dogs to sleep ...


In addition to joint problems, dental problems may also appear. Adhesives and other substances used in the production of tennis balls were not selected with dog teeth in mind. Unfortunately, chewing tennis balls can permanently damage the enamel. Also, beware of balls with a hairy surface to which sand and dirt can attach. After a few days of playing with such a ball, its surface will resemble sandpaper. Biting it promotes damage to the surface of the dog's teeth, which can lead to painful pulp exposure and even dead teeth. Therefore, when deciding to play with a ball, it is better to choose one that was produced specifically for dogs.


The surface on which you throw the ball is also important. A dog can damage its lower teeth by trying to catch a ball lying on concrete or other hard ground. A similar threat can be posed by a regular lawn with stones, for example. In addition, a dog running with impetus to the ball can easily slip. In this case, it's very easy to get a spine injury, joint dislocation or muscle or ligament tear. Hind feet are particularly exposed: hip, knee and ankle joints.


In extreme cases, if the ball you throw is too small, the dog may swallow it or choke on it, which unfortunately can even lead to the death of the dog.


Healthy fetching


Does this mean that you mustn't throw your dog the ball on a walk? Not completely. This fun as old as a man's relationship with a dog can take on a safe form. Active spending time with the dog, if it does not wind it, promotes maintaining physical fitness, creating positive associations with the environment and strengthening the bond. The most important - in order not to lead to the development of the disorder, it is worth taking care of diversity during walks and focus on the relationship with the dog in place of mechanical "running" it. There are several rules * regarding toys that will avoid fixation.

  • Play in a secluded place and stop playing when another dog appears on the horizon.

  • Try to meet the psychological needs of the dog (movement, intellectual effort, play, social contacts, exploration).

  • Warm up before retrieving: loose running or alternating running and walking, high five, bow.

  • Limit throwing balls or sticks to a maximum of two times a week, leaving a space of several days for the dog's body to regenerate.

  • Throw the toy no more than 2-3 times in a walk.

  • Use the toy as a reward for a command well-executed or the behavior we desire.

  • Relax: a quiet half-hour walk after play prevents muscle soreness.

  • Keep your dog away from other dogs playing with the owner.

  • Teach correct fetching - independently or using the services of a trainer

The pursuit of objects or retrieving is safe to leave in the sphere of training and working with the dog. For fun, it is safer to teach dog activities that are happening right next to a person - for example, controlled dragging a pointer. This not only reduces the risk of fixation but also shows the dog that the most interesting things happen next to the guardian and you do not have to run away to feel great. Also, a safer version of retrieving is to roll the ball instead of throwing it, holding the dog until the ball falls to the ground, or hiding it in the grass for the dog to look for. Such exercises stimulate the dog less and do not overload the musculoskeletal system.


* The above rules for healthy fetching apply to dogs with no developmental disorder. If the dog's fixation has already developed so strongly, it cannot do without professional help. A dog behaviorist will thoroughly examine the existing problem, plan a therapy program and help the dog guardian implement the fixation prevention method.


Below I will describe in more detail how you can properly play with your dog

All you have to do is get a ball on a string for a couple of euros (which will allow you to get it out of the dog's throat in the event of choking) and take it on some walks. In an unexpected moment, call your pet and throw the toy as a reward, run for it along with the dog, encourage him to return. When the dog retrieves the ball, stretch with it, pretending to tear apart the prey, or run apiece, proudly carrying the "prey" with it. Then, after a moment of silence (stopping, very slow stroking, speaking in a calm voice, seating the pet), pick up the dog's ball and start "hunting" again as a reward. And this fun is gradually interwoven with even the simplest obedience exercises, for which the reward will be the possibility of another pursuit of prey. Such play gives way to the dog's emotions, through obedience entertained in play, teaches them how to master them, and above all, builds a bond with the guide and the authority of the latter much more than any throwing the dog out of bed or leaving the first through the door.


Other activities that can be used every day are sniffing work, quiet walks with other dogs, or visiting new places. They reduce stress and create positive associations with the environment.


In the event that we are guardians of a dog full of energy and hyperactive, it is better to practice calm behaviors such as mute, rest, self-control than constantly "winding" it by throwing a ball. One should not forget that the walk should satisfy all the dog's needs, including mental ones.

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