Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Thoughts on Ball Obsession in Flyball

In flyball we obviously want the tug to be the highest value thing..the ultimate reward for a job done well. The ball on the other hand is something we want them to be willing to put in their mouth in order to get the big reward. We don't want them to savor the moment of getting the ball out of the box, but rather the box should be something that they want to get away from as quickly as possible. Dogs that tend to spit balls early are faster than those that chomp on the ball all the way back and don't spit for the tug. I will never understand why some people YELL at their dog to drop the ball and TUG! Or those that wave the tug in the dogs face while the dog is chomping the ball until it's time to run again. The dog in these examples did not get a reward.

New people to flyball often think of flyball as a sport that is great for dogs that love tennis balls. I think it's more of a sport that is great for dogs that thrive in overstimulating environments, love to be with their handler and willing to work hard to tug.

The key parts of starting out a puppy are building tug drive, building value for being with their handler and dealing with very distracting things. Until you have a dog that can tug with enthusiasm in the presence of balls rolling, dogs running, people running, loud noises and other flyball craziness, you are not ready to introduce other parts of flyball, especially the ball retrieve. In training for flyball I find the ball to be an afterthought in the early stages of training. It doesn't hurt to do flat recalls with a puppy with balls rolling everywhere as a prevention for ball obsession.

This early training needs to be happening at home as well. Lots of tug building activities and most importantly lots of time spend interacting with the handler. I don't agree with the idea that tennis balls should be restricted. It doesn't make logical sense to me as a method to reduce the value, but I do think that the dog shouldn't be encouraged to find value in chomping any toy including a tennis ball my himself.

If your dog is already obsessed with tennis balls. It might be hard to fix, but at least you know that your dog finds SOMETHING valuable and has drive. It's just for the wrong thing. I've come to realize that it's not helpful to use "leave it" with balls on the ground because people don't tend to train a solid enough leave it so that the dog WANTS to leave it. It's more of a replacement for "NO". I haven't found that pool noodles are helpful.

Here are some ideas:

1. Teach a SOLID recalls. Extremely solid. You should be able to bet $100 that every time you call your dog he will come to you in all situations. With the ultimate challenge being his ability to recall to you past a ball on the ground or several balls being scattered on the ground. 

2. Teach a solid "drop it" command using the technique HERE . This will help with the dog to drop the ball quickly and possibly go for the tug (depending on tug drive). It doesn't help with balls in the run back though. Also to teach "drop it", when the dog brings the ball to you (if he doesn't bring it train him in a small enough area on a leash so that he does) grab him by the collar and put your hand on the ball without tugging and wait patiently. As soon as he releases it, throw it again as a reward. Repeat

3. Toy exchange game. Take out 2-4 toys (no balls to start) and spread them around the training area with no other distractions to start. Pick up one and start flipping it around and act like it's the coolest thing ever. As soon as your dog comes over and starts playing with it and tugging drop it and run to the next and do the same thing. Keep switching to the next toy so that your dog learns that the most fun toy is the one that you have.  Eventually add balls into the mix when your dog is reliably going for the toy that you have rather than the ones on the ground.

4. Use the ball as a reward in your training.  Instead of keeping balls away from the ball obsessed dog, use a ball as a reward for the behavior that you eventually want - enthusiastic tugging. With the dog on a leash and a ball in your pocket, tug with the dog with no balls in his view. When he is tugging to the level of enthusiasm that you want (this shouldn't take more than 30 seconds), say "OK" or other release word and place the ball on the ground for him to get.

Refer to # 2 on this list to get the ball back from him. Put the ball back in your pocket or hide it with easy access and repeat. If the dog tugs for 3 seconds and then looks for the ball, he doesn't get it. ou decide when he gets it.

You can advance this game by releasing him to a ball you throw or several balls to choose from and eventually without a leash. Eventually you will find that when you say "OK" and throw the ball, he will chose the tug over the ball. It takes time though.

If the dog is already doing box work, you can play the same game. Require that your dog tugs with you and then release him to get the ball from the box when you are happy with his tugging. In this situation tugging after the ball would be ideal too. Make sure he can't reward himself with the ball, by having the box loader put the ball in just as you release the dog.

