I’ve Hidden the Ball Thrower. A Cautionary Tale

This is a story about my own dog, Cocker Spaniel Pickle, and the ball thrower.

I’ve hidden the ball thrower.

Pickle loves to chase the ball. He jumps to catch it and he would carry on till he dropped (though I can’t image Pickle ever dropping if the ball kept being thrown).

Although the dog loves it, the ball thrower really may not be a good thing unless used very sparingly. People with ball chuckers seldom use them sparingly, like five throws then put it away.Play with ball thrower

Why isn’t it a good thing? Dogs LOVE it.

Unfortunately they can become obsessed. Too much and they can even become adrenaline junkies. They are never happy unless a ball is being thrown for them.

A lovely walk can become nothing more than chasing a ball, fetching and dropping it to be thrown again. The richness of the countryside becomes lost to the dog. He should be using his wonderful nose to explore the environment and all the dogs, other animals and bugs that have passed his way before him.[divider type=”white”]


Would a dog, freely out in the environment alone without humans, be doing anything quite so relentlessly repetitive?

Anything repeated over and over can be addictive and causes stress of a kind, even if the dog does LOVE it.

It’s almost like the dog is a clockwork toy (remember clockwork?) and with a key we are winding him up until he is over-wound.


My Cocker Spaniel, Pickle, would chase a ball all day given the chance. However, if there is no ball, he is happily  ‘Pickling’. He does what instinctively comes to him which is running about, tail wagging, exploring with his nose. He may chase a pigeon or dig up a vole.

He’s a working dog, and needs to use his brain whilst exercising.

The day before yesterday someone took my dogs to the field with the ball thrower for Pickle. He threw the ball for him, over and over.

Over the past two days the fallout from that extended ball play on Pickle has been very evident. (I do myself play ball but it is for a few throws only then I stop. Adding some training and brain work goes a little way towards fulfilling his genetic needs).[divider type=”white”]

Pickle never stops.

He brings the ball back, drops it where it makes it easiest for the person to pick up. He runs off in anticipation of where it might land before it leaves the ball thrower.

The day before yesterday after the lengthy ball play, Pickle charged back into the house ahead of the other dogs. I was sitting at my computer. He leapt into the water bowl, digging out the water all over the sitting room floor. Dripping, he charged all over the furniture and then jumped into and knocked over the larger water bucket the dogs drink from.

Any self control was simply impossible.

For a good hour he paced and he panted. Each small noise set him off barking.

Isn’t ball play meant to tire him out and make him calm? Isn’t a tired, physically worn out dog a good dog? Fat chance! It’s the opposite.

Pickle was on alert for sounds for the rest of the day. The next morning he was still high, getting vocal and excited for his breakfast, perfectly illustrating how stress chemicals remain in the body.[divider type=”white”]

So, I have hidden the ball thrower.

No ball thrower yesterday and no ball thrower today.

Pickle has been out in the field with me several times, Pickling. No balls.

Afterwards he comes in, has a drink and settles.

Today the neighbours wheeled their wheelie bin down the passage. After just one token Woof Pickle settled again. No vocals before breakfast.

It’s taken three days to get him back to this.

This is such a classic example of trigger stacking and the importance of the right kind of exercise that I have written my story about Pickle this time.

If anyone reading this with a highly wired or stressy dog uses a ball thrower to chuck a ball repeatedly for their dog, just try something.

Try no ball throwing for a few days. Just allow freedom to explore and to sniff. Your dog may find ‘doing his own thing’ very hard to start with, but persist.

If the dog chooses to run, he can chase things he himself chooses to chase.

A less stressed dog will result in a dog being able to cope with all sorts of things life throws at him, whether it’s encountering other dogs on walks to being less destructive or waiting patiently for his dinner.

PS. Dangers to be aware of if your dog loves ball play. 

For Dog Behaviour help, please go to my Dog Lady site: www.dogidog.co.uk

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Your Choice – or is it?

A definition of Hobson’s Choice is: ‘an apparently free choice when there is no real alternative’: Take it, or leave it. (Merriam-Webster)

Freedom of choice ‘describes an individual’s opportunity and autonomy to perform an action selected from at least two available options, unconstrained by external parties’ (Wikipedia). This could be a hundred available options.

