Visiting Vet: The ball is all

How to help your dog not obsess.

A dog that is obsessed about playing ball may have a behavior issue. —Phil Robson

“One last question,” the client said at the end of her dog’s visit. Rafa, a big, goofy, good-natured, golden-retriever-poodle-and-maybe-something-else mix, had just been in for his annual physical examination and vaccinations. His person and I were sitting outside reviewing my findings that Rafa was a healthy, happy young adult. “There’s just one problem,” his person continued. “He’s totally obsessed with balls.” My first (unspoken) thought was, “Um, duh; he’s a retriever mix.” My second (unspoken) thought was, “I’ve known these folks a long time, and they’re experienced dog owners.” I sat back down and simply said, “Tell me more.”

When I had heard more, I understood that Rafa and his family really did have a problem. The dog would play ball until winded and utterly exhausted. Then, as soon as he caught his breath, he’d go back for more, hounding his owners relentlessly (pun intended). Play ball, play ball, play ball. Rafa had a large, fenced-in yard and got plenty of outside time, and was also leash-walked daily. But his obsession with balls was over-the-top.

A brief aside. If your pet has a behavior issue, whether it’s Felix the cat urinating on the couch, or Raffa the retriever’s ball addiction, don’t spring it on your veterinarian at the end of an appointment. Let their office know in advance that you want to discuss a behavior problem, so they can schedule extra time. Why? First of all, because most behavior problems are complicated. There are rarely simple answers. Effective treatment requires thorough history-taking, making a working diagnosis, and discussing often complex training and pharmacological options. Secondly, most of us in general practice are not animal behavior specialists. We can give quick, off-the-cuff advice for common pet behavior problems, but if you want a real diagnosis and comprehensive treatment protocol, give us time to collect all the information and put together a plan. Rafa’s person understood. We sat together a while longer while I asked all the questions I thought pertinent, and I promised to get back to her by email soon.

Obsessive ball-playing is not an issue I have been asked to address before. I mean, isn’t that normal dog behavior? So I did some digging (pun intended). Wow. Who knew so many pups have this problem? Dogs wearing their teeth down to nubs from playing with balls. Dogs becoming aggressive guarding their balls. (Oh, grow up; stop giggling.) Dogs injuring their backs chasing balls, yet insisting on playing more. But mostly dogs driving their owners to distraction. Play ball, play ball, play ball. Play ball. OK, the reality is that some breeds, and some individual dogs, normally have intense, focused personalities, and a whole lot of energy. Dogs like border collies and Australian cattle dogs. Dogs who need a job to burn off some of that enthusiasm. But other dogs can actually exhibit ball preoccupation so incessant that it is essentially equivalent to human obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

What is Rafa’s family to do? I did a bit of research, and consulted with veterinary animal behavior specialists. Here’s what I learned. Medication may help, but will not be effective by itself without a training program. For owners ready to focus on training, but who want to try medication as an ancillary aid, there are two recommended options — clomipramine or fluoxetine. Medications like these can take several months to reach maximum effectiveness, so owners must be patient, and be in it for the long haul. Premedication baseline bloodwork is recommended. In any case, trying to lessen the behavior requires consistent “behavioral modification” techniques. There may be an underlying genetic component. Other factors contributing to obsessive behavior include stressors such as anxiety, boredom, and/or insufficient exercise.

There are several different schools of thought and recommendations about the training component. Here are some of them. Rafa may benefit from having other toys that are mentally stimulating, like “food-dispensing” puzzle toys, and a variety of things to play with besides balls. He needs to get out of the yard more for interesting walks, as often as possible. It is important not to reward him for begging to play ball. That just reinforces the behavior. A good all-purpose technique is to teach your pet to “settle,” usually on a special place or mat that is the designated spot. There are lots of YouTube videos about how to train a dog to do this. If Rafa’s owners can teach him to “settle,” then they should only play ball with him after he has “settled” on the mat for a minute on their command. This way ball-playing becomes a positive reward for good behavior. Several behaviorists suggest that after Rafa settles, to start play with a less-favored toy, then move to a more-favored toy, and only reward him with the ball at the end of the play session.

Consistent scheduled ball-playing times every day is a good idea. These are best done after nice long walks outside the yard, so Rafa is a bit tired, and has already had some good mental stimulation. When it is time to stop, just calmly use a consistent word to announce end of play, and walk away casually. Ignore him until he stops asking to play more. Even remotely giving in to begging behavior will be more reinforcing of the undesirable behavior.

There are also two schools of thought about whether to remove balls entirely or not. Some suggest removing all balls during training time, when owners are actively engaging the dog in other fun, reward-based activities that hold his attention. Others say it is better to “flood” the environment with balls, so he theoretically becomes desensitized to their presence. I lean toward removing balls from sight and scent during training sessions, but otherwise leaving them around as usual. Rafa’s family should also consider consulting a board-certified veterinary behavior specialist if he does not improve.

Now I have to go throw the ball for my dog Quinna, who is nudging me. Oh, wait. First I should get her to settle.