As the brains of the operation, it’s your responsibility to do what you can to keep your dog safe in life. You’re probably not going to make obviously dangerous choices, like walking off-leash next to a busy road. But, do you realize there are a lot of other ways your dog is at risk where you can help? In a previous post it was mentioned, in addition to what any smart athlete knows, that you may have to be clever about what sort of toys you choose for your best friend. Why, you may ask. Well, that’s the situation in which many injuries happen.
My younger girl will shred her body in hot pursuit of a ball. She finds a ball intoxicating. To understand why, think about the nature of how prey moves, and how a bouncy ball behaves. A ball (or other erratic bouncing toys) explosively launches followed by intriguing bouncing changes of direction. Customarily, you’ll throw the ball away from the dog for a chase, not towards a dog. So, right off the bat, some dogs will rip after that ball so hard that they’re straining their muscles. Micro-tears occur with intense movement, causing tiny breaks in a muscle, and can go completely unnoticed. Not all dogs suddenly accelerate with abandon, but many do. Is your dog one of them?
Next, the ball begins to decelerate, the dog is gaining on it gleefully, and here comes the bounce. Perhaps now that your dog is getting close, she’ll put out extra strain for speed, all the while studying where that puppy is going to bounce. What happens next? Does it hit a surface that causes a surprising change of direction? Most dogs don’t sit idle and let it pass, but find reserves for a new burst of chase. For many, that unexpected twist of direction makes the ball even more interesting! After a series of those movements, there’s still the pick up to contend with.
Even a perfectly mellow partner who’s not going to do anything too crazy on the pursuit is at risk if her motion during the pick up doesn’t go down just the right way. This is where you can help. You can choose toys that encourage better body use. You want to eliminate the extreme nosedive that a small item demands. Dogs often go from running all out to slamming on the brakes with a head dip to achieve the pick up. This causes notorious injuries to the shoulders and/or back of a dog’s neck, directly connected to the oh-so-important spine. Occasionally, you’ll see a dog somersault with too much momentum to accommodate the sudden stop, sometimes they’ll scream out in pain when they do this.
So, what’s the answer? That depends on the dog. My 1 dog cuts and twists and and changes direction so extremely that she comes up lame after a single game of chucking a small ball. So, for her, no tennis-sized balls. Period. Well, not for fetch. Because they’re such high value in her book, I can surprise her with it during training to make her love whatever behavior she’s learning (because in her mind, it equals the ball!). Since I know her tendency is to react spastically, I can temper the way that I deliver the ball. If she needs running and exercise, we choose discs.
There are a lot of different flying discs out there, and we use a variety. Certain cloth ones float very slowly, but can’t be used when there’s a bit of wind, but it’s great indoors (no hazard when you hit the furniture). Not all cloth discs float. And in my experience, the larger the better if you want it to actually fly. My all-time favorite is the West Paw Zisc, either size. They fly well, they’re easy to pick up off the ground, they don’t damage your dog’s mouth (even if you whip it right into their kisser), they can handle wind and pretty tough teeth. The actual disc dog sport discs come in a variety of designs, some go REALLY far, all are shaped with curves that keep them really stable for ideal flight style. They’re great for those qualities, but you’ll probably see blood from time to time (more so with some dogs) because they cut their mouth and tongue, or bite their tongue. I never see this with the Ziscs, by the way. If you do use disc dog discs (Hyperflite or Hero are common brands), make sure that you don’t let your dog gnaw the edges into razors (they are brutal when that disc spins with speed) and you may be able to shave off the pointy bits, or just replace them. If you go that route, people usually by a whole set, and then you can add throwing one disc after another in rapid succession to your game (and might be less hesitant to throw away the toasted ones). I also really love Aerobie’s Superdisc because of how well it sails and floats. BUT, it is not for the dog who hasn’t learned to not destroy the disc. These toys are not for your dog to be left unattended with, though you probably wouldn’t need to worry about leaving the Zisc around. For longevity, the Ziscs outlast any other, and the company will even replace your 1st destroyed one for free (it usually takes us about a year to poke a tooth through, which then becomes a growing split (and you can still play with them punctured!)).
