Tennis ball obsession

I know I’m not the only one who has a dog with a tennis ball obsession. Or, you could call it a retrieving obsession. It gets pretty annoying when my dog is obsessing over crumbled pieces of paper or hair ties or a stuffed animal. He will toss objects to me over and over, hoping I might throw them for him.

For the most part the mutt has mastered the “leave it” command. So at least when I tell him to leave it, he knows I’m not up for his game. The “go to your bed” command also comes in handy. Ace can’t annoy me while he’s lying on his dog bed. It’s a nice way to get him to calm down.

Last week I created a challenge for Ace that gets him to think while we are playing fetch. Instead of mindlessly chasing after the ball, he has to put some thought into what he’s doing.

It’s “simple.” All Ace has to do is make eye contact with me three different times: Before I pick up the ball, before I throw the ball and before he retrieves the ball. I don’t even say anything. I just stand there and wait for Ace to make eye contact on his own. He has to figure out on his own what gets me to throw the ball. And guess what? I’m not going to throw it if he sits there and stares at it or repeatedly tosses it at me.


Encourage your dog to make eye contact while training.

Eye contact is a great training tool for dogs in general. It teaches them to focus on you. With treats and encouragement, looking at you should be a positive experience for your dog. With Ace, I encourage him to make eye contact with me rather than stare at the ball while we are playing fetch. It works this way:

1. I pick up the ball after my dog makes eye contact.

Ace drops the ball at my feet. I tell him to heel, and he sits at my left side. He listens to commands well, but he does so while staring at the ball. So at this point, he will be sitting in heel position but staring at the ball on the ground. If your dog needs a reminder to stay in heel position, keep his leash on and stand on it. That way if he gets up, you can quickly put him back.

While Ace is sitting at my side waiting for me to pick up the ball, I don’t say anything. I remain standing and wait for him to look at me on his own. When he does, I tell him “good boy” and pick up the ball.

2. I throw the ball after my dog makes eye contact.

This part is harder for Ace because his excitement escalates when he sees me pick up the ball. He will remain in heel position, but his body stiffens and he becomes fixated. Drool flows.

“Oh my gosh! She’s going to throw it!!”

I stand calmly with the ball on my right side. Again, I wait for Ace to pull himself together and look into my eyes instead of at the ball. Once he does, I tell him he’s a good boy and I throw the ball. He is not released to retrieve the ball quite yet.

3. I release my dog after he makes eye contact.

This whole time, Ace has been sitting and staying in heel position. Once I’ve thrown the ball, I wait one last time for him to make eye contact. This part is the easiest for Ace and he looks at me almost right away and even keeps looking at me for a second or two. Once he does this, he gets the ultimate reward of “OK!” which means he can run and get the ball. He drops it at my feet and we repeat the whole process. The whole routine takes about two minutes.

We’ve tried this “game,” two different days for about five or 10 minutes each. So far, it takes Ace about 20 seconds before he will look up at me. When he does, it’s for about a half-second. He seems to have already learned that if he looks up at me, I will pick up the ball. But he’s so obsessed with the ball that it takes him a whole 20 seconds to get himself to look away from it. I hope to get this time down to nothing.

Does your dog have any kind of obsession? How do you challenge your dog?

By the way, if anyone thinks only female dogs kill grass, take a look at our backyard!

23 thoughts on “Tennis ball obsession”

  1. Gus is obsessed with sleeping. No matter how much I try to get him outside to walk he would rather nap. I do have a foolproof way of getting him to stand now but he still tries to avoid walks. He’s fine once I get his highness outside but will stop every so often in the walk to let me know that he is unhappy and would rather be sleeping. Yes, I have the world’s laziest dog!

    He is losing weight though! With diet and (grudgingly) exercise he’s almost at his ideal weight!

  2. Lindsay Stordahl

    Haha! Oh, Gus! That’s great that he’s lost so much weight! Do you sometimes have to bribe him with food on walks?

  3. We have the same issue with Marty with any ball-shaped toys or stuffed toys, though oddly only when we are in the house. If he finds a ball which was left out (we usually hide them away somewhere), he will bring it to me and push it into my lap and then bark until I throw it. We tried to not throw it until he was quiet and sitting, so how he barks three or four times and then sits and waits. We didn’t get rid of the barking, we just added another step! And now with Maggie around, if she has the toy (again only when inside) he will stare at it and get very anxious, panting and drooling. We have gotten to the point of just outlawing any non-chewtoys in the house, but it would be fun to be able to play with them inside and then be able to just stop playing without gathering up all of the toys!

  4. Lindsay Stordahl

    Ha! I know what you mean about it being easier to just put the toys away. I rarely have any toys out in the house. I’m glad Ace doesn’t bark when he wants a toy to be thrown.

  5. We very rarely bribe Gus with food. This is another obsession of his. I believe that everyone who cared for him in the past fed him waaaaaay too many times in the day or didn’t try to help him learn any other way. He is on a very strict diet to get rid of the extra pounds so he does not develop health issues later. I’ve never been one to bribe with food but I know it works for some doggies.

