Cornell Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center

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Playing ball safely

Playing until your dog is exhausted risks injury

Most dogs love to play fetch; however, pet owners should be aware of a few things. 

Dr. Chris Zink, the director of molecular and comparative pathobiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, uses her expertise in sports medicine and rehabilitation to outline some safe ways to play ball with your dog. To start, realize that mental exhaustion is better for wearing your dog out than physical exhaustion. Many dogs have incredible stamina and will literally run until they drop — your arm will give out before their legs do. So follow these six tips:

  1. Make your dog wait until the ball or toy has landed. Dead running with turns and abrupt stops can cause injuries.
  2. Throw the ball into tall grass or brush so your dog must search a bit to find it. This provides some additional mental stimulus, as it requires both vision and scent to find the ball.
  3. While it’s fun to watch, don’t let your dog leap up to catch the toy. Those amazing leaps and twists often lead to injuries — both acute injuries or chronic damage that builds up from repeated actions.
  4. Work on your dog's fitness in other ways, since a fit dog is less likely to have injuries. Fitness includes stretches and muscle building exercises, as well as other aerobic activities. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight is also important for avoiding over-stressing muscles, tendons and ligaments.
  5. Choose the right toy for your dog. For example, a small tennis ball could choke your large dog, and long sticks can cause injuries if your dog trips while running with it.
  6. Stop before your dog gets too tired. Zink uses the “tongue spoon” example. If your dog’s tongue is curling at the edges or is wider at the tip, then your dog is getting tired. This behavior is a sign that they are trying to increase their panting surface, and their muscles are approaching overload. If they're already tired, then it becomes more likely that they might accidentally get injured. 

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.