Throwing ball for dog

Q. When my son plays fetch with our dog, he pretends to throw the ball and then hides it behind his back. I think he’s teasing her, but he says they’re having fun. Is this bad? Should I make him stop, or is it OK to tease her sometimes?

A. You’re right; your son is teasing the dog — and he needs to stop. Teasing isn’t harmless, and it isn’t fun for your dog. When a dog is teased, she may become frustrated, frantic and agitated — and the play interaction can go seriously and dangerously wrong.

Your son doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s teasing the dog; most likely, he thinks that he’s making their game of fetch more interesting by hiding the ball from her. Teasing can come in a variety of forms: offering a treat or toy and then pulling it away, hiding it or placing it out of the dog’s reach; encouraging a dog contained by a fence, leash or tether to chase or grab something out of her reach; or physically pestering a dog by blowing air at her nose, grabbing at her muzzle or tail, or poking at her body.

I suspect that your son does not understand the frustration that your dog may be feeling when he plays with her in this way. He sees her behavior — jumping up, whining, barking, frantically searching for or grabbing at the ball — as a sign that she is enjoying their game. In reality, though, this type of behavior is an indication that your dog is becoming stressed and agitated. As these negative emotions build, so does the potential for a problematic or dangerous interaction.

The Consequences of Teasing

Teasing a dog can have some serious consequences. Teasing may cause a dog to be hyper, unmannerly and largely out of control. Consistent teasing may also damage the dog’s relationship with humans. She may learn to avoid or distrust anyone who regularly teases her. Teasing also increases the possibility of a bite. Teased dogs are often on edge; as their tolerance decreases and their frustration builds, otherwise-friendly and sociable dogs may resort to biting or other forms of aggression.
It is also important to recognize that teasing actually teaches aggression. Attack and protection dogs are commonly trained to aggress using teasing scenarios known as agitation techniques. With these, a dog is presented with a situation — a person acting aggressively, for example — while being restrained. This increases reactive behavior and raises the likelihood that the dog will bite. For a trained protection dog working with a skilled professional trainer, the method may be useful, but when it comes to family dogs, such frustration building is dangerous. Unfortunately, unintentional teasing like your son is engaging in can also teach your dog to act more aggressively.

As a dog trainer, I believe that teasing should be completely taboo and totally off limits. In your situation, the consequences of your son’s behavior range from creating a dog who’s withdrawn and reluctant during interactions and play to a dog who’s overly wild and intense. More seriously, the chances that your son will get bitten increase the more he plays this particular game (or engages in other forms of teasing) with your dog. The bite may be inadvertent — a side effect of your dog’s desperate effort to get the ball or toy your son is holding — or it may be the end result of her ongoing frustration and decreasing tolerance of your son and his behavior.

Put a Stop to Teasing

It is important for parents to establish clear ground rules for all interactions with a dog and to make sure they are followed all the time. The rules don’t need to be restrictive or overly complicated; the goal is to keep interactions between children and pets predictable and structured.

My daughter, Reagan, who is 6, is allowed to play fetch with our two Pugs, but only when an adult is nearby to help and supervise, and only as long as she follows a few simple rules. When the Pug brings the ball or toy to her, she asks him to “drop it,” rather than pulling it from his teeth. After the Pug has relinquished the toy, Reagan knows to ask for a calm behavior like a down or sit. Once the dog responds appropriately, she can toss the toy for him to retrieve or give him a treat if their game is over. A simple set of rules like this will benefit both your son and your dog, and will increase the chance of a controlled and mutually fun game of fetch while hopefully eliminating any antics that tease or frustrate your dog.

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