People using force-free methods like to feel we give dogs as much freedom of choice as we can

No choice would be, ‘obey my command’.

There is another kind of choice we use. It’s neither Hobson’s Choice though, nor is it quite Freedom of Choice.

It’s a ‘manipulated‘ choice – a way of getting the dog to do what we want whilst he feels he’s doing what he wants!

So, asking my dog ‘do you want to go outside?’ gives him some freedom of choice; he can decide yes or no – or later. Leaving the door open would give him more choice still.

Asking my dog ‘do you want to go outside by yourself or shall I come with you?’ is manipulated choice. I have already decided he’s going out, so the options are constrained by me. He probably feels he’s had choice whilst I have already chosen the outcome.

Win win!

If we are sufficiently creative we can find all sorts of ways of letting our dogs feel they have choice where actually they are doing what we want.

It’s a great thing for people who feel their dog is ‘stubborn’. If puppy has a sock, for instance, and doesn’t want to give it up, we can place in front of him half a dozen tempting alternatives from food to other toys.

Then the question is ‘which of these do you want the most?’ not ‘do you want to swap?’ (where the answer would probably be ‘no’).

Choice training gives dogs some autonomy.

Choice walks as in ‘follow the dog’ are fantastic. The dog can snuffle and explore as much as he wants. The dog feels he’s having choice but it’s only within certain boundaries (we must keep him safe and not have him annoying other people so he may be on a long line). The options are constrained by us.

Watch this fabulous video of the dog taking the lady for a walk with no constraints at all other than having to be on a longish lead and stopping at roads.  She set certain parameters by deciding to go for the walk in the first place – and letting him decide where to go. That’s all.

Three and a half hours later the dog leads her back home – by his own route!

I myself decide when my dogs go out. I decide where. When we get there they can do their own thing. I decide when it’s time to go home.

Manipulated choice is something I learned with my children years ago when I wanted them to go to bed. ‘Do you want to walk or shall I carry you?’. What wasn’t optional was going up to bed!

There are always constrains of some kind that have to be considered. Even street dogs’ choices are constrained by the environment.

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Cleanliness Next to Dogliness?

My eye was caught by this headline the other day:

Cleaning sprays ‘as harmful to your lungs as smoking 20 cigarettes a day’.

To quote: ‘Using everyday cleaning sprays can be as harmful to a woman’s lungs as smoking 20 a day, research has shown.

And a separate study found household products may account for half of air pollution in cities.

The first study, in Norway, found lung capacity fell 4.3mls a year faster in women who cleaned at home and 7.1mls a year faster if they worked as cleaners. Asthma was also more prevalent.

Prof Dr Cecile Svanes, of the University of Bergen says that cleaning chemicals are very likely cause rather substantial damage to the lungs.

“When you think of inhaling small particles from cleaning agents that are meant for cleaning the floor and not your lungs, maybe it is not so surprising after all,” said Øistein Svanes , a doctoral student who led the study, as quoted in The Independent.

What about our dogs?

From Spruce.com: ‘There are many chemicals and caustic substances in and around most homes. These chemicals may be toxic to your dog. Most humans know better than to come into contact with the most dangerous chemicals. However, just like parents must protect their children from household toxins, so must we dog owners protect our dogs.

Many chemicals can be harmful to dogs if they are ingested, inhaled or come into contact with the skin.

In some cases, chemicals can enter the bloodstream and affect major organs. Certain chemicals may be considered safe for humans but can still harm dogs.

Be very mindful of the products you are using in your yard and home. Try to switch to products that are known to be safe for pets. If you treat your yard with chemicals, be sure your dog does not have access to the yard until it is dry (and that the chemical it is safe once dry). The same applies with carpet cleaners and cleaners used on other surfaces where your dog may walk’.

Then there are air fresheners.

I looked into whether air fresheners may be harming our dogs in one of my Paws a while ago.

It sounds to me like a very good argument for less housework ! (I actually use white vinegar, have done for years, and wax polish from a tin).

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We have just finished this year’s annual UK survival reality TV game show, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’, where 12 celebrities live together in a jungle environment for a number of weeks.

The contestants have to endure ‘Bushtucker Trials’ to earn food.

