Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Dogs Can Have Compulsive Disorders
A dog obsessed with playing fetch may initially sound like a joke: Many dogs love to have the ball tossed over and over right, and that's rather doggy normal behavior, right? Well, there is fetching and fetching.
We are talking about dogs who are obsessed over having the ball tossed, who dream of fetching in their dreams, and who think about fetching first thing in the morning upon waking up.
The term "obsessed" is a bit of a misnomer here. Sure, it's true that dogs, just like people who wash their hands over and over or repeatedly double-check things, can develop out-of-hand behaviors that set roots and become repetitive to the point of becoming an insidious habit that's difficult to interrupt, however, in the world of professional dog behavior consulting, usage of the term obsessive has been dropped for the simple fact that we lack sufficient proof to prove that dogs have the same thought-processing skills as humans.
"The word 'obsession' means there are intrusive and repetitive thoughts, which can’t be confirmed in dogs," explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kelly Ballantyne.
More than repetitive thoughts, we are therefore looking at repetitive behaviors. The correct terminology is, therefore, not obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but rather just merely "compulsive disorder."
So how do you deal with a dog showing signs of a compulsive ball-chasing disorder? Just as with the case of spinning and tail chasing often seen in German shepherds and bull terriers, light or shadow chasing in border collies. and flank suck of Dobermans, a ball chasing "obsession" requires a close evaluation.
One of the main signs of compulsive behavior is the dog cannot be called out of the behavior.
For example, a border collie who comes from working lines and fetches balls all day long but can be asked to stop, (although the dog doesn't really want to) likely is not suffering from a compulsive disorder, points out veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, in the book: "Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats."
What Makes Playing Fetch so Addictive to Dogs?
Fetch simply consists of a game where an object, such as a ball, is thrown at a distance away from the dog, and its primary goal is to have the dog go grab it and bring it back.
Most likely, for as long as dogs have been domesticated, there was a human tossing something out for the dog to chase. Perhaps it started with food, and then it carried over to toys and other objects.
For sure, many dogs seem to love it. In an ideal situation, fetch turns out being a cooperative and relationship-building game, but for some dogs, they never seem to grow tired of the game, playing to the point of exhaustion, panting heavily with their tongues lolling out and caring less about other life happenings.
"My yellow Labrador, Chester is a classical 'ball-nut,' explained to me once a client of mine. "Every morning when the sun is up, rather than finding a nice breakfast in bed, I'll wake up to a wet, slimy ball with Chester looking up at me with his tail wagging in anticipation. If I ignore him, I'll get a wet cold nose planted in my face, followed by barking if I happen to turn around and try to go back to sleep. It goes without saying he's the best alarm clock out there!"
As much as Chester's story may gather some smiles, things get more serious when you hear Chester's owner describing taking Chester to the dog park and him totally ignoring other dogs because "all he wants to do is play fetch" and his owner stopping play at some point because he's afraid "Chester would run himself to sheer exhaustion."
So, what causes dogs to get so crazy over balls? To better understand the behavior it helps taking a closer look into a dog's past ancestry as a hunter.
A Symbol of Prey
The behavior of chasing balls becomes easier to understand once we realize that dogs perceive balls as prey. The act of chasing balls isn't much different than chasing rabbits and other small prey. It's a strong instinctive drive that has remained ingrained to a certain extent.
Sure, it's true that nowadays, our modern domesticated dogs are fed food from shiny bowls, sleep on plush pillows and wear collars studded with rhinestones, but they still remain hunters at heart retaining their eat-on-the-run tendencies.
A tossed ball is therefore irresistible to dogs who have sharp senses meant to detect movements and bodies crafted for a quick chase. So while most dogs nowadays no longer need to pursue their meals, their “chase and catch” instinct remains deeply wired into their genes.
Chasing a fastball that is tossed is therefore an adapted form of their deep natural predatory instincts.
A Matter of Selective Breeding
Certain natural traits in dogs have been accentuated over the course of centuries through selective breeding so dogs could make great working partners.