5. Premack. This is similar  # 4, but only works if you use something that is currently more valuable than the ball. With the dog on a leash and lots of high value treats, click/treat when the dog looks at you. When he is doing this reliably, put a ball on the ground and wait for him to look back and you and reward him with a click/treat. After doing this for a few sessions, after you click/treat for orienting to you, say "OK" and let him get the ball if he wants. And then wait. While you are waiting you are holding his leash and not moving or saying anything at all. At this point he has to decide between standing there playing with the ball by himself without moving more than a few feet or looking at you and getting a treat. After a few times of trying this, he will likely find the ball less rewarding in this situation than the high value treat. As he gets more reliable with this, start lowering the value of the treat or use a tug instead of food and increase the value of the ball by giving him a long line, taking the leash off in a small area, throwing the ball etc.

6. Ball on a short rope.  Add a short rope to a tennis ball and play fetch with your dog, when he brings it ball, play an exciting game of tug. play keep away with this toy. While holding your dogs collar, put this rope/ball toy about 10 ft in front of you. Push your dog behind you and race him for the toy. You win the first two times and then on the third one let him win and play a fun game of tug. When you get the toy from him pretend that he is trying to get it from you and you are keeping it away from him. Tease him with it and then let him get it. Sometimes chase him or sometimes turn around the run away while he has it. Everytime he comes to you play with him. Never swing it in his face, but make him think it is a valuable resource that he is getting as a reward. Once he LOVES this toy, start putting plain tennis balls in view and slowly add more and have people roll them around. Continue to play tug drive building games in the presence of balls, expanding to a tug with a longer ball and less rope.

7. Self Control. Teach your dog impulse control. I use Susan Garretts game "It's Yer Choice".   to teach my dogs to not steal food. It can be expanded to teach them not to steal toys or basically that they have to "work" to get something they want. They chose to either do what you want them to do and get their reward or neither. In this case you can require that your dog does a basic command (nose touch or sit/stay) and gets a ball as a reward or if you want him to leave the ball practice this game and give him a very high value food reward for choosing to not go for a ball.

8. Balls in the Crate. I'm not sure how well this works, but I've that some people have had success with filling the dogs crate with balls with the thought that eventually he will be annoyed by them rather than excited about them.

These thoughts are based on my reading and experience I've had with ball obsession. I'd love to hear other peoples experiences and especially if you've tried any of these things and if they work. I currently don't know of any dogs that have been completely cured of ball obsession.


  1. Good Article. Most of the stuff I see with ball obsession people just don't take the time to fix the problem. They may have a dog that does the whole course or even progress through training without first fixing the ball obsession program, then it gets harder to fix or never does because the dog is "ready" to run.

    I have an issue with Maggie where she doesn't want to drop the ball for the tug right away. She will for a squeaky toy. I also notice that she mouths the ball a bit on return. Don't see this much with no jumps.

    I have been holding the tug out and ignoring her until she drops the ball for the tug, then I play tug with her. this usually takes few seconds, but I want it instant. I also have been using her squeaky toy. So get ball, catch squeaky toy, then release squeaky toy and play with tug. Bit longer to release squeaky toy, but if I can get that instant ball should be about the same. Pretty much stop what ever you are doing, chase me and get the tug.

    I am still not getting the return I want with the tug vs the squeaky toy. I am wondering if I should stick with squeaky toy for a bit, get solid drive, then every once in awhile throw in tug or just work with tug and try and get that drive?

    Also, thinking of doing for recalls with just tug(eliminate ball) and stopping full runs or just shorting the course and maybe only doing 2 jumps/box/2 jumps. Also thought about putting in dog for her to chase right off the box(only issue with that is she goes after that dogs tug or dog) Had much success with any of these?

  2. Hey Brian I would do some games to lower the value of the ball and raise the value of the tug (keep away, racing her for it, making her sit/stay with tug as reward. When she does a restrained recall, let her get the tug and then chase her or you steal it and run. How does her box turn look? I find it very difficult to fix chomping the ball on the way back. A racquet ball helps fix this because it's too hard to chew. You could use that until she gets out of the habit. Could you attach the squeaky toy to the tug? I don't see a problem with using that for awhile, while you work on raising the value of the tug. Also I would work on a quick "drop it". I'd love to see some video!

