Ball throwers are a very popular dog toy. A lot of dog owners will take their dog to the park and let them burn off some steam by playing with their beloved ball. It can save the owner from having to pick up a muddy, wet, saliva-covered ball, it saves your back and it can mean that you can often throw the ball further and more effectively than normal.
All sounds great, right? Whilst using a ball thrower occasionally is not usually a bad thing, it will probably surprise a lot of people to know that they can often end up doing more harm than good and it may benefit your pet much more to consider other forms of exercise and play.
Whilst a lot of dogs may love when you get the ball thrower out, it may actually be better to channel their love of balls in a different way
Continual Sprinting Can Increase the Risk of Injury, Accident or Overheating
The biggest issue with ball throwers if that it can increase the chance of your dog suffering from an injury. This type of exercise involves a lot of very sudden stops and starts for your dog and they will often contort their bodies into unusual positions in an attempt to reach the ball.
When the ball is thrown for them, they will usually run after it with an explosive start, putting a lot of strain on their muscles all of a sudden. They then will usually put even more strain on their body when they want to try to slow down very quickly to grab it or if they are jumping up to catch it mid-air.
Because this behaviour is repeated over and over again in quick succession and usually without the dog having had sufficient warm up, it can start to put an unnatural strain on their joints and muscles. When your dog is so focused on the ball, they may not notice any twinges or aches and will continue to push on through with the activity meaning there is potential for even further damage. Often, if the session goes on for a long time, the dog can become fatigued, lack the same coordination and then the chances of them tripping or landing awkwardly increase.
The other problem is that with this sort of extreme aerobic exercise, where the dog is super focussed on the activity, it can also be easy for them to start to overheat, even if it is only a mildly warm day.
In the Summer of 2018, in the UK where the summers are not usually all that extreme, there were a number of reported cases of serious heat exhaustion and even some fatalities from dog’s that overheated as a result of playing with ball throwers.
There is also a greater risk of injury in the cold weather months. Not only do they need a better warm up to minimise muscle strain as a result of the cold temperatures but they could easily slip on a patch of unnoticed black ice or hurt their paws with the fast activity over very hard, icy ground.
Playing with a ball thrower can increase the chance of overheating in the warm weather
Dogs Can Become Unhealthily Ball Obsessed and Over-Aroused
For dogs that are happy to play with the ball thrower for long stretches, this usually suggests it is because they have a bit of an obsession with the ball and playing fetch. It is not necessarily healthy to encourage this.
Whilst it is important to keep your dog stimulated and exercised, sometimes too much extreme and repetitive high energy and frenetic activity can have a negative effect.
If your dog is totally ball obsessed and becomes very overexcited whenever the ball thrower comes out, extended sessions with it can result in the production of a lot of adrenaline in their system and this can then result in the hormone cortisol being released into your dog’s system.
Cortisol is released during periods of stress and whilst it may seem like your dog is having a great time, if they are becoming too over-aroused by the activity it can create a stress-like reaction.
Studies suggest that playing frisbee or with a ball thrower for over half an hour non-stop can result in over arousal that your dog may struggle to recover from for a number of days. They will have so much cortisol running through their body that they can’t properly relax. So if you are playing with a ball thrower like this with your dog every day, in theory, they could be in a constant state of stress.
Being in a heightened state of stress and arousal like this all the time if not only unfair but it can also then mean that your dog could start to develop other behavioural problems as a result of always being in this state.
So, occasional short sessions with a ball thrower may not be a problem but if this is something you do for long sessions every day it could be very damaging to your dog’s well being and you could also start to see some other frustrating behaviours start to manifest.
If your dog is too ball obsessed they can become over-aroused and end up in a constant state of stress
Ball Throwers for Puppies Are a No-No
A lot of people pick up a ball thrower as part of their new puppy starter kit. This is not a good option. Your puppies bones are soft and growing right up until they reach full maturity, usually between one year and eighteen months old, depending on the size of the dog. Whilst they are still growing, too much exercise, especially high impact types, can put too much strain on their bones and joints and it increases the chances of them developing musculoskeletal problems as they get older.
Using a ball thrower with a puppy is not a good idea. Puppies need to be on carefully monitored exercise and should not be over exerting themselves while their bones are growing
If You Do Want to Keep Using a Ball Thrower, Stick to These Guidelines
Whilst we would recommend selecting other alternative forms of exercise over a ball thrower anyway, if you do want to continue using one we would suggest sticking to the following guidelines:
If You Do Use a Ball Thrower Minimise the Number of Repetitions
Don’t use the ball thrower everytime you go out for a walk with your dog. Maybe just bring it out once a week and make sure that it is only used for a very short duration and after your dog has had a suitable warm up.
