The humble tennis ball is a source of great delight to the Golden Retriever because it is so easily associated with all that he holds dear in terms of his natural drive to retrieve. The tennis ball is soft and furry and just the right size to represent a small animal or bird that the Golden Retriever would have hunted for instinctively. In the Golden Retriever’s days of living in the wild, a sequence of events would lead him to hunt and retrieve small prey. He was automatically attracted to the following actions – eyeing, orientating, stalking, chasing, grabbing, killing, dissecting, and eating. All these actions are part of his natural prey drive. The domesticated Retriever has had the final elements of this sequence bred out of the natural chain of events.
The Root of the Behavior
As a favorite stimulus for the Golden Retriever, the tennis ball mimics the erratic movement of his prey as it panics before an attack. The furry ball will bounce and dive in different directions and the Golden Retriever chases after it. Sometimes you will notice that when your Golden Retriever catches the ball he may automatically give it a quick shake or two as he runs back to you with his prized ball. This is an instinctive part of the behavior sequence. The quick shake was used in the wild to break the neck of the dog’s prey. Another behavior you may notice is the Golden Retriever's need to pull off the fuzzy layer of the tennis ball. This is associated with the need to tear off the skin or fur of the animal that has been caught. Then in the final analysis of the hunting sequence, the Golden Retriever may tear the ball to pieces. He is remembering that the prey needs to be disemboweled before eating.
Ideally the last steps of the sequence need to be discouraged and the ball put away when the game is over. Tennis balls and their fur and rubber can be dangerous with choking hazards and toxins in the components used to manufacture the ball. This instinctive behavior is ‘fed’ by a game of fetch as it encourages all the prey drive instincts of the Golden Retriever and when his prey drive is satisfied, in a positive controlled manner, then your Golden Retriever feels happy with life. The fetch game should only have one ball in play at a time to avoid any choking or hording of the balls. Your Golden Retriever may try to pick up more than his mouth can carry. The soft tennis ball can be a choking hazard if it is bitten into and pops open in the dog’s mouth. The danger here is that the ball blocks your dog’s airways. Make sure the tennis ball is not in danger of popping open and a good quality ball is used that will last longer. The Golden Retriever needs to know you are in control of the game.
Encouraging the Behavior
The Golden Retriever, as his name suggests, is an instinctive retriever and playing fetch with a tennis ball is always going to be engaging for you and your Retriever. It is a time to interact with your dog and to establish yourself as the alpha member of the group. You motivate the game and you determine the time spent on the activity. If you feel this fetch the tennis ball game is becoming obsessive, then help from an animal behaviorist may be necessary. Watch out for intense guarding of the ball. Be wary of anxiety when playing the game or constant urging to get your attention to play fetch the ball. A behaviorist will be able to help with the right commands and how to end the routine of the game.
The Golden Retriever needs exercise and positive interaction with a diversity of toys to ensure that he does not become obsessed with a tennis ball only. There are many wonderful activities and groups to join to encourage this natural behavior. Flyball and search and rescue activities will benefit a retriever and the exercise will be fun for everyone. The Golden Retriever and his tennis ball need careful supervision and so when you are at home and you are not playing any fetch games, the ball should be put away securely to avoid any unwanted activity. Actions like tearing the ball into little pieces and swallowing the wrong kinds of materials could lead to medical problems and an unhappy dog.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Playing ball with an enthusiastic Golden Retriever is invigorating for both you and your canine companion. Family outings and picnics in places where dogs are free to run, and play will be most rewarding. A brightly colored tennis ball is recommended in case the ball finds its way into some thick, bushy areas. Your Golden Retriever will try his best to get the ball and return it to you. Throwing a tennis ball that is bouncy is going to heighten your Golden Retriever’s natural instincts to chase that ball and bring it down and back to you. The retrieving part of this game just comes naturally to the Golden Retriever and because these dogs like to please people, bringing it back to you just makes him happy. The tennis ball is a soft option for the Golden Retriever’s mouth and a ball that the whole family can enjoy throwing - a game enjoyed by everyone. It is a great way to build up children’s confidence in dogs and the Golden Retriever loves interacting and ctching tennis balls!.
The Golden Retriever retains his desire to follow the ball that has become the item of value, to satisfy his instinctive behavior. He will eye the ball that you throw and stalk or chase it, then he will grab the ball and if you have trained him, he will return it to you. The game can continue and repeat a 'chase after the furry tennis ball' sequence. Understanding how to buy into animal’s natural behavior makes enjoying your pet even more gratifying. Golden Retrievers have a soft spot for tennis balls. If ever there was a canine tennis championship, a ‘Wimbledog’ challenge, it would be a simple case of ‘game, set and match’ for the eager to please Golden Retriever.
By a Rhodesian Ridgeback lover Christina Wither
Published: 05/10/2018, edited: 01/30/2020