Ball games: how should you play with your dog?
All dogs love to play with a ball, right? Not quite. Most dogs do like a ball, but this can range from being happy to chew a ball to pieces in two seconds flat, to being completely ball obsessed. I thought it might be useful to consider whether it is useful to have your dog play ball with you. Is it a good game to play? And what are the rules?
Different breeds, different interests
Not every breed of dog is going to be interested in playing with a ball. If you have read my Breed Blog you will already have seen that different dogs definitely have different characteristics. Terriers are tenacious and persistent; they will hunt down their quarry and well, kill it! So a ball probably won’t last that long in their company. Certainly a squeaky toy is not going to last. Gundogs and Working breeds are all pretty likely to enjoy destroying the toy more than playing with it.
Toy dogs are not really bothered about a ball. They don’t have a prey drive, so won’t bother to hunt something down. They won’t bother with much, to be honest, as they are designed to sit quietly and be fussed. A toy dog, such as a Bichon Frise, has been carefully constructed to be generally undemanding. That’s not to say they aren’t divas!
Any dog from the Pastoral breeds, including the Border Collie, will be more likely to enjoy ball games. They enjoy chasing something and they like to run around. So if you fancy a having a dog that will play for any length of time, then go for a dog from this group of breeds.
What is the purpose of ball play?
As I see it, ball games serve a number of purposes:
- physical exercise – this can be really important if you only have one dog, or if you don’t have much time to go on long walks.
- mental exercise – waiting for you to throw a ball, watching where it goes and chasing after it, then bringing it back are all mentally demanding tasks for your dog.
- bonding – playing a game with your dog of any kind will improve your relationship. The more you play, the more likely your dog is going to want to stay with you.
- training – playing with a ball can be very rewarding for your dog, so if you want them to work on something, it can be a fantastic ‘release’ at the end.
Problems with ball games
The biggest problem with ball games is that the dog won’t bring the ball back! This takes training and patience, as with all activities you do with your dog. It is worth persevering, but for some dogs, they just don’t really get it. Sometimes a dog will struggle to see the value in the game, although this may be because you are not sufficiently exciting!
Another issue with ball play is that you overdo it. This is easily done, particularly if you have a ball chucker. It’s a great tool for making sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, if they need it, but it can easily cause injury and be over-used.
My top tip: Don’t overdo it!
Watch your dog and make sure they are not becoming exhausted, or over-stimulated. Pay attention to the weather so that they don’t become over-heated. Make sure they have plenty of time to experience their environment, to sniff and wander. Remember the reasons for walking our dogs?
Another problem with ball games is that the dog can easily become obsessive about having the ball thrown ALL the time. You are in charge, so you decide when enough is enough.
If your dog is not that interested in ball games, you will need to start slowly. Begin at home. Throw the ball a few feet away and wait for the dog to look at it. Click or say ‘yes’ and give a food reward. If the dog approaches the ball, reward. If the dog touches the ball, reward. When the dog picks the ball up, reward. And when the dog turns towards you, big reward! The more excited you are about the game, the more likely you are to succeed.
Another problem many people have with ball games is that the dog won’t give the ball back. This may be because they are tired and don’t want to have to run after it again! But it may be because they haven’t learnt that part of the game.
When Sunny was a young dog she would bring the ball near me, throwing it towards my feet. I was at training with her and my trainer told me to wait for her to bring it right to me. I stood and waited. Sunny got really annoyed! She kept picking up the ball and throwing it towards me, then barking at me, basically shouting at me to throw it again. However, she eventually picked up the ball and put it in my hand. Now whenever I say ‘hand’ she will do this, albeit rather crossly! One way to get the ball off your dog is to swap the ball for a treat.
Ball games with multiple dogs
Just a quick word about playing ball games with many dogs. Obviously different groups of dogs will have different dynamics, but please make sure that your dogs are happy playing together? When I throw the ball with my girls, Aura is the only one allowed to pick it up. She then drops it for Sunny, who usually brings it back to me. Or Aura brings it back to me herself. Occasionally Busy runs past and sneakily picks up the ball. She will then run in circles until Aura is not looking, when she drops the ball, so Aura can’t find it. Dogs!
Have fun with your dogs. Just remember to allow them time to sniff, even when they continue saying “THROW THE BALL!”
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