Be Mindful of the Weather
As mentioned before, never play with the ball thrower in hot temperatures, it is far too easy for your dog to get heat stroke without you even realising it is happening.
Don’t play with the ball thrower in very wintry weather conditions either. The risk of injury as a result of insufficient warm-up is greater and the chances of falling on black ice or hurting pads or joints on the hard, frozen surfaces are increased too.
Playing fetch in extreme weather conditions can increase the chance of injury
If Your Dog Is Recovering from an Injury or Has Mobility Issues, Find Another Form of Exercise
If you have a dog that has a history of joint problems, has had an injury that has impacted on their mobility or they are showing any signs of limping or lameness then using a ball thrower is a bad idea. There are lots of other lower impact forms of exercise that will be much more beneficial for your dog. By continuing to use a ball thrower you could cause them to re-injure themselves or make a problem with their muscles or joints worse. Your dog is not likely to tell you either, if they are extremely ball obsessed they will likely continue playing on through any pain so it is up to you to make the right decision for their overall welfare.
If your dog has an existing injury or is showing any signs of lameness then using a ball thrower could exacerbate problems
Consider Why You Feel the Need to Use a Ball Thrower
Some people can become extremely attached to using the ball thrower and if, for example, their vet recommends that they give it up, they become extremely frustrated or stressed out.
It is really important to be honest with yourself and think about why it is causing this reaction.
Is it because the ball thrower has become such an easy way for you to tire your high energy dog out? You don’t need to walk far and you can still chat to your friend on the phone? Perhaps before you started using the ball thrower you were coming home to destruction in the house as they were bored and under-exercised, maybe if you don’t use the ball thrower on the walk they can pester other dogs when they are off leash and they have a terrible recall.
These are signs that you need to take further measures to give your dog a more appropriate outlet for their energy requirements and for mental stimulation and it is also likely a sign that you haven’t put enough time into training a more reliable recall.
There are lots of other things that you can do to ensure your dog gets an appropriate amount of exercise and stimulation and, who knows, you may just develop a deeper and more healthy bond with your dog as a result.
Some Alternative Ball Games to Play with Your Dog
Why not use your dog’s ball obsession to encourage them to get involved in an alternative exercise that will still keep your dog stimulated without getting them over-aroused and reducing the risk of injury.
Hide and Seek
If your dog LOVES his ball, why not get him to use his nose to find it. Show your dog the ball, get them to wait (or have someone hold them on the lead). Hide the ball and then ask them to find it. Start with an easy search, make sure they can see where you are putting it and work up to something more challenging. Dogs have an amazing sense of smell, put it to use, get their brain in gear and you are not going to be having them in a frantic state with high impact activity.
Harness your dog’s great sense of smell and love of balls by playing hide and seek
The Cup Game
Believe it or not, dogs are smart enough to follow this game. You know the one where you put something under a cup and then move it around with two other cups and ask them to work out which one the item is under. Okay, you may have to start slowly so that they get the knack of it but some dogs can become experts at this and it is super mentally stimulating.
Most times this is done with dogs, there is a super tasty treat under the cup but, if your dog is ball obsessed they will enjoy finding the ball so that they can then get a chance to play with it.
Why Not Give Treibball a Try?
You might not have heard of this relatively new doggy sport but it is definitely starting to grow in popularity, again, particularly with dogs that are very ball obsessed.
The sport involves pushing a large inflated ball into a net. It is particularly popular with dogs that love balls of any size, like to chase and those that have a high prey or herding drive.
It is a much more healthy focus for your dog’s natural drives and it can also be a great way to deepen your bond with your dog.
If You Are Using a Ball, Choose an Alternative to a Traditional Tennis Ball
If you are doing games with a ball we would recommend picking something other than the commonly used tennis ball. A traditional tennis ball has a very abrasive surface material that can become even more abrasive when dirt, grit, sand and other debris gets caught up in the material. Dogs that regularly play with tennis balls, particularly those that like to bite down on them, can end up with serious problems with their teeth as the grinding action can wear them down.
Why not try a Chuckit Ultra Ball instead. It has a non-abrasive surface, is very durable, super bouncy and very popular with dogs that love a ball. Or if you want a ball for use indoors the Chuckit Plush Ball is a good option as is the Starmark Durafoam Ball.
The Kong Squeak Air Tennis Ball is made from a different material to a traditional tennis ball and the material has been developed so that it is not abrasive like a normal one is.
Chuckit balls are a non abrasive alternative to a tennis ball
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.