Ball Crazy: Obsession or Fun?

A few years ago, trainer and writer Turid Rugaas ignited a bit of a controversy in the dog world when she stated that many owners were providing too much stimulation for their pets, leading to the development of stress-related problems. She used the example of extended games of fetch, causing many owners of ball-loving dogs to take personal offense.

For myself, I found the theory intriguing. It’s not without a scientific basis. Both positive and negative stressors do exist. For example, getting married or having a child are positive sources of stress, while a near miss vehicle accident is a negative source. Both produce the release of adrenaline in the body, which can take hours or even days to dissipate. Adrenaline is responsible for many of the typical expressions of stress, such as digestive disturbances, short temper, and fatigue. Extended periods of stress can even lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure and organ damage.

In dogs, playing fetch or participating in competitive sports is a positive source of stress, so it is logical that, for some, an escalation to over-stimulation can occur to the point that it’s no longer fun. In addition, if you become stressed yourself, through trying too hard or becoming frustrated, you will increase your dog’s stress level as well.

It’s up to you, the owner, to moderate any activity to a level which your dog can handle without becoming overly stressed. Keep training periods short, and take a couple of days off between periods of intense, long-duration exercise or play.

Observing body language will help you to determine if an individual dog is having fun or experiencing undue stress. A dog having fun has a relaxed mouth and eyes and moves in loose, curving motions. A stressed dog has a tight mouth and eyes, and you may see veins standing up on the face. When you observe signs that your dog is no longer having fun, it’s time to take a break.

Dogs who are naturally high-strung, impulsive, and driven are typically more prone to developing stress. Contributing environmental factors include extended periods of isolation or confinement, social conflicts, and unpredictable routines.

Dogs do need regular physical activity, of course, to maintain a healthy weight and mental state, and each dog is different is his needs. At the same time, you should make a point of giving him plenty of down time, just relaxing at home with you. The key is in balance, and you’ll find your dog is happier and healthier overall.

NR Tomasheski is a dog trainer who spent seven years as co-owner of a canine daycare, boarding, and grooming facility in Sherman Oaks, California. She has competed with her own dogs in agility, obedience, and rally.

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