If your dog lights up at the sight of a tennis ball, they’re not alone. In fact most dogs can’t resist the rewardingly springy texture and unpredictable bounce of their favourite florescent spherical object.
But can a passion for tennis balls tip over into something darker – something unhealthy?
Are tennis balls bad for your dog’s health?
Veterinary surgeon Cat Henstridge, aka Cat the Vet, has seen first hand the mental and physical toll that too much tennis ball can take on your dog.
Physically, tennis balls can provide a good workout for you and your dog. But everything in moderation.
“Lots of ball play can be really hard on your dog’s legs because of all the stopping, starting, turning and jumping that they do, says Dr Cat.
And while a few minutes’ of ball chasing fun is fine for most dogs, Cat has an important message that ball flingers or tennis ball launchers can actually be quite harmful to your dog.
“Fling them in the bin.” she says. “They throw the ball so far, so fast, so many times that it puts massive strain through their joints.”
Tennis ball problem one: chew and destroy
Is your dog a tennis ball murderer?
What’s the issue?
Some dogs just love their toys to death and that includes tennis balls. If your pup chews their balls to bits it’s not just the expense of replacing them you need to worry about. Bits of swallowed ball can cause tummy troubles, including an intestinal obstruction.
Sometimes those chewed up lumps of dayglo rubber even need surgery to remove. In 2021 our average dog insurance claim for sorting out foreign bodies lodged in stomachs and intestines cost £1,065.75. That’s pretty unpalatable for both of you.
Teach your dog to roll the ball.
By redirecting your dog’s chewy energy into a focused learning experience you keep it out of their mouth and instead use it to engage their brain.
You’re teaching them a new way to entertain themselves with a ball, which will hopefully mean less focus on simply chewing it to pieces.
Step 1: Start by holding the ball in front of your dog. When they boop it with their nose, immediately reward them. If they bop it with a paw, just ignore that and wait for a nose boop.
You’ll need to spend some time building this up, then add a cue word like ‘touch’ or ‘roll’ just before they do it.
Step 2: Instead of holding the ball while they boop it, progress to putting the ball on the ground and using your cue word. Hopefully they will start to get the idea that they touch the ball, but don’t grab it or pick it up. Keep practising…
Step 3: Keep working on building up their ball rolling using your cue word. Try to progress from little nudges to repeat pushes using their nose.
Tennis ball problem two: too hot for tennis
If it’s too hot to walk your dog, it’s definitely too hot to be making them chase balls around.
What’s the issue?
Wimbledon season hits just as the mercury rises in June and July. If you like to exercise your dog with a tennis ball outdoors, just be careful at this time of year. They’re at real danger of heatstroke if they’re repeatedly running after a ball in the summer heat.
Move your game of fetch to the water!
Tennis ball bobbing is so much fun for dogs and you can improvise this game in lots of different scenarios - all you need is a bag of tennis balls and a body of water - anything from a bucket to a lake will work!
Just put as many balls as you like in the water and get your dog to fish them out for you.
Remember, more dogs = more balls = more fun!
Tennis ball problem three: possessive and obsessive
It's all fun and games until someone starts hogging the ball...
What’s the issue?
Some dogs have no problem chasing the ball, picking up the ball… but then it all falls apart. If your dog’s possessive with their ball and won’t relinquish it it can limit the fun for both of you.
Make giving the ball back part of the game.
By teaching your dog to drop their ball into a bucket or bowl you can reduce their guarding behaviour and make them much more relaxed around the object of their desire – in this case, a tennis ball.
Even if your dog isn’t willing to give back the treasured tennis ball, you need them to return to you. So have something of greater value. That can be anything from an even more valued toy to some really smelly sausage treats – whatever they love.
Step 1: Sit with a bucket or basket in front of you. While your dog’s got their ball, get their attention with your ‘trade up’ item.
Step 2: To take the better item they’ll need to drop the ball. Be ready for this and try to offer it over the basket so the ball falls there. When they trade items, use a marker word like ‘nice’ or ‘good’ to reinforce and give them their reward.
Step 3: Keep trading items in this way and when they get the hang of it start to move the basket away from you a bit but hold your trade item over it. See if you can get them to progress to targeting the basket to get their treat.
Step 4: Try putting the treat in the basket and use your cue word form further away to get them to associate ball in basket = treat. This step is hard!
Tennis ball problem four: no restraint
Fix that single-minded focus on tennis balls.
What’s the issue?
“Dogs love balls but for some it can become a bit of an obsession,” says Dr Cat. “That’s not great for their mental health, so make sure you mix those games up.”
Unplug their brain from the ball!
If your dog completely loses their head in the presence of a tennis ball, try this fun ‘out of sight, out of mind’ game to get them thinking calmly again.
You’ll need a ball, a pot or bowl and a ball-obsessed dog.
Step 1: Attract your dog’s attention and put the ball on the ground. They’ll probably come over in great excitement to grab it if they’re ball-crazy. Before they do, put your pot over the ball to hide it.
Step 2: They might bark, scrabble or nose at the pot. Just keep your hand on it and wait. Sooner or later, the should back off a bit. Lift the pot and tell them to ‘get it’ or another cue word of your choice.
Step 3: Keep repeating. You should find your dog is learning to wait to be told when they can take their ball, rather than being told they can’t. Mix it up a bit by throwing out a treat or two while they wait patiently to be allowed to take their ball and watch their restraint and patience grow.