Play Ball!

Is it ok to play ball?

Recently, there has been a controversy raging behind the scenes about whether or not it is safe. to play ball (or fetch) with your dog.  Proponents say that ball play / fetch / frisbee is a good way to engage in something your dog enjoys and to provide real exercise for your dog. Those against ball play cite concerns about risk of repetitive strain injuries and ligament damage, and criticize those engaging in ball play with their dogs for putting their dogs at risk for cruciate ligament injury, lumbosacral disc disease and iliopsoas strains.

As with most things, there IS a happy medium.  Chris Zink, well known veterinarian, and conditioning expert recently reviewed the topic in Showsight magazine.

She notes that when a ball is thrown, we are engaging our dog’s prey drive and the instinct to chase. Instinctual behaviours are highly rewarding and provide great emotional benefits to dogs. Owners are likewise rewarded by the relational aspect of ball play. Owners and dogs both get a dopamine hit! Dogs can become highly aroused with games like ball fetch and this arousal triggers an adrenaline burst that drives intensity and further play.  Some dogs will become so highly engaged in the game, that they continue to play beyond the point of safety.  Muscles become tired and overstretched such the dog is no longer in full control and support of their movements. This places the dog at increased risk of injury to the soft tissues (ligaments, tendons and muscles).  Dr Zink illustrates this as the ‘Bliss-Injury Continuum.  On the Bliss side of the continuum dogs are excited with bright eyes, bouncing movements and may be barking with delight. As the dog moves into the muscle overload part of the continuum all of these features persist. There is little to show that the dog is moving into the risk side of the continuum.  A clue that the dog is now in the risk zone is a wide or curled protruding tongue tip. As play continues, the dog moves into the injury zone and eventually the dog displays visible signs of exhaustion.  It is important to note that the dog can remain in the injury zone for quite some time before they quit the game and lie down panting in exhaustion.

So – do we throw ball play out the window?  Doing so would deprive our dogs of an activity that brings them emotional, physical, and relational benefits.  The key is to play safely.  Dr. Zink offers some tips on how to accomplish this.
·      Throw such that the object is stationary by the time the dog reaches it (this prevents the jumping and twisting / hard impacts that can promote injury) or throw the ball into brush so the dog slows down to search for it.
·      Avoid having your dog catch the object in the air.
·      Provide a variety of activities so that the dog has the needed balance of strength, coordination, and body awareness. Conditioning programs can help. Here are a couple of free on-line sites that provide tips. and and
·      Use balls that are small enough to catch easily but not so small they present a choking hazard, grippy rather than slippery and have either NO or TWO holes. (Balls with a single hope can result in the tongue becoming entrapped in the ball).

Most importantly, the key to safety is to play in short spells – stop the play before your dog moves into the injury zone.  Keep an eye out for the tongue signs (wide, curled tip) that are physical evidence that your dog is moving into the injury zone and provide a cool down period.  Consider low / no impact types of ball play – retrieving balls from a kiddie pool, giggle balls to chase, ball pits etc.