The Golden Retrievers Obsession With Balls: Solved!


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Golden Retrievers are a highly active breed that loves to play. One of their favorite activities is chasing balls, and their love of the tennis ball can often border on obsession. So much so that it often causes many pet owners to wonder why Golden Retrievers are so obsessed with balls?  

Golden Retrievers can be obsessed with balls because they have retained elements of an ancestral prey drive, and balls can mimic prey with fast, sporadic motions. Additionally, mid-19th century hunters developed the breed to retrieve downed waterfowl, and chasing and retrieving balls aligns with this drive.

Yes, Golden Retrievers love balls, and they have a particular affinity for tennis balls. As we’ll find out, that obsession with balls is deeply rooted in their genes.

In a way, the Golden Retriever was designed to play with a ball. Moreover, a ball is an excellent tool for training, exercise, play, and mental stimulation. 

So, keep reading to find out why this inexpensive and simple toy is so much fun for your Golden Retriever and some games you can use to enrich its life (and yours). I also offer some tips on the best type of ball and some precautions to take when playing ball with your Golden Retriever.

Why Do Golden Retrievers Like To Chase Balls?

Most Golden Retrievers enjoy a good game of chase, including balls. The pursuit is often as much fun (or more) as the catching and retrieving. So, exactly why do Golden Retrievers like to chase balls so much?

Much of that “chasing” urge stems from their nature and breeding. However, the Golden Retriever’s love of balls goes beyond just a chase, although the case is a major component. The Golden Retriever possesses three instinctual components which are at the core of what makes the unassuming ball so appealing to a Golden Retriever:

  • A playful nature
  • A drive to chase and retrieve from past breeding
  • An instinctual prey drive to search, stalk, chase, and hold things in their mouth.

Let’s take a deep dive into each of these. 

Play

Golden Retrievers are well known for a lot of things. The breed is friendly, active, and not aggressive. They get along with people, other dogs, cats, and kids. The Golden Retriever is also known to be very playful, and that playful nature remains well into adulthood. 

Yes, the Golden Retriever is known to take its puppy nature well into adulthood, more so than many other dog breeds. 

So, yes, they love to play. It’s why Golden Retrievers get along so well with kids. 

Consider search and rescue. I recently wrote an article on why Golden Retrievers make such good search and rescue dogs and tracking dogs (you can find that post here if you’re interested: Golden Retrievers as Search and Rescue Dogs: The Facts.

In that article, I point out that one of the essential traits that a search and rescue dog can possess is the desire to play with toys and people. 

Says Michelle L. Limoges, SAR Dog Handler, Search & Rescue Dog Association of Alberta;

One of the most important traits that a potential SAR dog can possess is the desire to play with toys and people and retrieve objects of any type. SAR dogs need to be friendly and enjoy being touched. 

Source

The search and rescue game for the Golden Retriever is simple: using your keen sense of smell and all that exuberant energy to find the toy (which can be a person or object). It’s how they are trained for search and rescue, hunting, and tracking.

So, most activities that the Golden Retriever is best at, whether retrieving, tracking, or searching, are just games to the dog. And that’s because Golden Retriever loves to play. 

And, what is the purpose of a ball? To play! And, what is one of the things Golden Retrievers love to do? To play. So, balls and Golden Retrievers are a match made in heaven.

Golden Retrievers love to play, have focused energy, and can direct that energy for hours on end. So it makes sense that a playful breed of dog will be more inclined to enjoy playing with a ball. 

However, that’s not all a ball does. A ball also aligns with the Golden Retriever’s innate drive to find and retrieve objects, discussed next. 

Bred to Chase and Retrieve Objects

Think about what is involved in retrieving waterfowl. Golden Retrievers were bred to retrieve downed waterfowl for hunters. Often the downed waterfowl would be in water or dense brush or cattails. 