A young woman was locked in a tank of snakes. She is terrified of snakes. A man who’s not a good swimmer was shut in a dark tunnel leading to a deep tank with scary water critters. Others are buried in a dark tomb with rats and insects dropping all around them. They scream and shout.

These people do this through choice.

Terrified of the outside world


They know exactly when the terror will start and when it will end. They have a get-out card. If the terrified contestant shouts “I’M A CELEBRITY – GET ME OUT OF HERE!” he or she will be rescued immediately. There is a team of medics on hand, just in case.

They know that however much they hate the ordeal, they are safe. It will come to an end.

Imagine how it must be for a dog that is terrified of the outside world, like Marco.

After some weeks in kennels he has a wonderful new home. But, as soon as he leaves the sanctuary of the house and garden he is terrified.

The gate opens and a world of horror is beyond.

Vehicles – small, large, fast, slow, noisy, smelly – roar past. He lunges and barks, attack being the best form of defense.

In the open he is on high alert all the time. He barks at wind in the trees, at birds flying overhead and at distant lights. Bikes and joggers rush by without warning.

Unlike the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ contestants, poor Marco has no way of knowing that he is, in reality, safe.

It’s an educated guess that, in order for him to be like this, during the first three and a half years of his life he will have had little exposure, if any, to the world outside a house and garden.

All good dog owners need to give their dogs walks, right?

Like the conscientious dog owners they are, they wanted to do the very best for their gorgeous but troubled new dog. They had been taking him out for walks from the day they brought him home four weeks previously.

Outside the garden gate is, to him, hell. It’s one endless Bushtrucker Trial.

Unlike the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ contestants, Marco doesn’t have choice. He can’t know that in reality he is safe. He can’t know that the ordeal will only last a set length of time and then it will end.

Marco has has no ‘I’M A TERRIFIED DOG – GET ME OUT OF HERE!” option.

See this: What fear does to the body – dog or human.

With a dog so obviously fearful of the outside world, it’s common for a rescue to suggest to new owners that the dog isn’t taken out at all for three weeks.

No walks.

People find this hard and often ignore the advice.

Just imagine the enormity of being trapped in a totally new world over which you have no control.

First a dog has his new immediate surroundings to get used to – house, garden and people. As if this isn’t enough, he’s then taken out into a world of what must seem like mayhem to a dog that hadn’t been walked.

No animal, or human, willingly goes somewhere he believes he could come to harm. Keeping fit and exercise is a complete irrelevance compared to feeling safe.

They will now work slowly, always keeping in mind Marco’s comfort threshold. He’s fine in the house. He’s fine in the garden. When the gate opens he panics.

He transforms into a lunging, pulling and barking beast.

The gate is where his panic starts, so that is where the work begins.

They then need to get him okay with the traffic on the busy road outside. He has to pass by this before going anywhere else.

Desensitising and counter-conditioning.

With Marco on a long, loose lead they will open the gate and find his threshold distance – where he is aware of the passing traffic but can cope; it could be right away down the garden. As the vehicles pass and Marco is watching them, they will rain chicken on him. If he won’t eat, he is still over threshold. He will have the freedom and choice to retreat further.

With lots of short sessions, with vehicles at a safe distances heralding food, over time his threshold will get closer to the road.

His humans will be winning back the trust they will have lost. They will gain his trust if they allow him to choose what he is ready for, and when.

If with his body language he shows uneasiness, they will make things better.

If by barking he shouts, “GET ME OUT OF HERE!”, they will do just that.  They will get him out of there.

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The Invisible Dog

Apart from grazing on lower-value food like fruit, it’s highly unlikely a dog outside human guardianship would have an ever ready supply of food on tap without having to put some work into either scavenging or chasing and killing something – a ‘running’ buffet quite literally.

imagesHe would probably also be in competition for the food with other dogs.

Food is a currency with which we can help our dogs in all sorts of ways where possibly a pat and a fuss isn’t enough.

Food is the best means to teach Monty things we want him to learn. Food is the only thing that can be administered instantly and repeatedly in quick succession without stirring him up or distracting him like play or talking might.

Food is invaluable for counter-conditioning, for pairing with anything Monty is wary of.

Food, used correctly and with patience, is the nearest to a magic bullet that we have.

