My dog won’t leave his ball!

You chose your dog because it has high prey drive. You do everything you can to bring that drive to the fore during every exercise so that like the ‘Ever Ready’ bunny, your dog will keep going and going with a real intensity.  You train using primarily motivational methods and use a ball to reward but there is an infuriating problem. Your dog won’t give up the ball on command.

This is a surprisingly common problem and ranges from the dog that will run off and not come back to the dog that gives up most of the time but seems to forget the command when the excitement level rises making the “out” unreliable.  This doesn’t always extend to bitework but is generally a sign that there is a chink in your armour that may well start to appear under pressure if left untreated for a prolonged period of time.

This article looks at the issue and one solution to it – the two ball routine. To understand the principles in more detail you can purchase Positive Police Dogs – Philosophy.


To get the dog to want to give the ball up to you

The issue

The dog wants to play tug/chase/retain possession. Any conflict from you, attempts to snatch the ball, physically remove or fight the dog to get the ball are examples of you playing the dogs game. Any examples of the dog dropping the ball or swapping one for another are examples of the dog playing your game.

Avoid conflict. This will work against your aim of getting the dog to want to give the ball to you by reinforcing his game of tug. The ball is valuable to the dog because we use it to stimulate his prey drive. Prey drive is a life-preserving trait and this is why this issue is more prevalent in high drive dogs. Threats and violence have to be extreme to overcome a life-preserving trait and may need to be life threatening to be effective. This clearly goes against our ethos of dog training and would invariably have serious detrimental consequences to your relationship with your dog.

1st things 1st

The dog must understand the rule that it cannot take the ball from you unless it is given permission. Hold the ball in sight of the dog. Any attempts by the dog to take it should be met with your “aagghh” command and the ball removed from the dogs reach. Eventually the dog will give up attempting to snatch the ball from you. Consistency is paramount to permanence in establishing this rule. When you first see the dog resign himself to not snatching you will see him sit, lie down or just stand there staring at you. Reward this behaviour. It is the behaviour you want.

Setting up the “aagghh”

Hold your hand out towards the dog with a piece of food. When he goes to take it say “aagghh” and withdraw your hand so he doesn’t get the food. Repeat until you see the dog resign himself to not taking the food. Then offer the food and give your end command. Repeat several sessions of this exercise until the dog understands the concept.

Repeat at doorways. Open the door slightly and as the dog goes to charge through say “aagghh” and close the door (be careful not to trap noses or paws). Repeat as above until your dog resigns himself to the situation. Then reward with food or by allowing him through the doorway.

Repeat the above drill with the ball.

Two ball routine step 1

Throw the ball for the dog. As he is on his way back show, move, prepare to throw the second ball. When the dog spits out the first ball, throw the second – rewarding the act of giving up the ball. Pick up the dropped ball and repeat. You are looking to get a good rhythm of throw- fetch-prepare to throw – spit -throw – fetch etc.

Warning!  Most problems arise when trying to end the routine and they then creep into the routine its self.

Dummying (pretending to throw) and then picking up both balls to end creates suspicion in the dog and reluctance to spit out on return or to pick up the dropped ball immediately.

Standing on the dropped ball and attempting to pick it up can lead to mugging, foot scratching and digging at your feet and the grabbing of the string which then leads to an issue leaving the ball if the dog has hold of the string.

Some people try to end the game by saying “leave” and trying to take the ball. If the dog would leave on command then you wouldn’t be doing the two ball routine. This simply dirties your leave command and goes against your aim by playing the dogs game.

How to end

Food – some dogs will give up the ball for a tasty treat (not their everyday food)This rewards the dog for leaving the whole aim of the routine) and ends the routine cleanly. Not all dogs will go for this though.

Time – allow the dog to keep hold of the ball. Let him have a wander, lie down or carry for a while. This is often all it takes for some dogs to either give the ball to you if you try to take it or some will proactively come and drop it at your feet. Allowing things to calm down often opens up other options such as food as stated above.

Another command – If you have a strong “down” command then you may be able to take hold of the rope on the ball as you give the command. The dog has to let go in order to carry out the command. When he does, praise, give your end command and reward.

Put the dog back in the van – Allow the dog to carry the ball back to the van. Many will simply give it up and get back in the van. If not then use your command to tell the dog to get in the van as you hold the rope. The dog will have to let go to comply with the command. If you don’t have a command to get in the van then make one. Make it rewarding and ensure you reward the dog immediately if he does let go and get in the van.

Alternatively allow the dog to get into the van with the ball. After a few minutes allow him out to play some more. If the dog left the ball in the van, that’s fine. If he picks it up the simply hold the rope and invite him out, ensuring the ball stays in your hand in the van. If he needs more enticement to come out the verbally encourage him, use food or throw another ball. Getting in and out of the van by giving and receiving balls could become a fun routine for your dog. When it is a strong behaviour you can use your “in the van” command if the dog refuses to let go of the ball in future. As the command gets stronger you can use it further and further away from the van. Practice it in different locations.

Step 2

Increasing the time gap and reducing the ‘lure’ of the second ball. Keeping the same rhythm you need to make less obvious gestures with the second ball and increase the time gap between the spit and the throw until you have no obvious movement to entice the spit and a 2 second gap between the spit and the throw.

Step 3

Make moves to get the dropped ball. Make slight movement towards the dropped ball and throw the 2nd ball as you do. If the dog goes for the dropped ball you have gone too far too fast. Keep making greater movements until you can touch the dropped ball. Bend throw, bend throw etc.