A dog's natural behavior of stalking and chasing has therefore been made more prominent and modified so that certain dog breeds would herd livestock with passion, yet without hurting the animals (herders).
The natural behavior of tracking smells of prey animals has been emphasized so as to produce dogs with a superior sense of smell that could have helped with hunting down prey animals (scent hounds).
The natural behavior of chasing after and picking up prey animals has been highlighted and modified so to produce dogs who would retrieve downed birds and bring them back to the hunter carrying them with a soft mouth so as to not spoil the meat (retrievers).
Dogs breeds selectively bred to retrieve (Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers) may therefore be particularly predisposed to wanting to chase balls. Several spaniels too may become ball "obsessed" considering that they were also utilized to retrieve shot game to the hunter with a soft mouth.
Such dogs may find chasing and carrying a saliva-soaked tennis ball as exciting and satisfying as a downed duck would be.
Of course, it goes without saying that just because you don't own a spaniel or a retriever, your dog shouldn't show any signs of interest in the game of fetch. There are many stories of Rottweilers, Shih Tzus and even Pomeranians begging for a ball-tossing session.
A Big Adrenaline Rush
A game of fetch in certain predisposed dogs may turn into an adrenaline-pumping ordeal and dogs may get addicted to that. This is due to its repetitive pattern.
On top of this, dogs who play too much fetch and get obsessed about it, develop a narrow view of exercise and mental stimulation and therefore come to depend too much on it just because they haven't explored other forms of play. These dogs risk living their lives constantly looking for a ball.
The same pattern takes place on dog owners who come to rely on only playing fetch to exercise and play with their dogs. Soon, this becomes the default way of interacting with the dog and all other better bonding opportunities are out.
Owners Reinforcing Persistence
When fetching games stop, dogs often become increasingly frustrated because they struggle since they feel there is nothing else to do as their world has been built all around fetch. The same happens to the owners who don't know what else to do to keep their dogs busy. Soon a vicious cycle is formed.
The dog gets frustrated because the game stops, so he tries to start it again. He may therefore start barking at the owner, or may grab the ball and push it on the owner's lap as he backs away in hopes of having it tossed.
The dog owner, on the other hand, may initially refuse to give in to such requests, but when the dog insists and he can no longer take it, he may give in and toss the ball again and again. At this point, what is happening is that the dog owner is reinforcing "persistence."
The behavior will therefore become more and more ingrained, and the dog will therefore become more and more insistent and "ball obsessed."
The moment he starts running to fetch the ball or stick, the adrenaline release begins—which also explains why some dogs get so into the game that they become frantic, bark wildly and whimper, or can hardly calm down.
— Clarissa von Reinhardt, Chase, Managing Your Dog's Predatory Instincts
How to Deal With a Dog Addicted to Playing Fetch
Often, behind a dog whose fetching has gotten out of control, there is a dog owner who has allowed this to happen.
Many times, owners aren't sure how to tackle their dog's exercise needs and find fetch to be the perfect outlet. After all, it's much easier to toss a ball than walk or jog a dog for miles just to drain out the excess energy and keep the dog fit. However, it's easy to cross the thin line between a fit dog and a fanatical fetching machine on four legs.
It's therefore important to start implementing some rules to the game and start offering alternate activities. It's also important to emphasize that fetching is not normally a problem, it becomes a problem when it becomes the only activity the dog engages in and its repetitive pattern leads to a dog who gets overly dependent upon it.
So here are a few suggestions to avoid the pitfalls of creating a dog who only lives for a game of fetch.
- Keep balls out of sight at home. Out of sight, out of mind. Keep the balls in another room or place them in a cabinet.
- Start asking your dog to play fetch only outdoors. If you turn it into an indoor game, you risk creating a routine where your dog will want to play it the moment he gets a bit bored. On top of this, not playing a highly stimulating game like fetch indoors, emphasizes to your dog that the home is a place to rest and relax, enjoying calm and non-competitive activities.
