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Science Explains Why Dogs Love Balls So Much (and Why Some Get Obsessed)

Adrienne is a dog trainer and former veterinary assistant. She has taken several specialized courses on hospice care for dogs.

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What’s Up With Dogs Loving Balls So Much?

Many dogs love balls so much that dog parents across the globe are wondering what's the ordeal with such a deep fascination.

There is fascination, and then there is fascination. While many dogs are eager to play with a ball when tossed, some dogs seem to almost develop an obsession over balls, so much so, pet parents often wonder whether a ball addiction may be healthy.

So what makes dogs go bonkers over balls? And most of all, what can be done about it if it seems like our dogs live for a tossed ball and they keep on dropping on our lap a slimy ball in hopes of playing fetch?

To better understand this deep fascination, it helps to first perceive the world from a dog's perspective and take a look at what science has to say about the matter. So let's discover what makes balls so appealing to dogs and what research has unveiled on the topic.

What makes dogs love balls so much?

What makes dogs love balls so much?

1) The Power of Prey Drive

Dogs are known for being blessed with a strong prey drive, although research shows that the level of prey drive varies between one breed and another.

Prey drive is simply the instinctive inclination for dogs (and carnivores in general) to pursue and capture prey. Unlike wolves though (from which dogs descend, but are different in many ways), domesticated dogs have undergone some alterations in their prey drive, more precisely in the predatory sequence.

Early studies in wolves have revealed some general descriptions of different types of behaviors while hunting (Murie 1944; Banfield 1954; Tener 1954; Crisler 1956; Kelsall 1957, 1960), but more in-depth descriptions were only obtained later on courtesy of a second generation of studies which recognized behaviors occurring in a logical sequence (Mech 1966, 1970; Gray 1983).

In particular, David Mech in 1970, decomposed wolf hunting behavior into five “stages” more precisely: Travel →Stalk→ Encounter→ Rush→ Chase.

Gray in 1983 described a sequence of six stages: Approach→ Circle Herd→ Attack Herd →Cut off single individual→ Contact individual→ Kill.

More recently, we have a more comprehensive sequence. According to Coppinger, Raymond (2001), the predatory sequences are known to be composed of the following sequences: Search (orient, nose/ear/eye)→ Stalk →Chase →Bite (grab-bite, kill-bite) →Dissect →Consume.

While in wolves, the predatory sequence is known to be complete considering that, in order to survive, they must utilize the whole range from search to consumption, in domesticated dogs, certain parts of the sequence have been amplified or reduced courtesy of selective breeding by humans.

For example, the search feature (sniffing) has been amplified in scent hounds like bloodhounds, basset hounds and beagles, while in herding dogs like border collies, the eye-stalk component has been boosted while the grab-bite and kill tendency has been reduced to prevent harm to stock animals.

On the other hand, some dog breeds have been selectively bred to carry out a good part of the whole sequence. For instance, small terriers such as rat terriers have been selectively bred to hunt down varmint and kill them. This has earned them the reputation as "finishers."

It is courtesy of a dog's prey drive that dogs are often irresistibly lured to chasing things that move.

A ball unpredictable movement intensely stimulates a dog's prey drive

A ball unpredictable movement intensely stimulates a dog's prey drive

2) The Materialization of Prey Animals

Now, back to balls! As mentioned, a dog's drive to chase is to a great extent due to his prey drive. Now, consider this: from a dog's perspective, a ball is the materialization of prey as it moves erratically and stimulates the chase.

When your dog grabs the ball and shakes his head, he is basically "killing it" as he would do to break the neck of small critters.

Now you also know why dogs are so compelled to chew toys and break them apart. It's the dissecting portion of the predatory sequence and some dogs even manage to ingest parts, which entails the consummatory part!

Sadly, this part is something that should be discouraged though as it can make dogs prone to intestinal blockages. There are too many stories of dogs ingesting toy squeakers and requiring an expensive surgery to get it out!

I recently saw a meme with a picture of a Boxer that read, “Squirrels are just tennis balls thrown by God.” While quite funny, it’s really the reverse. Tennis balls are just artificial squirrels thrown by man. It’s because they simulate prey fleeing that dogs chase them.