  6. Lindsay Stordahl

    Ha, that’s cute that Amigo likes a rubber piglet!

    Apryl, I forgot about Gus’s food obsession. I should have known! I bet Gus had his bowl of food available to him at all times in one of his previous homes. Or they just never walked him at all. They just allowed him to be lazy all the time.

  7. LOL, Biggie is the master of the Meaningful Look. If he wants something, he looks at it, stares meaningfully at me, and then looks at what he wants again. It’s pretty amazing what he can tell us with his soulful looks!

    We’re lucky he is not obsessed with anything. He has a realyl strong work ethic, which means, if left to his own devices, he’ll patrol and guard, but that’s just his breed. And I can break that 10,000 yard Guard Stare with the “look” command. Thank goodness!

  8. Thanks so much for this article! I have a 4 year old chocolate lab who has become increasingly obsessed with tennis balls. At first it was a great way to excersize him but now he ignores other dogs who want to play and he’s visibly unbalanced (he drools, his eyes dilate, etc).

    I have tried to “take possession” of the ball but he’s too far gone to pay attention to my queues and will bark and dance just out of reach until I throw the ball.

    I can’t wait to get started on this process! I hope it works for him. I had been searching for some suggestions on breaking him of his obsession but so far was only able to find suggestions on using the obsession to my advantage in training him to do other things. I’m so glad to have found this page!

  9. Lindsay Stordahl

    I hope it works for you and your dog! Glad I could help! Put a leash on him to help control the dancing around and barking. Let me know how it goes!

  10. We’re about day 6. Yesterday I had to remind myself that this will be a slow process in order to not get discouraged. This morning he seemed a lot better! 🙂

    I’ve found that if he’s facing me while waiting for the ball to be picked up, he can’t focus on anything but the ball. If I keep him in the “heal” or “close” position he does MUCH better.

    I’ve modified the method a bit. Instead of throwing and waiting for him to look at me, I cock my arm as if to throw and wait for him to look at me (the third look). This way, he gets to chase the ball in-flight, which is his favorite part of the chase. He won’t play if he knows he can’t chase the ball in-flight; he’ll go after the ball then walk away and chew on it.

    Already I’ve noticed that his eyes aren’t as dilated when we play fetch, although he still dances, barks, shakes and drools. One down, four to go!

  11. Lindsay Stordahl

    Hey Becky, thanks for the update on your progress. It does take a long, long time. I don’t work on this with Ace every day, but I am going to start. I agree about the heal position. It makes it much easier for the dog to look away from the ball. I will try your modified method and see how that works with Ace. He usually is the worst when I’m about to throw the ball. But I’m going to try it. Thanks!

  12. Lindsay, Mousse is worst when my arm is in the throw position also. That’s when he gives me his absolutely quickest look and he’s more apt to whine or bark. I’m hoping he’ll calm down a bit at this stage in a few weeks. 🙂

    Last night wasn’t so great and today he wanted me to throw a broken ball into the lake. He spent the rest of the time swimming around trying to find it. 😛 When we got home he shot over to the neighbor’s house where they have a great blue ball he likes. Ugh….

    Keeping at it!

  13. Lindsay Stordahl

    Haha!Yeah, one time Ace swam out passed his ball because he somehow didn’t see it. I was worried he was going to keep swimming and swimming out. But luckily he turned around when I called him and saw that he had passed his ball.

  14. My Heinz 57 is possession obsessed with socks,underware and today a dead bunny. She is 1 1/2 y/o. There is no way I can get the sock,,underware or today the bunny from her without getting bit or the clothing ripped. She will lay on them for hours with a very strange look in her eye. Even going outside to go potty, she will carry it in her mouth. Food,treats,yelling doesn’t faze her. What to do?? Today was the last straw with the dead frozen partial bunny. She ate it! Help!!!

  15. Lindsay Stordahl

    I would definitely stop her from getting to that point. Make sure you only let her carry things YOU decide to give her, and when you do this, take them away multiple times. You are the one who decides what the dog can and can not carry becaue you are the one in charge. This will require keeping her leash on so she can’t run from you and so you can have more control. Practice exercises such as placing the object firmly in front of you, showing that you own it. Let the dog approach and take the object only after she has stayed and waiting for a few minutes.

    You may also be interested in my post about possessiveness:

  16. I want to make a comment about “labragifting” as one of the readers stated. I understand that labs love to carry things in their mouth, it is what they are bred to do. I think it becomes a problem when the dog brings you something and demands that you throw it or play tug with it. If you take no action dog will likely pick it up and set it down closer to you, I’ve even had dogs nudge me with the toy in their mouth. This is a way of showing dominance over you, the dog is saying “I’m in charge, and I want to play now!” But the owner thinks “Oh cute, he is retrieving things for me!” Even if the owner does not need that item retrieved. I also think that it could easily lead to an obsession. I would encourage owners of this breed to find a more constructive outlet for this trait, such as carrying pop bottles to the garbage can when on a walk. This way the owner can decide which pop bottle to carry and how long to carry it ect.

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