A-Z of dog wellbeing: Balls!

Does your dog lovedog chasing tennis ball nothing more than chasing and fetching a ball for you to throw over, and over, and over, and over, and over…?
Could too much of this favourite canine game have negative consequences?

Why dogs love chasing tennis balls

Our dogs’ ancestors in the wild had to rely on their hunting instinct, practising their predatory behaviours such as stalking and chasing in order to hunt and catch food to stay alive.  Compare this with your pet dog, who simply has to wander into the kitchen to find a bowl of tasty food.

Selective breeding over past decades has manipulated predatory behaviours, increasing them in some breeds, and reducing them in others, but these instincts will never go away completely. In particular, a dog’s instinct to chase remains quite strong. With no actual prey to chase, tennis balls are a perfect “pretend prey” that fulfils a dog’s needs to stalk, chase, and kill, especially when they bounce randomly, mimicking the behaviour of a fleeing rabbit.

Playing fetch with a tennis ball can be good exercise for your dog, and can be a fun activity for both the dog and owner, but some experts believe that repetitive high-energy exercise boosts a dog’s adrenaline levels to the point where powerful chemicals, such as cortisol, are released.

Why chasing too many balls could be harmful

Chasing triggers the fight or flight response where the brain sends signals from the hypothalamus causing the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol, and the adrenal medulla to produce epinephrine (adrenaline) – these are often called the ‘stress hormones’.  When released, they trigger the increased production of glucose from the liver to give the animal more energy to fight or flee.

While this reaction is very useful in times of danger, such as fleeing from an attacker, or chasing your dinner down, prolonged exposure to these stress hormones that are released to prepare for immediate and extreme action can lead to a number of health problems.

In dogs, adrenaline is known to have remained in circulation for seven days and cortisol for up to 40 days.  If you throw the ball once or twice, then these hormones have the chance to settle down and wear off, but when we throw the ball 30 or 40 times each session, once or twice a day it can cause a major overload of these hormones in the dog’s system.

How to tell if your dog loves balls TOO MUCH

Some dogs seem able to cope better than others with the overload of stress hormones, but highly excited dogs can be extremely stressed. They may start jumping up around you, spinning in circles, barking incessantly and maybe trying to snatch the ball or push it towards you – all these activities point to over-excitement and a lack of impulse control.  Alternatively, they may become super-focused on the ball, freezing and staring at the ball until it is thrown again.

If your dog is over-aroused, and therefore stressed, every day, your dog will always have high levels of stress hormones in their bloodstream and this becomes ‘normal’ for them. They may have problems controlling themselves or calming down, often being nervous or hyper-vigilant.

What about the physical effects?

As a canine massage therapist, I’ve seen a number of injuries from chasing tennis balls, as the dog suffers the equivalent of RSI (repetitive strain injury) in the neck.  Dogs often suffer from joint and muscle injuries in the paws as they aren’t designed for the repeated, fast twists, leaps, jumps, skids  and turns needed to chase a ball, and this is exacerbated if we don’t warm our dog’s muscles up first.

Often we launch them in to 30 minutes of flying straight into a flat out run, skidding to a halt putting strain on the carpal joints and the twisting in the air to catch balls that does the damage.  We don’t walk our dogs on lead for 5-10 minutes first to allow their large muscles to warm up.  Without a warm up, dogs are prone to muscle strain.

If your dog has been overcome by the adrenaline rush, they may not notice that they are injured and so they continue to chase normally without limping, even though they may be in severe pain.

Although it doesn’t seem like much of a risk as I write this (in January) the most common cause of collapse from heat exhaustion in dogs is playing fetch in the warm weather. It doesn’t even have to be that warm for dogs to overheat with vigorous exercise, and we should be very careful about playing fetch on warm days.

What to do if your dog is already over-stimulated

Avoid chase games for a few weeks and see if you notice any improvement in their levels of arousal, such as less anxiety or hyper-vigilance, and try some other activities instead.  This links to my previous blog on anxiety which has more detail on this subject.

If you think they can cope well enough, then keep high impact activity down to 10 minutes a day, with a good 10 minute warm up and cool down on lead, ask them to wait politely for you to throw the ball and have a clear ‘finish’ signal so your dog knows not to keep looking for more.

When I’m out walking with my client’s dogs, we don’t play chase.  Instead we enjoy activities together such as ‘natural agility’ (walking along a log), ‘find it‘ games (searching for treats hidden in the grass), recall games (on a long line) or practising some tricks – I’ve been working with Teddy on his ‘left’ and ‘right’ rotations this week that his mum is also working on teaching him, so I’m reinforcing this and helping him generalise the skill in different environments.

At home, mental games that use toys to encourage your dog to sniff out treats from different enclosures are really useful in tiring out the brain, and you’ll wear out a dog much more quickly working their brain than you will working just their paws!

However, if your dog is overexcited by chase, then PLEASE don’t play rough and tumble wrestling games or allow your dog to chase children. Both are exciting to your dog but are at the grab and kill end of the chase and so they trigger the same hormones, and should also be avoided.

Herbal self-selection enables our dogs to self-medicate from the healing properties of plants, guided by how they taste and smell.  It provides access to the vast range of medicinal compounds found in leaves, flowers, berries and roots that they need to get back in balance and to help lower those cortisol and adrenaline levels.  Find out more about Herbal self-medication for dogs.

Massage and Red Light Therapy can help ease those over-worked muscles and reduce adrenaline with effects that can last for days.  When retrieving a ball, dogs will predominantly turn in one direction. Repetitive, fast actions like this can lead to fatigue in the muscles on one side of the dog’s body leading to muscle strain, especially in the shoulder, and hind limbs. Find out more about Canine Massage or Red Light Therapy.