On my personal Facebook page and in my Service Dog Training Institute group, I have shared many links about the concerns of using a ball to exercise your service dog. If you have a ball obsessed service dog, or if you have limited ability to exercise your dog, this blog post is for you!
What's the Problem with Throwing a Ball to Exercise Your Service Dog?
When you toss the ball it goes rolling away from the dog much like prey escaping. The dogs pounce on it. Because they roll, they can be hard to catch and this makes it much more exciting to chase. For dogs with any level of prey drive, this drives up their adrenaline levels. With repeated practice, the dog starts to require this adrenalized activity daily. It becomes an addiction.
Using arm extenders that allow the ball to be thrown further (like tennis rackets and Chuk it ball throwers) can add to the problem as it adds a higher level of speed with the distance. Dogs slide into grab the ball and injure themselves. On hard surfaces like pavement or asphalt, they skin the pads of their feet when they try to stop. I have talked to several orthopaedic veterinarians who have seen a huge increase in their services due to people using arm extenders. You don't want to risk having your dog removed from service due to an injury.
Over time you are also creating a better and better athlete that you have to keep up with.
Even just using a tennis ball with wool on the outside can cause health problems. It quickly wears a ball-obsessed dog's teeth down. The wool stores sand that acts as sandpaper. Take a look at any flyball dog's teeth: by 3 years of age, there is significant wear and shortening of the canines and side teeth. If you use a ball, make sure it has a non-wooly surface. A squash ball or orange Chuk it brand ball works well.
How Can I Modify the Ball Toss Game?
First, make sure to warm up and cool down your dog. A warm up is typical a less intense version of the actual activity. So in this case, roll the ball slowly or tow the ball on the ground in a giant circle with a flirt pole.
Rather than stopping cold turkey with your dog, try alternating the ball toss with other activities. One day ball toss, next day do something else. That way you can gradually shape your dog to enjoy other less arousing exercise activities. Over time decrease how often you use the ball and increase other activities.
Buy a ball with a rope attached to it. This will stop the rolling when it hits the ground.
Place the ball in a sock and toss it with that. This will limit the rolling and limit the distance it can be thrown.
Cut a cross in your ball and insert a scent. With your dog out of sight, hide the ball in long grass or on the forest floor, or even bury it lightly. Then release your dog to find it. Use a long line if your dog's recall or retrieve needs work. Over time you dog will learn to find that specific scent and you can transfer it to other objects you can hide. (Again an old sock is ideal for this.)
Try substituting a hunting bumper (canvas or plastic). They are made for hunting breeds, fit nicely in their mouth and stop dead when they hit the ground. That way your dog can stop before grabbing it and the final escape doesn't happen. If it happens to be tossed into long grass, your dog will hunt for it using his nose which uses mental energy, not just physical. Because they are an odd shape and size, the distance you can toss it is also limited. The dog won't build up as much speed when running.
What Else Can I Do?
There are plenty of other things you can do to exercise your dog. You must remember that your dog needs to use both physical and mental exercise. If you can combine the two, you will tire your dog out faster and with less effort on your part.
Ideally, long steady exercise periods at a moderate heart-raising pace is what you want to aim for.
Hike with your dog. Or hire someone else to walk or hike with your dog two or three times a week.
Steady leashed walk.
Cycling with your dog, on leash or off. If on leash, then use an attachment or if your dog has a slower speed, teach him to jog beside the bike attaching the leash to the frame low on the bike so he can't pull you over. Do not hold the leash in your hand as it affects steering and balance. I prefer to teach them to keep the leash loose rather than pull the bike like a sled. Some people prefer bike-joring. Make sure to use proper harnesses for this (not a mobility harness).
Take your dog swimming. Use a bumper to retrieve.
Find a natural area with a variety of natural features (long grass, trees, plants, etc). Put on a long line ( 10 feet or more) and cue your dog to "Go sniff" Let him lead the way! You can do this along a path if you are in a wheelchair.
Set up a regular play date with a buddy. Playing with other dogs tires them faster than any other activity.
Call your dog back and forth between two people.
Play hide and seek and add distance. Hide in the house, then take it on the road to a safe area. Add finding you to the call back and forth game.
Try dog parkour. Find a variety of objects in the environment that your dog can jump onto, jump over, crawl under etc. Even just jumping on and off a circle of large rocks can tire a dog quickly. (Don't worry that you might be teaching your dog to jump up on furniture and other objects. Just avoid using those in training. Once you put a cue to it, he will learn not to jump up unless you cue it.
Doing stationing approach during walks help. Stop and do some behaviors, move a short distance and practice others. Keep doing that along a short loop of a walk. There a many training benefits for a service dog of doing this too. Dogs learn to generalize behaviours more quickly. In August 2019, I will be teaching a Build the Bond: Relationship Walks class with Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Tons of great ideas in there.
If You Are Limited to Where You Can Go, Try These:
Use the neighbourhood kids to come play agility in your yard with your dog while you supervise. They can mentally and physically tire your dog out for you. Our newspaper kids used to knock on our door and ask if our dogs could come out to play. They all enjoyed their weekly romps! And wen enjoyed the social interactions and break from exercise!
Do body awareness exercises like back end awareness. Those get your dog's body and mind working together. https://youtu.be/5O7mS4blCF8
Teach him to balance on a lower inflated yoga ball or to use an exercise peanut.
Teach him to run around an object and come back to you. Set up 2 cones or other objects, and stand in the middle and send him around those. Then set up 3, then 4 etc. Increase the distance between the cones.
Paw targeting works great to exercise your dog when you add distance. Make sure to do this on a soft surface once some distance is added.
Teach pulling as a fun exercise and practice it regularly. Make sure to have a proper harness and appropriate weight for your specific dog. Even small dogs can learn to guide you short distances, even if you don't need it as a task.
Mental puzzle games like snuffle mats and food puzzles help. Stuff a Kong-type toy with some favourite treats, kibble etc, put it in a cup upside down, pour a liquid in it (yogurt or broth) and freeze it. Give it to your dog on his mat or in his crate. I use the flat bone-shaped rubber toys so they don't move around much while my dogs are eating.
A snuffle mat is a mat with long fat "fingers" where you place kibble or food bits and your dog does the finding. Because it's limited to a specific location and piece of equipment, you don't have to worry that you are encouraging scavenging in your service dog. Dogs don't generalize well.
If your dog is an advanced shaper, try the "101 Things to do With a Box" activity. Vary the object. Use a chair laid upside down. Use a ladder on it's side etc. This helps a service dog gain confidence.
Be creative in how you exercise your dog! Think outside the box!