A Dog Case Study: Aggression and Tennis Balls

Find out how another dog’s behavior problem—and how the owner dealt with it-- might help you with your own dog.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
7-minute read
Episode #76

A reader, Amanda Caudle-Larkin, posted on The Dog Trainer’s Facebook page about her dog, Ellie, who guards tennis balls from other dogs at the dog park. I offered some suggestions, and in return Amanda was good enough to keep me up to date on Ellie’s progress and to give me permission to use her story here.

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And now more about Ellie, the ball-guarding dog park dog. Amanda wrote that in general Ellie gets along very well with other dogs and that her ball-guarding amounted to a growl and an attempt to drive the other dog away. The guarding was only over tennis balls, and it was only directed toward other dogs, not toward people. Amanda couldn’t simply eliminate tennis balls from the picture, because other people brought them for their dogs to play with.

Ball Guarding Is Rewarded When Other Dogs Back Off

As I told Amanda, this was a tricky little problem. Ellie’s guarding was rewarded when the other dogs back off; since guarding worked for her, she’d likely keep it up. Growling and driving other dogs away isn’t a big deal in itself. If Ellie interacted only with familiar dogs who always respected her warnings, there probably wouldn’t be much reason to intervene. But this was the dog park, with unfamiliar dogs. If one of them escalated the conflict, then either dog, or both, could get hurt.

Does Littering the House with Tennis Balls Help?

One of Amanda’s questions was whether it would make sense to litter the house with tennis balls--the idea being that if there are many, many, many tennis balls in the world, they’re not special.

I’ve heard of trainers using similar strategies. I don’t know what the rate of success is, however, and although Ellie didn’t seem to resource-guard against people or at home, we couldn’t know in advance how the multiple balls might affect her behavior. Since I hadn’t met Ellie in person, I was especially hesitant. What if she tried frantically to guard them all? On the other hand, it was the presence of other dogs that triggered Ellie’s guarding. In that case, indifference to tennis balls at home, where there weren’t other dogs, would probably not change her behavior at the park one bit.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).