  3. I will get some video up. I have been working on throwing the tug, she does good for that and get tug. Also throwing the ball up and having her drop it and get tug or having the ball on the ground and get it, or stopping the tug and getting the ball and coming back for the ball.

    Crazy thing is I will throw the ball in the house down the hallway(way to exercise dogs when it is below 0) and she bring it back most of the time, sometimes she shows off the ball the bree, which I stop and play catch with Bree or Bo(other border collie,who keeps the Ball)

    I will work on the squeaky and the tug. At our last practice she would still run, but when I hid the squeaky wanted nothing to do with the tug.

    I have been working on some ball/tug tricks with Bree getting ready for a class I am teaching(she will be the dog to show others how to do it) in a few weeks, where one of the main focus before we get into jump/box training is motivators and how to play with your dog. I am starting to realize the importance of working through these issues before you bring the flyball training in, seems to not add as many hitches in training.

    Have you found the racquetball works good. I know my other two dogs love to chop on them. I was thinking of trying a softball or baseball, as long as there is no throwing involved.

    Her box turn is good, I have been switching from jump board to a agility long jump board, then to nothing to make sure that turn is still there. I have just done this with close box work so far. She still sticks a bit for my liking with tug vs squeaky though, probably a few 10th of second.

    At practice I also had Bree do a full run then hold Maggie near the box when bree passes maggie hit the box and then runs after Bree and I, to increase her drive off the box, that seemed to work good.

    I will get you some video of stuff and have been working on and her turns, might be a bit for full run video since we don't practice until the 19th


  4. Sounds like you are playing some good games with her to increase her tug drive. I'm not sure if you are doing this, but I've found that they get a lot more tug drive if you make them work for the tug. For example, I'll wait for them to offer a sit/stay and then wave the tug around. Once they've done this successfully, they want the tug really badly and the better they get the longer I'll make them stay or work harder.
    I would probably not do box work until I was getting a direct ball/tug exchange because you want to be able to have them drive off the box for that reward. It sounds like you are close! One of my tugs is one of those Skineez squeak fake dead animal toy braided into a tug..that might be good for her? I've found the racquet ball does work to prevent chomping, but doesn't fix tennis ball obsession. Its certainly worth a can tell right away if it's working. A harder ball might be dangerous? I don't know. I like the games using other dogs to bring out speed both to the box and for the return. I wouldn't worry too much about speed in the beginning. I worry more about getting the box turn and striding nice against a dog they can beat easily. The competition makes them think more and I've found that the footing isn't as great in the beginning when they really have to race hard. If her striding and turn are good, then it shouldnt be a problem to work on speed. Thanks for reading and looking forward to video! Good luck with your class :)

  5. Sorry it took so long to post some videos of Maggie.

    Here are a few.

    There are bree and maggie doing a "passing" exercise the person releasing maggie was releasing her way late, Heidi was a bit too preggo to release her. You can see it takes her a bit to drop the ball.

    Then there is Heidi playing Ball Toss and Tug tug and also Heidi doing ball or tug.

    I should have some more. We are going to start two lanes this week with some of the newer dogs. We are a small club so hard to get enough folks to video, run two lanes, block, box load etc... I will try the racing against another lane

    Holly and I are teaching a class and we are really push toy/tug drive before you go onto anything else. It is hard because it can take month before you have proper drive to move onto box, passing but it goes so much better if you get that.

    Do you know the policy on squeaky toys as a motivator. Can you squeak it when they are running or did you take the squeakers out.


  6. I watched the youtube video. I like this drill. The person letting Maggie go should do it sooner for sure. Also I would suggest holding the tug in your left hand and running from behind the box as she is about to take off for the box, you call her and run as fast as you can down the lane. One thing you can try to get her used to driving for the tug...have her face away from you by just having another person distract her and then you call her once loud and run away dragging the tug, so she gets used to turning and driving to the tug. Also you could work on a quick ball drop...starting by throwing food on the ground when she has a ball in her mouth. Say "out" and throw cheese or hotdog on the ground and then tug. Eventually you can fade out the food and verbal cue. Also the toy exchange game starting with two tugs and then when she is really good at that go to a ball and tug. You can use a squeaky toy as long as it's not distracting to the other dogs/people, which depends on the judge. You cant use it, if it's loud enough for anyone else to hear.