I have seen a dog have to retire from sports due to injury from simply playing ball. An I must admit that I was guilty of zealous ball throwing too.
“In the past two days, I have worked with two dogs injured from overzealous ball playing, fetching, retrieving at quick paces”
~Dr. DG Torraca*
According to Dr Torraca, most dog owners, when told to hold off on ball throwing to allow their dogs to heal are lost as to how they would then exercise their dogs. This is particularly true for owners of energetic, sporting or working dogs, because “my dog just LOVES his ball”.
The fact that their dog was injured because of the ball throwing activity does not even register with some owners. Their real concern is how impossible it’s going to be to stop “playing ball”.
I have seen this reaction too. Some people feel they NEED to throw a ball, frisbee, something for their dog. The dog retrieves it and the game is repeated until the dog almost drops from exhaustion. Some people continue even if their dog is lame or limping.
“In both the recent dogs I worked with, the owners admitted the ball throwing in their yard caused the lameness and pain. However, they could not give it up, even though it was hurting their dog physically because the psychological stress to the dog and owner would be too much.”
One of the #1 rules of pet ownership (and pet owners agree on this):
First Cause No Harm.
Sounds like a no brainer. There are loads of activities one can do with your dog instead of throwing a ball. Activities that are safer than throwing a ball AND they use up your dog’s energy.
Ball throwing may be the cause of more injuries to dogs who are not fit than any canine sport out there!
Let’s breakdown it down:
The short retrieve, i.e. throwing a ball or other object repetitively.
The initial take off to retrieve the ball – it’s an explosive movement. From 0 to full blast instantly.
Muscles are instantly engaged to blast the dog forward, including core muscles and hindlimbs. A dog’s entire body is engaged and works to move it forward – quickly.
The focus of the dog?
The dog focuses on the movement and directional changes of the ball. He is NOT focused on his own safety when going after that ball.
Then comes the real stress of the situation.
The dog has to slow down enough to grab the ball. He must use his muscles in a really scary way to put the brakes on. Have you seen the strange shapes his body performs in order to do this?
The large muscles of the hips, shoulders and trunk need to work very hard to slow the dogs’ body down. We are talking about slowing the dog’s full weight that has increased through the momentum of speed. The speed needs to be quickly slowed to a speed that is safe and effective to pick the ball up.
What if the dog does not have the strength to do this?
Simple. He wipes out. We often see him wipe out completely and fall on its face. Or we watch his hindlimbs move dangerously in front of his body. Or he jumps up, twisting in the air to get the ball, but then has to untwist in a split second to try and land.
The funny of the situation quickly fades when vet bills come in.
But what happens after throwing the ball a few times?
Simple. The dog gets tired and an unfit dog gets tired much more quickly. The more tired the dog, the less control they have over body movement.
The result: – epic failure in movement and an injury.
- Injuries may occur to the shoulders if the forelimbs slip while they are running full speed with their heads in the air.
- Injuries to the iliopsoas and the lower back are very common. These are due to the lack of controlled forward motion.
- Injuries to the spine may also occur, especially when twisting in mid-air, sudden changes in direction or even impact of the dog’s head into the ground as he misjudges to pick up a ball.
- Let’s not forget additional soft tissue injuries to the face, toes, wrists and hock.
The sad truth is that we play ball with puppies too! The risks mentioned in this article are simply amplified!!
Unfortunately, this type of activity is very often performed without a warm-up or worse, it is considered a warm-up.
How many of us take our dog out in the morning, stand on the back stoep (porch) and throw a ball ten to fifty times to help use up your dog’s energy.
There are safer alternatives to this exercise, guys!
And I am sure your dog will love them.
Core exercise work can burn more energy than playing fetch. While drinking your morning coffee, ask your dog to perform sit-to-stands (doggy squats). This will take a few repetitions to get your dog tired. An added benefit: it will focus on both your dog’s strength and his training!
This can be done at any time throughout the day. Teaching your dog to Back Up onto a step will also work their core and hind end awareness.
How about going for a simple walk but incorporating exercise intervals into your walk. This is especially handy if you don’t have much time in the day for a long walk with your dog.
It’s a super way to mentally and physically stimulate your dog.
Let me provide a small example: Bring a stopwatch or set your phone and begin with a one-minute fast walk. After a minute, ask your dog to perform ten sit-to-stands. Then continue for another fast minute walk. Then ask your dog for stand-to-sit-to-downs, and a back-up.
You can continue with this and add in 30-meter sprint and another fast walk. Both mental and physical stimulation is a great way to exercise your dog. Added benefit: you get a much better bonding experience with your dog too!
However, if you MUST play ball with your dog, you can do things to play safer and you can do things to prepare his body for the activity:
- Supplement with a good joint supplement to protect the joints against the impacts of stopping twisting and landing to catch a ball.
- Warm his body up first – without throwing the wall. Walk or slow run for 5 minutes.
- Begin with slow and controlled ball playing. Start with short distances and a small number of reps.
- Always keep the throwing low and controlled.
- Do not do this on a slippery surface – such as wet grass, slippery tiles etc
- If your dog is exhibiting signs of lameness during the activity or after, STOP!!
- Variation! Keep in mind that there are many ways to keep your dog active and fit and variety prevents repetitive strain injuries.
Help your dog build good core strength BEFORE ball playing.
Think about “First Cause no Harm” and keep it safe!
Enjoy your dogs for longer, injury free!!
Dr DG Torraca, CCRP – is involved in human and canine physical and rehabilitation sports medicine and conditioning for over twenty years. A Founder of the University of Tennessee Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner Programme