The dog had to patiently wait for the waterfowl to be downed. It required that the dog watch, then run to find the bird, and finally retrieve the bird once discovered. Then it waits to do it over again. 

And, what does a Golden Retriever dog do with a ball? The dog patiently waits for the ball to be thrown, watches, then runs to seek it out and retrieves it (unless he’s playing keep away). 

So, when playing with a ball, a Golden Retriever is just expressing its predisposition to chase, retrieve and carry back things. It’s all a game to the Golden Retriever, and a ball works just as well as a bird. 

Retrieving a duck or retrieving a ball it’s all a game to the Golden Retriever

Prey Drive

Most dogs have retained some form of a prey drive. Prey drive consists of searching, stalking, chasing, biting (hold and kill), and dissecting (eating). Those can differ in intensity depending on the breed. 

Consider Shelties, for example. They are lower in the search (see, hear, smell) than a Golden Retriever but equally high in the stalk and chase and a little higher than Golden Retrievers on the bite scale.

Typically, the nip of the ankles is a mild bite to get a rogue sheep back in the herd. 

Golden Retrievers were bred to have soft mouths to not damage the waterfowl when returning it to the hunter, so they are very low on the bite scale (one of, if not the lowest). 

Golden Retrievers were initially developed to be hunting dogs, and chasing is a big part of that job. For example, chasing is a prerequisite if the dog is used as a “flusher” or an upland dog.

Flushing involves seeking out and chasing upland birds (birds that are not waterfowl but land-based like pheasants) to scare them out of the thick, high brush so that the sportspeople can do their thing. 

So, much like a pheasant or other small prey, the ball scoots along the ground and bounces about, which somewhat mimics prey. Most dogs have retained this “chase” instinct, although it is more latent in some, whereas in other breeds, like the Golden Retriever, it has been more developed and refined to serve a purpose.

Chasing is a prey instinct carried over from the ancestral wolf. Chasing balls mimic that instinctual drive

Often, when our Golden Retriever catches his tennis “prey,” he’ll give it a shake or two. The “death shake” is a behavior in which the animal shakes its prey to break the neck. 

BAR also likes to pull the hair off the tennis ball, which is another prey-driven behavior. Here, the dog mimics plucking the feather and skin off its meal (this would be the dissect part). 

So, who would have thought the unassuming ball met such deep-rooted behaviors in the Golden Retriever. 

If you want to learn more about the Golden Retriever prey drive then check out this post: The Golden Retriever Prey Drive: Is It High or Low?

All three deeply rooted and powerful behaviors are expressed when the Golden Retriever chases and engages with a ball. And that is precisely why Golden Retrievers can become obsessed with bass, the tennis ball. 

The ball, especially the tennis ball, simply triggers behaviors in the dog that breeding and evolution have instilled. 

Can a Golden Retriever Swallow a Tennis Ball?

When I first played fetch with my Golden Retriever using a tennis ball, my biggest concern was its size. I was particularly worried that he might swallow the ball since it’s not overly large. 

A Golden Retriever should not be able to swallow a standard size tennis ball if it is whole and intact. Tennis balls are large enough that a Golden Retriever can carry the ball without swallowing it. However, a tennis ball can be consumed if torn or popped, so inspect the ball frequently during play sessions.  

While a whole and intact, standard size tennis ball should pose little risk for a Golden Retriever, the concern becomes when they pop or shred the ball. 

A standard size tennis ball is large enough to not be swallowed if intact

Two potential risks from a popped and torn tennis ball are choking and bowel obstruction. Once popped and torn apart, pieces of the tennis ball can become a choking hazard.

In addition, the fragments of the ball may become lodged in the airway. 

The other issue is swallowing pieces of a tennis ball. Those fragments may not be able to be digested. Often, the dog will be able to vomit the pieces out, but if not, then it could be concerning. 

The vet may have to induce vomiting. However, expensive surgery could be the only remedy if the obstruction does not come out. 

