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Beware Ball Flingers

                        Too much of a good thing...

Lynn Wetenhall sent this little article to Agilitynet because she wanted to share her story with other owners who, like her, might not have realised that they were causing their dog a problem by constantly throwing / chucking / flinging a ball to their dog. After all, her dog loved the chase and they were only playing! Thinking back, Lynn is amazed that there isn't more on the internet and the press about muscle strain, spinal injuries and the other dangers of repetitive ball throwing.

After a slow start to the season, my rescue terrier X Smudge was starting to do nicely at agility. We were both enjoying ourselves. He was getting clear rounds and regular places. But over the summer, he appeared to be less and less keen on agility in both training and at shows. He started running under the dog walk and lying down there, not wanting to even go into the ring, running out of the ring - which he had never done before - or going round extremely slowly. I obviously considered injury as a reason for this behaviour but, in every other way, he was his normal, hyper-energetic, frenetic, ball-obsessed, super speedy self. I was about ready to stop doing agility, thinking that he just didn't like it.

He then limped, just for a day, but a couple of times in a row, and my trainer noticed that he flinched when she stroked his lower back. She recommended getting him checked out by physiotherapist who diagnosed him as having not one but two chronic conditions hyper-extended carpal (wrist) joints which, of course, they use every time they land from a jump as well as completely rigid, strained lower back muscles. These injuries had clearly been building up over quite a long period of time.

What was worse was that she said that the most likely cause of these injuries was the fact that we had always made too much use of a ball flinger, doing really huge throws which he would race after. It was his most favourite thing to do and, as our other dog got older, we made more use of it so that Smudge got more exercise on a shorter walk.

I was shocked to hear both the physio and the canine hydrotherapist say that they see injuries from overuse of ball flingers on a regular basis. It's the mix of extending straight to a flat out run, skidding to a halt putting strain on the carpal joints and the twisting in the air to catch balls that does the damage. She explained that the adrenaline kick in ball chasing for some dogs is so huge that they overcome the pain and appear normal. Sadly for Smudge, agility did not provide the same adrenaline kick, and he knew that doing it was going to be painful, so he was telling me as clearly as he could  'I don't want to do this.'

The good news is that a relatively simple programme of two weeks gentle lead walking, stretch exercises at home, four physio visits and some water treadmill visits pretty much fixed him. He has now been given an entirely clear health check.

Now, we still throw a ball for him, but he has to wait until it stops to be released, which means that he doesn't go flat out as the movement of the ball is what triggers the flat out run. We also hide it and he enjoys finding it. His agility is very much back on track, and I feel very grateful to have found out what was going on before he was permanently damaged.

Taking stock...
There are several lessons that I have learned from this story:-

  • Your dog can have quite serious injuries but they don't all have obvious symptoms that you can see or notice.
  • If your dog's behaviour changes in relation to agility, think about getting him/her checked by a good physio.
  • Don't use ball flingers.
  • Do not throw balls up in the air for your dog.
  • A good dog physiotherapist and canine water treadmill can do wonders for your dog.

Thank you
If my trainer Gwen Johnson hadn't suggested getting Smudge checked, it would never have occurred to me, being new to the world of dog sport health and thanks to Rebecca Sharples, Physio and Petra Broadbelt, Hydrotherapist

About the author...
Lynn Wetenhall has done agility with Smudge, her Border Terrier/Jack Russell X, for about three years, after he chose her at a rescue centre when he was a year old. She continues to love agility despite having many challenges like a butterfly mind, no persistence or competitive spirit and poor spatial awareness.  However, she loves sitting in fields at shows, chatting about dogs to others and even doing the odd run.

Lynn lives in Exeter, Devon.

First published 12 December 2016

K999 first aid...
As a practising vet I see all sorts of problems arising from things that have been thrown for dogs. The main two culprits are sticks and balls. 

My advice would be to never throw a stick for your dog. The reason they are a problem is that they can often land with an end sticking up and, when the dog reaches it, they lunge on to it and end up lacerating their tongue or throat. Often all you will see is a small amount of blood from the mouth but there are often very severe internal injuries that only become apparent when the dog is anaesthetised.

These wounds can be very difficult to treat, often because small pieces of stick break off in the depth of the wound, leading to abscesses in the neck. Do you want to take that risk?

Balls are better but they must be large enough that the dog cannot swallow it. A tennis ball is okay unless your dog is very large. Smaller balls can become lodged in the throat and cause asphyxiation. There often not enough time to get the dog to the vet before the dog is dead - just as in humans, four minutes without oxygen is fatal.

First published 21 September 2017