HOW TO PLAY AS SAFELY AS POSSIBLE
- Choose the right shaped, and structured toy for the mode of play. If fetch is really high on your wishlist for exercise, can you shift that game onto a larger item (that doesn’t require severe deceleration and a head dip to pick up) or a totally different style of toy that floats through the air?
- Throw less distance. If you toss it or bounce it right near you and your dog, your dog won’t be at much risk of injury and you can still get a little of that satisfying jumpy, bouncy action.
- Teaching your dog to retrieve is immensely useful…not just to keep you lazy, but to build an interest and understanding in a productive way to interact. What’s cool about adding this to your games is, if you do this correctly, your dog will transfer the value of the toy chase to the behavior of retrieving. You’ll basically brainwash your dog into thinking retrieve is also super fun, and worth playing even without much of the chase. That’s a skill I’d love to help you with. There are some details to making sure YOU train your dog, instead of your dog training you to go get the toy ;).
- And, do I need to mention the hazard of your dog sliding into a wall while chasing? This is a big problem on slick floors. Broken toes are one of the hardest injuries to bounce back from, so don’t take this lightly. Your dog is even more at risk if he has long toes.
- If you want more exercise, you can train your dog to send away from you and run around trees and have them race back and toss when your dog is returning. You can retain a little of the chasing fun by throwing the toy ahead of your dog’s line, but now you can decide when to throw, thereby controlling (or waiting out) your dog for a suitable speed and approach. Here you can make the toy more interesting by throwing it in a way that increases vertical action (like throwing it hard at the ground so it bounces more, or lobbing it in time for your dog to slide right under for the catch).
- OR, my personal favorite, have your dog run back to punch the toy out of your hands. Hold the toy out so your dog can leap through the air, punch the toy, and keep running (don’t hold it in front of you and slow the dog down by standing behind the toy). Another variation, if you dare, is to hold it between your legs in a wide stance, and let the dog grab it while blasting through. This is not advisable if your dog is taller than your leg clearance.
- You can send your dog ahead before you throw, cutting the distance and speed somewhat, and wait for your dog to look back so he gets a good sight-line on your toss. If your dog can predict the path of the toy in advance there should be less threat of injury because there shouldn’t be as many sudden and extreme changes of direction.
- The ground can get really hard. Depending on how the weather has been, it might be a bad idea to let your dog run all out on packed, dry earth. Also, dry grass can be really slippery (there’s no running of agility on dry grass in my yard). And have you ever tried WALKING on gravel barefoot, no less running? If conditions aren’t right, then you ought to control the amount of concussive force with which your dog is hitting the ground. That may mean making some hard choices about curbing your dog’s play. Maybe this is the time to find some water for swimming??
- Another thing that you may not have heard of or believe, is that tennis balls will destroy your dog’s teeth, especially if your dog likes to chomp on it. I didn’t believe it because it hadn’t happened with any of my dogs for 20+ years. You can get tennis balls for free, so I had a bad habit of losing balls on hiking trails, without much concern, until, one day when it was too late. My youngest dog’s canines, flattened to almost half their size, convinced me to eliminate them completely.
- And whatever you do, try to avoid throwing a toy that competing dogs will chase and potentially, unseeingly, crash into each other trying to catch! Have multiple toys so every dog can get one, even if they abandon all but one (in which case, you may need multiples of the same toy). Usually you can stagger your throws, waiting for dogs to get far enough from each other, and throw closer to 1 dog at a time. Hold off when they’re neck and neck. You might even pretend throw various times to get some distance between them. Some dogs don’t see one another, some dogs will use that moment of distraction to jam into another dog, bullying for power. Still others will scuffle over who the toy belongs to once they arrive. None of these are pretty situations, nor or they necessary.
You owe it to your dog to be smarter about the trouble you let him get into! Don’t learn the hard way.
What about the dogs your dog plays with? Well, that’s a whole other subject for us to talk about.