So, it’s imperative when allowing your Golden Retriever to play with a tennis ball that it is continuously inspected to ensure it is in good condition. If the ball looks worse for wear, replace it with a new one. 

A can of tennis balls is usually not too expensive. 

It would help if you also took the tennis ball away when the dog is no longer engaged in a play session with you. Taking the ball away after play prevents the dog from tearing apart the ball when you are not monitoring the dog.

It also prevents the dog from becoming obsessed with the ball to the point of hoarding them or even guarding them. 

The ball should be a high-value toy used only for play sessions. And, you decide when those play sessions are, when they start, and when they end.

Refrain from putting the tennis or any other ball where the dog can access it whenever it wants because it diminishes its value. Additionally, putting the ball away will help prevent overly obsessive behavior and ensure no accidents happen if you are not monitoring the dog and it trashes the ball. 

Also, beware when getting tennis balls that they are not too small for your dog. Some tennis balls made for pets can be pretty small or below an average size typical tennis ball, and those could be a choking hazard if swallowed by accident. 

Need some great tennis balls? Then check out my Gold Bar Approved Products and Gear.

Can Golden Retrievers Catch Balls? 

While chasing and retrieving balls comes naturally to Golden Retrievers, typically, one aspect of playing with a ball does not, catching a ball. 

Golden Retrievers are athletic dogs that can be taught to catch balls. Unfortunately, catching balls in the mouth is not a natural skill for most dogs. However, the Golden Retriever is one of the most intelligent dog breeds, so teaching it to catch a ball is typically not difficult.

Golden Retrievers are very smart and can easily be taught to catch balls

Catching balls is not instinctual to the Golden Retriever, unlike chasing and retrieving. For any dog, for that matter. 

In nature, there is little reason for a dog to jump up and catch things, although they will try it with a bird or other critters. Sure, they may do it for play, but typically it has no other reason beyond fun. 

When catching balls, it’s usually done on a bounce. However, Golden Retrievers can be taught to catch a ball off a dock while jumping into the water, which combines their love of the chase, balls, and the water.

Teaching a Golden Retriever To Catch a Ball

I slowly started teaching my Golden Retriever to catch with treats. I would throw one in the air, and he would have to catch it. At first, he was not very good at it, but he caught on quickly—most will.

Then, I started alternating treats with the ball. Just be sure to lob it up gently at first. 

Eventually, he got the hang of it, but the ball still proved difficult for him occasionally. Usually, he still prefers to chase it. 

Typically catch is taught with a frisbee. It’s much easier for the dog to get a hold of with its teeth. A frisbee hovers; a ball does not. A frisbee has an edge; the ball does not. 

Because the ball is harder to grab hold of, you’ll often find that it hits their front teeth and bounces away. More often than not, if they catch it, they get it on one of the bounces. 

The video below shows how to teach a dog how to catch a ball or frisbee. Treat, ball or frisbee; the mechanics are the same.  

What Type of Ball Is Best for a Golden Retriever? 

When determining which balls are best for a Golden Retriever to play with, it might be easier to define what would be a wrong choice for a ball. 

First, avoid letting your Golden Retriever play with balls that are too small. Some examples would be squash and racquetballs, as well as golf balls. Those balls are much too small and present choking hazards if swallowed (and they can be swallowed whole and intact).

They also have the potential to cause obstructions in the airway if swallowed. Moreover, those small balls may be too large to pass if ingested and can become lodged in the intestines. In that case, surgery might be needed.

Finally, toxicity is always a concern aside from intestinal issues and stomach upset. 

Bigger balls such as soccer balls and larger ones are typically too big for a Golden Retriever to grab and hold, so choking is usually not a concern (unless it tears it apart).

With big balls, like hard soccer balls, the dog pushes it along with its mouth as he tries to bite into it. Or he will chase the ball as you kick it around. 