Step 4

As soon as you can pick up the dropped ball, throw it immediately. Protect the dropped ball with your “aagghh” command if they make an attempt to grab it and distract by throwing the other ball. It should soon be the norm for you to pick up and throw the dropped ball.

Warning! Keep the second ball handy at all times and use it if ever things show signs of slowing up, ball retention etc. Progress is generally in a two steps forward, one step back approach. Progress too fast and you will develop a fault. Get the timing wrong and you will develop a fault. Once faults become habits you have increased the time it will take to cure the problem.

If you are confident in your abilities then make the association and add your “leave” command as you go. Otherwise it is best to do the above routines with the “games, no names” philosophy. Do the above routine until you have it consistent. Then go back to the beginning and add the command word as the dog leaves (and you make your actions) to make the association (step 1). Then say it before the dog spits (and before you make any actions) and look for compliance (step 2). You are looking for the dog spitting out upon hearing the command rather than doing your actions. This shows the dog understands the command. Open the time gap between command and actions until it is the word alone that causes the spit. You should already be able to pick up and end the routine.

If the dog ever refuses to give up the ball from this point then end the session. Do not get drawn into conflict – this will undermine all your hard work. Do not assume that understanding a command equates to a willingness to comply. This is connected to your reward schedule/level. Perform the two ball routine as a maintenance routine to keep your leave command fast and strong. More importantly, if it is consistently going wrong seek help sooner rather than later. It may be a simple problem. Even simple problems that have a long history of reinforcement can be difficult and time-consuming to address. A stitch in time saves nine as Granny used to say.


6 Responses to “My dog won’t leave his ball!”

  1. That is good dog psychology. My friends dog is a rescue aged 5 years, a labrador. He loves the ball and typically will not give it up. We have used the two ball system and he has twigged our system of pretending to throw the second one and stealing the dropped one. The biggest problem with him is that he will not give it up until he has totally destroyed it. He steals items in the home at every opportunity and chews them up. Is there a cure for that please?

    • Unfortunately, there are rarely any quick fixes to behaviour or training issues. Beware anyone that tells you there are. Dummy throwing in the two ball routine causes the dog to become suspicious and lock down. Whilst the routine is going well, drop the dog into the down, collect both balls and then reward the down with food or by starting the two ball routine again. Down not good enough? Then work on that first.

      In relation to the chewing, remove things he shouldn’t chew, don’t chase and teach a retrieve to assist if he does get something he shouldn’t. This article gives some good ideas.

  2. Im very willing to give this a go again, I have tried two balls before but once he has a ball the other is of no interest. He sticks with one ball only…aaah but ill try again,treats and food of any sort is not of any interest when a ball is around. Also he barks manicly at the ball when he drops it at your feet then launches his body over it as you try pick it up! Its become so unpleasant and infuriating for anyone trying to play with him.Also iv tried chocker chain and clicker techniques, didnt work 😦 So iv tried not playing fetch when we go to the park but he has also got a terrible habit of stealing other dogs balls that are playing fetch! Which can cause a fight with the wrong dog! This obviously is totally unexceptable and imbarrising. Honestly the most ball crazed dog iv ever experienced. …HELP!!!

    • It can be frustrating but there is usually a solution. Being able to use a ball as a powerful reward makes working on getting the dog to give it up on command worth the effort. It is almost impossible to give specific advice without seeing you and the dog interact but there are some general principles which may help. Think of the game as the ‘dead for live’. The ball you have is the ‘live’ and therefore most fun ball. Once the dog has it, it becomes the ‘dead’ ball. You then need to make the second ball come alive and be more fun than the one the dog has. Wave, wiggle, move, run away etc. Whatever it takes to ‘get the behaviour’ which in this case is the dog dropping the dead ball. As soon as it does, reward by throwing your ball. When you can predictably get the dog to drop one ready for you to throw yours you can put it under command control. Picking up the dead ball in front of the dog is a later stage. As you start to bend to pick it up, throw the other ball. Gradually bend further before throwing your ball. Eventually you will be able to pick up the dead ball and then throw that. It may be worth finding a local force free trainer. They need to be force free because punitive methods, threats, violence and such like create conflict and make it worse.

  3. Hi, I have a 7-year-old staffy we rescued about six months ago. She loves her ball, but in the way that a lion loves a zebra it’s just brought down! It is her prey and she just wants to keep hold of it (she’s destroyed most of the toys we’ve given her). I got to a good stage with two balls, where she’d drop one ball to chase after the other, but recently she’s started to catch the ball, then run back to me and stand there with the ball still in her mouth, staring intently at the ball I’m holding, expecting me to throw it. If I throw it, she’ll run after it and then either just stand and look at it, or try and pick it up so she’s got two in her mouth (it’s quite comical). If I don’t throw it, she’ll literally just stand and stare until we both get bored and move on. She won’t drop the ball for any commands, or even her favourite treats. I want her to be ball-trained, as it keeps her out of trouble on walks – when she’s got her ball with her she’s as meek as a lamb but when she hasn’t, she tends to snap at off-lead dogs who pester her. Thanks for any suggestions.

    • That is not uncommon so don’t panic. It does however sound like there are other issues that may require desensitisation/counter conditioning for which the ball is being used as a pacifier. That may be working against the technical points around getting the dog to drop on command. It is so much easier to give advice in real time based on what is happening in front of you that it may be worth investing in a good force free trainer for a bit of one to one. In the mean time if you want to upload a video on youtube I will have a look and see if I can give you some pointers.

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