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If you have a ball crazy dog, you know that you will get tired of playing fetch the ball long before your dog will. Which is funny, because he is doing most of the work! A solution might be an automatic ball launcher. These commercially available devices launch a ball for your dog to chase and can be adjusted to launch multiple balls and to varying speeds and distances. Your dog can even learn to operate an automatic ball launcher himself, returning the ball to the machine. This is great if you are unable to throw the ball for your dog due to a physical impairment, or to allow you to perform another task while your dog entertains himself. Remember though, your dog should never be allowed to use the automatic ball launcher unsupervised. A high-energy, ball crazy dog can, however, get lots of exercise using the launcher while you relax and watch, and have your hands free for other activities.
Dogs that love to play ball, which as it turns out is most dogs, will be highly motivated to learn how to use an automatic ball launcher, as the opportunity to fetch the launched ball is its own reward. Even a nervous or skittish dog can learn how to operate the ball launcher, although an anxious, nervous, or inexperienced dog may take some more time to get used to the sights and sounds of the automatic ball launcher. Automatic launchers can be adjusted for time, speed, distance and pitch, and they do make some noise. You will need to acclimatize your dog to the machine, and then show him where he needs to stand when it launches, usually next to the machine, a few feet away, to retrieve the ball, and to release the ball into the receptacle at the top of the machine, if you want him to be able to fully operate the automatic ball launcher. An alternative to having your dog reload the machine is to have your dog release the ball to you, and you can reload the machine if you or your dog is not comfortable with him handling the job.
Select a commercially available automatic ball launcher for your dog that has the features you need. Most launchers allow you to adjust for the number of balls that can be thrown before reloading, timing, speed, height, and distance. Be sure to use the appropriate settings for your space. Read all instructions first, to ensure you and your dog's safety. Most launchers have safety features that prevent it from launching if motion is detected in front of the launcher. Before using the launcher, teach your dog to play fetch and to release the ball to you. To introduce the launcher and its use to your dog, find a safe, appropriate space to operate the launcher, where there is no danger of property damage from flying balls and no hazards for your dog to hurt himself on when chasing excitedly after a ball. You may use treats and a clicker to help direct and acclimatize your dog to the automatic ball launcher.
The Reinforce Launcher Method
Prepare your launcher and be ready with a clicker and treats.
Reinforce approach launcher
Set up the automatic ball launcher and ensure it is turned off. When your dog approaches the launcher, click and treat and praise your dog to create a positive association.
Reinforce noise of launcher
Place the launcher farther away from your dog and turn it on. When the ball launcher makes a warning tone, click and treat, say "yes!"
Reinforce operating launcher
When your dog is comfortable with the sound of the machine, ask your dog to come next to the machine, click to reinforce, and load a ball. When the ball launches, allow your dog to go retrieve the ball.
Reinforce return ball
When your dog returns to you with the ball click and treat. Your dog will release the ball to take the treat. Reinforce with a click. Add the command 'drop it' to command your dog to drop the ball.
Move your hand with treat over the bucket of the launcher when your dog drops the ball, so that your dog drops the ball into the machine's bucket. To reload the machine, say "drop it", click and treat. (Optional)
Gradually reduce use of the clicker as your dog gets used to being reinforced by the chance to fetch the ball.
The Associate Fetch Method
With the ball launcher turned off, stand next to the unit, and toss the ball for your dog to fetch.
Associate the ball with machine
Drop the ball in the launcher with it turned off. Take the ball out of the launcher manually and throw it for your dog to fetch.
Associate 'fetch' commands
Associate verbal commands with the launcher. Say "bucket" or "drop it" while you put the ball in the launcher bucket to create a verbal association with placing the ball in the launcher.
Turn on the machine. Start with only one ball. Have your dog sit or stand next to the machine, not in front. When the ball launches, give your dog the command for 'fetch'.
Associate returning the ball to launcher
When your dog gets the ball, ask him to come back next to machine and release to you. Say "drop it" and provide a treat.
Add returning the ball to bucket
Direct your dog to 'drop it' in the bucket of the dispenser by holding the treat over the bucket and saying "drop it" to get your dog to reload the machine (optional).
The Reverse Training Method
Start with your dog far away
Have your dog stand several feet away in front of the automatic ball launcher. Turn the machine on and launch a ball.
Associate a fun game
When your dog fetches the ball, go to him and ask him to drop it. Reload the machine. Repeat until the dog has associated the launcher with a new fun game.
Require getting closer to launcher
Now ask your dog to sit closer and to the side of the launcher, not in front where he could get hit by the ball. Launch and continue game. Ask him to return to the machine to drop it for you.
Require next to launcher
Gradually move your dog closer so that he is sitting right next to the launcher when the ball is launched and has to go run for it, return to the launcher, drop the ball, and sit in order to have ball reloaded and the game to continue.
Drop the ball into launcher
Eventually, teach your dog to drop the ball into the launcher by holding your hand over the bucket and saying "drop it", directing your dog to drop the ball into the bucket. When the ball is reloaded, continue game. (Optional)
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 11/02/2017, edited: 01/08/2021