Beware, though, that Golden Retrievers have strong jaws, and it’s not uncommon for them to be able to bite into a soccer ball at some point. Especially if the ball is not fully inflated and has some give to it.

We have a foam soccer ball- like a Nerf, but a bit harder – that our Golden Retriever plays with. Naturally, he will chase it, and he can bite into it, so I often kick it around, or he chases me while I dribble the ball soccer style. 

Of course, tennis balls are a great choice, as discussed. Just be a little cautious of the size. The typical Wilson-type balls you’d use to play tennis with seem to be the best size for most Golden Retrievers. 

The balls with the plastic scoop that you use to throw are also acceptable. Just avoid some of the pseudo-tennis balls that are small in size. 

No matter what ball you use, make sure it’s not too small and consistently monitor the ball’s condition. If the ball is tattered and torn, discard and replace it. 

I like tennis balls because they’re cheap, our Golden Retriever loves them, and there are usually three to six in a can, so there are instant spares. Also, as discussed earlier, I think the added fur on the tennis ball gives it that extra unique quality since it even more so has a prey quality to it. 

Lastly, never leave a ball and your Golden Retriever alone unattended. Golden Retriever can be good chewers, and the last thing you want is it choking or swallowing a piece that needs to be removed by the vet. 

For example, Bailey swallowed the top end of a basting brush, costing $400 to induce vomiting. If we waited any longer, it would have cost us $2000 or more to remove via surgery. 

Yes, a basting brush is not a ball, but it’s still plastic. And, a big chunk of a ball might cause the same issue. 

Beware the expense if your dog swallows something it can’t pass. Yes, that can be balls too.

What Games Can I Play With a Golden Retriever Using a Ball? 

If you’re looking to play games with your Golden Retriever, the possibilities are endless with a bit of imagination. 

Obviously, there is a fetch. Chase is fine as long as he knows to come and let go when asked and that you are in control of the start and end of the game. 

Soccer is a good game. Our Golden Retriever loves to chase the ball as it’s kicked and dribbled up the field. Once he gets a hold of the ball, a chase ensues, but he usually gives the ball up quickly for some more pursuit. 

You can also teach your Golden Retriever to catch a ball and play some catch. You can mix it up with some bounces, so it has to catch the first or second bounce. This way, it gets some chase in with the game of catch.  

You can also play hide and seek with its ball. Hide and seek is a great variation of chase if your dog is trained to stay. You can hide the ball while your Golden Retriever is in stay, and then he must “go find it” when asked. 

Or you can make a makeshift game with a ball hidden in a cereal box with some treats, and once the dog finds the ball, reward it with a fetch game. 

Put a ball on the end of a rope and stick, and you have an excellent flirt pole. You can have the dog chase the ball, and once he catches it, you can play some tug of war. Teach him to let go when asked, and it becomes a training exercise as well. 

Speaking of training, the ball can become a fantastic training tool. So if your Golden Retriever is ball obsessed, it has a very high value. 

Remember that the ball should be taken away at the end of play sessions. It’s a high-value reward that you are in control of instead of placing it in a toy box where the dog has access to it at its will. 

Because it’s a high-value toy, it can be used in training to teach skills such as getting it, staying, waiting, bringing it back, coming, and more. For example, sitting patiently before walking out the door for a play session is an excellent skill for the dog to practice. That one is impulse control. 

One of the best skills you can teach with a ball is “let go,” which is a skill that becomes valuable when you want your dog to drop something it should not have (instead of chasing it around).

Summing it Up

Who would have thought that the modest tennis ball, or any ball, is such a well-suited toy for a Golden Retriever? 

But, when you look at the innate drives that the Golden Retriever has – some from breeding and some carried over from its distant ancestor, the wolf, it becomes clearer how the ball has this power over the dog. 

After all, it’s in their genes to search, chase, hold and retrieve. The ball allows the dog to do what is rooted deep in its behavior. So, in some ways, it’s like the ball was made specifically for the Golden Retriever.

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