Are tennis balls bad for dogs?!
So this blog questions “are tennis balls bad for dogs?!”to which the short answer is “no”; but there are some major downsides. Here I am to give you the pros and cons, and some other solutions to using tennis balls with your dog!
So firstly there’s the health concerns, particularly dental, around using tennis balls. It’s discussed in more detail in our blog The Dangerous Game; basically grit, dirt and sand stuck in the tennis ball fibres turns it super abrasive so it effectively becomes sandpaper to your pooch’s teeth – not great!
There have also been far too many occasions where dogs have had to have surgery to remove tennis balls from their stomach and guts. This kind of blockage can often be fatal, it can be caused by lots of different items (toys, socks and stones most commonly) but tennis balls are regularly seen due to the squidgy “give” and the way some split in half easily.
Swallowing tennis balls, as well as other objects, can also be an extreme version of guarding behaviour. If a dog swallows an item, you certainly can’t take it off them! This is often, in part, due to an extremely high value we put on certain items. We’ve all heard someone say “my dog would do ANYTHING for a tennis ball”. That’s a high value item!
So we’ve discussed the dental health issues, now let’s go into the metal health issues;
For people being obsessed with anything (except maybe our pets) isn’t great for our mental health and the same goes for dogs. A common misconception is that dogs who are entirely focussed on a toy, such as a tennis ball, at time of high arousal (also known as stress) are actually coping. Whereas, in fact, they are being EVEN MORE aroused. The complete opposite behaviour to what you actually want.
Generally, we want our dogs to be nice and relaxed, for us and for them. Not totally hyped up all the time but unfortunately still many guardians believe physical exercise is the main priority for dogs. All too often we hear of dog walks involving, almost exclusively, running back and forth retrieving a tennis ball. This includes almost no mental stimulation – the essential addition for a well balance, well behaved confident dog. This intensely arouses dogs and then makes other stimuli harder to cope with throughout the day – imagine winding up a small child with a birthday party and then expecting them to sit quietly at school all day. It just doesn’t work. These workouts based around fetch don’t allow a dog to “be a dog” to sniff and search and learn about their environment – that is what a walk should be about.
We shouldn’t see this intense focus on the ball as a positive. So many people “treat” an behaviour problem such as frustration towards other dogs by getting them to focus on the ball; but this is just transferring the frustration onto another object, not actually treating the behavioural problem. Others try to “treat” chase problems such as chasing vehicles or sheep by encouraging chasing in play which is often not appropriate. To date I have never seen a behaviour case where fetch games with a ball have helped rather than hindered!
So.. are tennis balls bad for dogs?
When and how tennis balls can be used appropriately for your dog;
- Blind retrieves – Great for fun gundog work! Ask your dog to wait or have someone else hold them on a lead. Hide tennis balls (long grass or foliage is great) then return your dog and send them on to retrieve and bring back to you! All of the retrieve with none of the intense chasing involved with fetch. It is a great way to work on “wait” and scent work to find the balls you’ve hidden and on their retrieves!
- Food games like tennis balls on a muffin tray! Your dog still gets to play with tennis balls but they aren’t moving fast and the food can become more of the reward. A great easybrain game to get your dog’s mind working and slow down how fast they eat their meals!
- Chewing – some dogs just want to chew on tennis balls! And as long as they aren’t breaking them and swallowing them this is a great bit of calm, endorphin releasing activity to occupy a dog! (if your dog doesn’t enjoy chewing a plain old ball look at using a Kong instead!). Your dog may just enjoy carrying a ball around so don’t assume they want to play fetch and, as mentioned above, even if they do try to reduce the frequency of chasing games.
- Short rewards – balls can be great as a short reward for a job well done! We use ball rewards for some of our training such as scent work in certain cases. This could be where food or other toy rewards such as tugs aren’t appropriate. Or just to mix it up for the dogs and keep them interested. This is in very short bursts and aren’t chase driven. The rewards are also interspersed with other work but can be really useful and fun in training!
My dog wants to play fetch
It may look like your dog does but it isn’t helping your dog’s behaviour. There are much better ways to give them that mental stimulation without the unwanted arousal alongside. If you think or know your dog will really struggle on their walk without focusing on the ball, this just shows you how far the behaviour problems have gone and that cements the fact that your dog doesn’t need this extra stress. Suddenly stopping playing fetch can be difficult for some dogs if they have become dependent on their “fix”.
- Try weaning them down slowly, with short burst of play rather than a prolonged one.
- Teach a good “finish” cue so that they understand the game is over.
- Swap to throwing something less exciting that won’t continue to roll but will just stop dead where it lands. A buggy is great as you can then engage your dog with tug on when they return. You and your dog can start to focus on this as a more appropriate game instead.
- Encourage them to interact with their environment on the walk. Sniffing/eating scattered treats is a much more appropriate way for a dog to spend their time out and about. It is much more enriching for them then a manic chase of a ball.
To be extra safe don’t use the tennis balls in sandy/gritty environments. Also ensure your dog has learnt a force-free “drop” cue so they are happy to give it up to you. This means they are anticipating something nice in return so it’s win-win!
If your dog really can’t cope seek help from a local science based behaviourist like our veterinary behaviourist Dr Katie Friel-Russell BVSc APDT MRCVS.
So.. over all are tennis balls bad for dogs? No! They can be great tools. Just make sure your dog is really enjoying the tennis as much as you this time of year!