- Get the ball out only when *you* want to play fetch. Ignore your dog's requests to play ball. Expect though some extinction bursts along the way. Your dog may temporarily try barking louder or may paw at you or nudge at you with his nose. Ignore these requests. If your dog insists, get up and leave the room.
- Use a cue to tell your dog when the game is over. You can say "game over" or "all done" as you put the ball away. After several reps, your dog should learn to disengage.
- Offer alternate indoor games that provide mental stimulation. Stop feeding meals from a bowl and offer kibble in an interactive food-dispensing toy instead. Stuffed Kongs, Buster Cubes, Kong Wobblers, Snuffle mats, Licki-mats are just a few examples of food dispensing toys that will keep your dog's brain working.
- Play brain games with your dog and offer a vast variety of fun toys to help disperse the ball obsession. Try to rotate toys (offer different toys and put away some for some time) so as to offer variety and keep the interest alive.
- Take your pup outdoors. Organize treasure hunt games, play hide and seek, encourage nose work, and provide your dog with a digging area where you have buried toys.
- Offer balls that are too large to carry and can be pushed instead. Herding breeds may benefit from large exercise balls that they can 'herd."
- Train your dog some impulse control games. This will help your dog learn to better control his impulses and cope better with his frustration. Here are some: impulse control games for dogs.
- Take a break. Some dogs benefit from taking a little break from playing with the ball (like a month or so) so they have the opportunity to learn other forms of playing and take a vacation from all the adrenaline. Once the month is over, the ball can be re-introduced, but aim to offer the game in a more productive setting such as for reinforcing trained behaviors.
- Take advantage of your dog's ball drive. Use the ball as a reinforcer for calm, composed behaviors. Ask your dog to sit and reinforce it by tossing the ball. Ask your dog to lie down and toss the ball. If your dog barks, don't toss the ball. Wait for calm behavior, like a sit or down and then toss the ball.
- Introduce an element of self-control by asking your dog to fetch only once the ball has touched the ground.
- Take breaks and encourage calm activities should your dog become excessively fixated on the game.
- Always monitor your dog for signs of getting tired or overheated.
- Severe cases bordering or actually being compulsive disorders, require the intervention of a veterinary behaviorist.
For some dogs, fetch may be too intense an exercise. Longer duration, moderate exercise is beneficial, but intense, short bursts of exercise may cause stress.
— James O'Heare, The Dog Aggression Workbook, 3rd Edition
- University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, Compulsive Disorders in Pets
- Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats by Karen Overall
- The Dog Aggression Workbook, 3rd Edition by James O'Heare
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 29, 2020:
alexadry Dogs are amazing pets and playing fetch keeps them fit. Obsessing on playing fetch well, I learned a lot from you.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 04, 2020:
Your article was very interesting to read. I had a yellow lab who loved chasing balls. Some of the behaviors that you describe applied to her, though fortunately Bess did have other interests in life.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 03, 2020:
Your articles about dogs are always terrific with great advice, and this one was no exception. I have seen dogs like your described, Adrienne. Your suggestions were very good in my opinion.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on December 03, 2020:
I have never come across a dog with this type of behaviour. But I never would have though it could turn into an obsession for some breeds. I definitely think rotating toys and doing other activities with them is a great idea.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 03, 2020:
Your suggestions are good, as always, in trying to break a habit. Fortunately, we never had to deal with this one with our dogs. Playtime was always fun but never got to the point of an obsession.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on December 03, 2020:
When we adopted our senior girl, the rescue gave us her fave toy which was a flinger for a tennis ball. She enjoyed chasing it and bringing it back. She's a cattle dog mix. So that might explain some of it. Most of our couch potato goldens were too dopey to figure out you had to bring it back. :)
Interestingly, she lost interest in the flinger game very soon after she arrived. Now she has a companion dog to keep her company. She does occasionally play with balls, but just likes to chew and catch for short periods of time. She also gets lots of exercise. Her former pawrents had health issues (which is why she had to find a new home) and probably didn't have a way to drain her energy other than through the flinger game.
So I agree it's a matter of directing their energy.
Great info, as always. Have a great day!