The more value food has to Monty, the more power it has.

imageIf a dog has constant access to edible goodies (unless perhaps he’s a Labrador!), surely this will be reducing the value of his food as a currency. If I were to win lottery millions (I’m often ‘in it’ but never ‘win it’), I wouldn’t get quite so excited as I would now about being showered with five pound notes.

Those of my clients who need to work with their dog and who leave the dog’s food bowl down and topped up all day have been introduced to The Invisible Dog.

Using their Invisible Dog, it’s unlikely their Bella won’t very soon be finishing up her meals.

Having The Invisible Dog doesn’t mean that food always has to be fed in bowls. It merely means that food won’t hang about once the dog walks away from it because The Invisible Dog quickly moves in. Just as another dog might.

Bella is allowed to walk right away from her bowl or food source before it’s removed. It’s not grabbed from under her nose which could encourage guarding.

(There are always exceptions. Sometimes for a particular reason and a particular dog, food needs to be left about).

Here is the story of a dog I went to recently who is very scared of bangs. To help Rio we need to be able to use food. He is currently overweight, he’s given unsuitable extras and treats when he asks for them. His food bowl is left down all the time.

For food to best help him with his fear of bangs it needs more value. Rio needs to be ready to eat – just a little hungry maybe? When working on bangs, food will arrive, almost literally, like pennies from heaven.

For more stories of dogs I have been to, visit my main website www.dogidog.co.uk

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Forcing Square Pegs into Round Holes

Over my many years, I am able to look back to how things were with our family dogs back in the day. I lived in a rural area and it was no big deal if my dogs went walkabout. I don’t remember anything about dog ‘training’ for family pets before Barbara Woodhouse.

Apart from one big dog that scared me by barking at me from behind a gate when I was a child and a Boxer belonging to a neighbour that chewed up my tortoise resulting in my strongly disliking dogs until I had one of my own in my early twenties (a Labrador), I don’t remember problem dogs.

Dogs back then, particularly away from towns, were more able to ‘be themselves’. As I remember it, mongrels were a lot more common.  I can’t remember dogs being overly fussed. Dogs simply lived in our houses, were chased away from our food – and had freedom. If they wanted to hunt – they went hunting.

Dogs’ lives today are for many reasons much more prescribed by us.  There is more traffic for a start. Most of my clients work all day and simply don’t have enough quality time to give their dogs and this often makes them feel guilty. They may then compensate in ways that aren’t particularly helpful for the dog, perhaps by over-indulging them in some way.

Despite our ever-increasing knowledge, it seems there is more and more work for someone like myself. Over the years that I have been working with dogs, there has been a huge increase in the number of dog trainers and behaviourists.

Busy people, instead of choosing dogs that were bred to be easygoing family pets, today are doing the very opposite. It’s crazy.

Why do we choose pedigree dogs, the majority being some kind of working breed? We mix breeds as with the doodles – working genes and brains. Why? We choose dogs that can’t breathe properly or give birth naturally. Why?

Unwittingly we subject our working dogs to a kind of prison. Lucky are the dogs with really dedicated humans who have the time, knowledge and enthusiasm to enrich their dogs’ lives appropriately and give them the kind of lives they were bred to live.

I picked out at random three of my ‘stories‘. Each one is a dog living a life he or she was not born to live. No wonder the huge amount of frustration, inappropriate guarding and hyperactive behaviour we are now dealing with.


Einstein is a Poodle Rottie Doberman mix. Brains, herding and guarding. Is it any wonder that he chases people away – or tries to? Early training and lots of cuddles is good, but not enough.


Pearl is a Jack Russell. Bred to hunt, to be on the lookout for rats for most of the day. Quick bursts of extreme energy. She is alone indoors for ten hours a day. Is it any wonder she is awake at night, that she is short-tempered or that she constantly seeks attention? Her evening walk is good, but not enough.


Banjo is a Beagle. Bred to hunt and to live in a pack. Is it any wonder he doesn’t like being left alone, that he’s destructive, he still messes indoors at two years old and that he chases the cat? Two on-lead walks a day and half an hour of ball play is not enough.

This is what Pat Miller has to say in Whole Dog Journal: ‘One would expect that the rise of force-free training methods and the increased awareness of and respect for dogs as sentient creatures would make life easier for them. We should expect to see a corresponding rise in the number of calm, stable, well-adjusted dogs who are happily integrated into lifelong loving homes. But many training and behavior professionals note with alarm the large number of dogs in today’s world who seem to have significant issues with stress and anxiety, with high levels of arousal and low impulse control.

