Why Do Dogs Like Tennis Balls So Much?

Perhaps second only to their human, it seems like dogs love tennis balls more than anything. One throw of a tennis ball and most dogs are sure to go running in glee to retrieve the fuzzy, green treasure. What is it about tennis balls that make our doggies leap for joy?

Cute dalmatian dog holding a ball in the mouth. Isolated on white
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The instinct to chase is part of our dogs genetic memory.

Our dogs were not always the domesticated divas we know and love today. Historically, dogs in the wild had to rely on strong instincts in order to survive. Whether they came from specific hunting breeds or not, all dogs in the wild used predatory behaviors in order to hunt food and stay alive. Predatory behaviors include:

  • Eyeing
  • Orienting
  • Stalking
  • Chasing
  • Grabbing
  • Killing
  • Dissecting
  • Consuming
Hungarian hound pointer vizsla dog in autumn time in the field
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Centuries of breeding have customized the predatory drive of dogs.

Fast forward to modern times when countless dogs live domesticated lives where they do not need to hunt for their food or fight for their own survival. Dogs that display high levels of predatory drive were bred and trained to do so. Dog trainer, Victoria Stillwell explains that through selective breeding, humans have customized the predatory drive of dogs. The breeding process, for example, results in herding dogs that still use predatory behaviors like stalking, chasing, and nipping but prevents dogs from biting and killing the animals they herd. These particular behaviors have been bred out. Years of breeding hones a dog's natural instincts to serve the needs of man.

laika on the leash near the owner
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With no prey in sight, tennis balls are the perfect "pretend prey" to draw out suppressed dog instincts to chase.

Selective breeding has manipulated predatory behaviors, but these instincts will never go away completely. Predatory drive is not as strong in contemporary, domesticated dogs as it is in wild dogs but the instincts are still there to some degree. In particular, a dog's instinct to chase remains quite strong. With no real prey in sight, tennis balls serve as the perfect "pretend prey" that draws out those suppressed dog instincts to stalk, chase, and kill.

Tennis balls mimic desperate prey behavior.

Prey in the wild is panicked and sporadic as it scurries around, trying to preserve its life. When you throw a tennis ball, it bounces all over the place and mimics this desperate prey behavior. This movement sends an immediate alarm to a dog's instinct to chase, capture, and devour! In his book _Oh Behave! Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker_, Jean Donaldson explains that when a dog catches prey in its mouth and swiftly shakes it side to side, the dog is breaking the prey's neck in order to kill it. You will see your dog take this very same action with a tennis ball after he "captures it." Dogs are aware that tennis balls are not rabbits but will still take pleasure in practicing their hunting skills and letting their natural instincts take over.

a shetland sheepdog plays with a little ball
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There are a lot of perks for pooches who chase tennis balls.

Playing fetch with your dog does a whole lot of good for both you and your pet. The physical activity is a great stress reliever and source of healthy exercise. Your dog will feel accomplished when he retrieves the ball and brings it back to you, knowing he has used his natural instincts to complete a task and make his human happy!

Dogue de bordeaux dog play with a tenns ball.  Gray background.
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There are a few dangers of playing with tennis balls that pet parents should be aware of.

While playing with tennis balls with your dog, always be aware of possible dangers. If your dog has a strong jaw, he may compress and pop the ball open in the back of his throat causing suffocation. If this occurs, contact your veterinarian immediately for emergency assistance.

Cheaper balls can be easily chewed (even by dogs with weak jaws) and some are full of chemicals. Always supervise your dog if he plays with tennis balls and never turn an old ball into a chew toy. For optimum safety, look for sturdier, safer toys.