— Lisa Skavienski, The Academy for Dog Trainers

This cocker spaniel is getting ready to pounce on a ball as if it was a prey animal

This cocker spaniel is getting ready to pounce on a ball as if it was a prey animal

3) Triggering Reward Centers of the Brain

Contra freeloading is a term that was first coined by animal psychologist Glen Jensen in 1963. This term is used to depict the phenomenon of animals choosing food that requires some effort to obtain versus food that is offered freely.

Dogs living in a human environment find contra freeloading helpful because it allows them to carry out species-specific behaviors and it fills a behavior vacuum due to the lack of stimulation in their non-natural environments.

A ball doesn't offer food, but it acts as a reward on its own since it symbolizes prey. Researchers have found two main motives at play when animals are working for a reward such as catching a ball.

The first one is the extrinsic motivation—that is, the motivation to gain the access to the ball, and the second is intrinsic motivation, that is, the satisfied feeling of achievement dogs feel when they're working to access such reward (the ball).

In other words, the effort in pursuing a ball is intrinsically rewarding because it creates positive feelings in dogs as the reward centers in their brains are activated.

Chasing a ball is therefore reinforcing at many levels. Animal studies have indeed found that increased dopamine levels in the brain occur in anticipation of a reward.

"Dopamine is about the anticipation of pleasure, it's about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself," says Robert Sapolsky in a presentation. So turns out, ball chasing is mostly about the "thrill of the hunt."

In many breeds of dogs, prey drive is therefore so strong that, when given the chance to satisfy it, this acts as its own reward.

A game of fetch in certain predisposed dogs may therefore turn into an adrenaline-pumping ordeal that can get quite addicting due to the associated dopamine-releasing thrill.

Playing with a ball is all about the thrill of the chase.

Playing with a ball is all about the thrill of the chase.

4) The Attraction of Color

Manufacturers for dog toys are very savvy and know how to produce toys that will grab your attention, but what about dogs?

Color really matters when it comes to the manufacturing process of dog toys. Research has shown after all that dogs can't see the same colors humans do and we were wrong all along when we thought that dogs could only see in black and white.

Turns out, a study conducted by Jay Neitz et al. at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has revealed that dogs can actually see colors and it's all a matter of cones.

Science tells us that cones are the photoreceptors responsible for allowing us to perceive the details of colors. These photoreceptors send signals about color to the brain.

Humans basically have three kinds of cones that identify red, blue, green and yellow wavelengths. It is through the combined activity of these cones that humans are blessed with a full range of color vision.

Dogs, on the other hand, have only two cones, one cone which is sensitive to blue, while the other is sensitive to yellow. This means that, unlike humans, who are trichromats, dogs are dichromats, meaning they can see two colors.

If we want to see things from our dog's perspective, we can therefore deduce that ultimately a dog's color vision is roughly similar to that of a person who is red-green color blind (a deuteranope).

Asa result, dogs have a much better time detecting the colors blue and yellow. Based on these findings, we should therefore pick dog toys that are blue or yellow.

Savvy dog toy manufacturers have been catching up on research, focusing more on the appeal to dogs rather than humans. After all, a red ball is difficult to distinguish from the green grass of a park adding some challenges for even the most fetch-obsessed dogs!

The good news is that we are therefore starting to see more yellow and blue dog toys on the market. These colors may not appeal to humans much, but after all, it's the dog who must play with the toys!

So here you have it, now you know why dogs are so attracted to those vibrant yellow-colored tennis balls!

Yellow balls for dogs should become more and more popular in the future.

Yellow balls for dogs should become more and more popular in the future.

5) Satisfying the Urge to Chew

As mentioned, dogs are prone to following a predatory sequence that, albeit altered, still remains strong.

In the wild, the diet of wolves and free-ranging dogs derives up to almost 50 percent from sources such as carcasses ( Butler and du Toit, 2002). According to research, feeding on this type of food requires substantial chewing that lasts for 26 min on average (Forsyth et al., 2014).

Based on this info, we can deduce how strong a dog's motivation to dissect and chew can be and how it might not be satisfied by feeding dogs commercially available dog foods in a bowl. (Kasanen et al., 2010).