It’s quite possible this is a function of societal change. There was a time not so very long ago when life was pretty casual for our family dogs. They ran loose in the neighborhood day and night; ate, slept, played, and eliminated when they chose; and many had jobs that fulfilled their genetic impulses to herd some sheep or cows, or retrieve game felled by a hunter’s gun.

In contrast, life today is strictly regimented for many of our canine companions; many live in social isolation, and when they do get out, their activities are on a tight schedule. Owner expectations and demands are high. Dogs are told what to do from the moment they are allowed to get up in the morning until they are put to bed at night, including when and where they are allowed to poop and pee. Some of today’s dogs never get to run off-leash or socialize freely on a regular basis with other dogs. During any free time they may have, they are expected to just lie around and be “well behaved” (by human standards, not canine ones!). They have virtually no control over what happens in their world. Some trainers suggest this strict regimentation is a significant contributor to the stress and arousal levels of today’s family dog. Imagine how stressed you might be if your life was as tightly controlled by someone else.’

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Always Look on the Bright Side Of Life…

At a meeting we were discussing dogs being either pessimistic or optimistic, introvert or extrovert.

Someone suggested that the two things go hand in hand (paw in paw). Would the introvert dog be more likely to be pessimistic and the extrovert more of an optimist?


There were two dogs in the room with us. Paddy, a Springer Spaniel, was a bundle of happiness, running around constantly, giving and receiving love and having fun.

Maisie was a larger dog of mixed breed. She had been found dumped by the road and in a terrible state as a young puppy. She understandably was less trusting – more uncertain around people anyway.

You can see here how Maisie was very suspicious of a stuffed dog, whereas Paddy sniffed it once and went waggingly back to interacting with all the people!

These two dogs were poles apart. The Springer, a real extrovert around people, looks like he’d be a lot more likely to expect the best from things life throws at him, certainly in the context of a hall full of people, than would Maisie.

An article I have just read by Linda P. Case in The Science Dog suggests that we all, whether optimists or not, suffer from a negativity bias. It would stand to reason that a negativity bias would be even greater in a pessimist than an optimist.

Case says, ‘This is the phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

‘Research studies have shown that the human brain actually experiences stronger neural activity when reacting to negative information compared with when we are given positive information. As a result unpleasant experiences are inevitably more memorable to us than are pleasurable ones’.

This resonates very strongly with me.

What about our dogs?

The *researchers were actually studying emotional contagion in dogs and in the process discovered that dogs paid more attention to negative information than to positive information. When they heard sounds of either a human crying or a dog whining, the dogs showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog.

I wonder which dog would be more empathetic to our feelings though. Paddy, our extrovert, sociable Spaniel, or the cautious Maisie?

I would say I myself am on the optimistic side side of things. However, the effect of one email in the morning from a client who is struggling will instantly wipe out any ‘feel-good’ effect of ten happy emails reporting good progress.

Almost subconsciously I then carry this negative feeling around with me for some time.

What does just one angry shout at our dog or one use of force or punishment do to our dogs’ state of mind? Will not an introverted dog, already pessimistic and possibly more ‘difficult’ or fearful be a lot more affected by punishment than the more resilient optimist?

A couple more thoughts…..

We know one critical word in the world of cyber-bullying can overwhelm an impressionable teenager.

Some people actually seem to enjoy being pessimistic and miserable, whilst people being constantly optimistic can sometimes be a bit annoying!

Remember Monty Python’s classic ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life‘?

I have this song now as an earworm and it’s driving me mad! Play it at your peril.

PS. Dogs, like us, are a mix of all sorts of things. I myself am not too keen on the idea of categorising them with labels but was picking up on discussion and an article. It also depends upon context. Paddy is much more noise-sensitive which probably suggests pessimism of some sort, but in the context of a room full of people he’s an extrovert socialite!
*Huber A, Barber ALA, Farago T, Muller CA, Huber L. Investigating emotional contagion in dogs (Canis familiaris) to emotional sounds of humans and conspecifics. Animal Cognition 2017′ 20:703-715.
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