It, therefore, makes sense for dogs to perceive toys as desirable chewing items. Whether your dog removes the fuzz from tennis balls or likes to chomp on a rubber ball, consider the dangers should your dog ingest large parts that can lodge along the digestive tract and cause an intestinal blockage.

Warning: Always supervise your dog when playing with a ball and trade any toys or balls that are being aggressively chewed on or are breaking apart with some tasty treats.

After chasing a ball for some time, many dogs will lie down for some chewing. Keep an eye for trouble!

After chasing a ball for some time, many dogs will lie down for some chewing. Keep an eye for trouble!

6) The Human Impact

Sometimes, dogs aren't too crazy about balls, until humans intervene and turn them into ball maniacs. How?

It may start with owners who struggle with meeting a dog's needs for exercise and mental stimulation. On a rainy day, when walks are cancelled, owners may reach for the ball to find ways to tire Rover out. Soon, a habit establishes.

Dog owners come to rely on playing fetch as a great way to exercise and play with their dogs. After all, there's not much effort involved.

You can sit on the couch or on the deck and automatically toss the ball every time Rover drops it at your feet or on your lap. It's as easy as that.

Soon though, this becomes the default way of interacting with the dog and all other better bonding opportunities are out.

Things are further exacerbated when dog owners reinforce persistence. In other words, when fetching games stop, dogs often become increasingly frustrated as their world has been built all around fetch while dog owners struggle dealing with such frustrating behaviors, so soon a vicious cycle forms.

The dog, therefore, gets frustrated and starts barking at the owner in hopes of another game, and the owner tosses the ball to make the barking stop.

Soon, dogs become pushier as they struggle with the game ending, while owners give more and more in as they struggle with the dog's frustration.

When you reinforce frustrating behaviors and associated extinction bursts, you reinforce persistence and make the habit more and more ingrained and difficult to overcome. Soon you're stuck with a ball-fetching maniac who finds it hard to cope with a game coming to an end.

Are you creating a "ball-obsessed" dog?

Are you creating a "ball-obsessed" dog?

7) A Possible Source for Compulsive Tendencies

In some cases, dogs love balls so much they develop a sort of "obsession." This may be the case with a dog who incessantly begs to play fetch and seems to not want to do anything else.

Dogs are prone to developing compulsive tendencies such as tail chasing, spinning, flank sucking, chasing lights and shadows or imaginary flies, and there are also dogs licking paws excessively. It is possible for excessive ball chasing to be also compulsive in nature, points out board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. John Ciribassi in an article for DVM360.

Compulsive disorders often take place when there are chemical imbalances, the dog is anxious or stressed, or the dog simply "enjoys" the self-reinforcing feeling associated with the release of endogenous opioids (endorphins).

In some cases, it may result from some underlying medical problem and therefore the diagnosis for canine compulsive disorder should be one of exclusion, being made only after ruling possible medical causes out.

If your dog seems "obsessed about balls" here is a guide on what to do.

Did you know? The term "obsession" has fallen out of favor due to the fact that it remains unknown whether dogs may have recurrent, distressing thoughts (ie, obsessions) that may compel performance of repetitive behavior, explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Lynn C. Sueda, in an article for Clinician's Brief.

The correct terminology is, therefore, not obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but rather just merely "canine compulsive disorder."

If your dog doesn't become "obsessed" he can become prone to resource guarding if he feels balls are way too valuable and feels threatened by you approaching.

If your dog doesn't become "obsessed" he can become prone to resource guarding if he feels balls are way too valuable and feels threatened by you approaching.

References

  • Coppinger, Raymond (2001). Dogs, A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution. University of Chicago Press. p. 116.
  • Siniscalchi M, d'Ingeo S, Fornelli S, Quaranta A. Are dogs red-green colour blind?. R Soc Open Sci. 2017;4(11):170869. Published 2017 Nov 8. doi:10.1098/rsos.170869
  • Christine Arhant, Rebecca Winkelmann, Josef Troxler, Chewing behaviour in dogs – A survey-based exploratory study, Applied Animal Behaviour Science,
    Volume 241,2021

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli