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Focus, balls & OCD

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I know I've read on these forums about not encouraging our border collies to get obsessed with playing fetch, but I can't remember the whole gist of it.

Our boy likes to play fetch, it's a fairly relaxed game at home where we throw the ball three or four times and that's usually enough before he finds something else to do or we tell him no more and direct him to another toy. Sometimes we take the ball out with us and he absolutely loves playing fetch when we are somewhere different, when we throw the ball he is so focussed on doing his job of bringing it back to us that things that would normally distract him are ignored. And of course, if he has the ball he always comes back.

It is tempting to use the ball to control him, he seems to like having something to completely focus on, but it seems wrong. Can someone explain why though and what we should or shouldn't be doing? I want him to enjoy just being out sniffing and being. At the moment we start with a bit of nice lead walking, sometimes adding in a few challenges (being near other dogs/people/traffic) or doing some tricks before throwing the ball a few times if he's been good and calm. Then we put it away and encourage him to sniff or watch the world before ending the outing with some more nice lead walking.

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Using the ball as a reward is okay. 

Using the ball to stop him interacting or noticing the environment (outside some pretty emergency type situations) is a problem.

A little fetch as part of training and games is okay.

Endless fetch to 'burn energy' and the only game you play with him/way you interact  is a problem.

If he starts getting obsessive, you'll notice.  If that happens, make the ball go away. 


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Our six month old is so focused on his black and white soccer balls and behaves exactly like they are sheep that he is herding. We can take him into our yard (outside of his penned area) and we know that he will not take his eye off them. He obeys our herding commands and is the perfect sheepdog.

If we try and do the same with a yellow tennis ball he’s immediately off to eat the seed at the bird feeders, leap into the stream and generally behaves like a rascal lol!

So ya - focus is good. I think if they get obsessed with an object beyond your control or if an object obsession prevents them resting or doing alternative activities, then you have an issue that needs addressing. 

With our guy, once the soccer balls are put away or we say ‘that’ll do’ and go inside, he ignores them. 

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Dear Aspiring Sheepdoggers,

Ms. Shelly writes, in part:" Our six month old is so focused on his black and white soccer balls and behaves exactly like they are sheep that he is herding."


There are one or two slight differences between sheep and a soccer ball, viz: the ball is easier for the dog to read.



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Lol! I agree but we certainly mix it up by kicking the ball where he’s not expecting it and my sheep impressions are legendary haha! 

I guess the point I was trying to make is that focus is good and it might look like obsession but if the dog can respond to ‘that’ll do’ and rest (as opposed to continuing with a ball obsession), then it’s not a concern. 

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When I’m out walking splash (13w) off leash; at the start he is often a little timid, especially if it’s early in the morning and still kind of dark. I bring the ball with me, and after throwing it a few times (for him to chase after and then lie on until I catch up - still working on the retrieve) he warms up and is happy to romp around. 

And when he decides he’s had enough of the walk, he’ll pester me to throw the ball and when I do, he runs and grabs it and carries it all the way back to the car (or tries to) in a clear signal of “im ready to go”. 

Still, I try not to use it too much because I don’t want to turn him into a “ball dog”

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi everyone, Please help!

I'm glad this post was up today when I came online because I've been meaning to seek advice about this exact topic. I'll give a little background info and then explain what's going on. 

My family and I moved from a rural area to a big city a couple months ago with our 1 year old Border Collie named Scout. He had the best life I could have imagined giving a dog, acres and acres of forest to roam around in, lots of people and dog friends to interact with, dog friendly beaches and trails, etc. His needs were being met easily in our old life and then unexpectedlu, our life shifted and we had to make a quick and undesired move to the city! Oh goodness, its been hard on all of us, and Scout is adapting well but, we are noticing some issues arising that we didn't have to deal with much before- which brings me here to seek advice about his obsessiveness over fetch and general help to incorporate other things into our new life. He used to play fetch in our country life but would (somewhat reluctantly) gave it up when we said "all done" or focused attention on something else either on a walk or interacting with other dogs. When we were on our 8 day road trip to our new home, fetch became the game of choice to get him exercise and keep his attention focused on us so that he wouldn't go running out into the street at the rest stop or small park we happened to find on the side of the road. Looking back, I can see how we have greatly encourage this fetch-obsessed behavior, beginning with that road trip. Once arriving in to our new urban apartment, fetch was yet again one of the main ways he interacts outside for exercise. We live in an area where there aren't many places nearby except from dog parks where he can be off leash. Each morning we go on a jog together, then on a nice 30 minute walk around the neighborhood midday, we do some obedience and other fun training midday, and in the early evening we go to the park for a fetch session. I'm not super happy about this. and I am noticing more and more the negative affects of his fetch-obsessed behavior. First, there are plenty of other dogs there for him to run around with at the park and he just totally ignores them to focus on fetch unless I put the ball or Frisbee away. Lately when I do this he becomes frustrated jumps up at me and then begrudgingly finds a dog to run around with for 2 minutes before finding a stick on the ground to become obsessed about. Also, he brings his fetch toys to other people to throw for him because he knows I will sometimes put it away and that other folks are always more than happy to throw it for him. Usually he still comes back to me when I call him but in the last couple days he is not even doing that! Other folks are re-enforcing that he doesn't have to listen to me because they will throw the ball for him! He is usually a very well behaved dog, but this new life is definitely making him more frustrated, listening less and developing some bad habits. Maybe its his age as well (about 15 months old). 

Anyway, after reading some of the other posts I see that I have to take the fetch toys away completely and maybe not even go to the park and interact with him in that space for a while. Some questions: Do I have to take all the toys he uses to try to get me to play fetch with him (sometimes he uses his rope and even bones sometimes)? I need to give him something (or many things) to replace fetch. What can I do in my situation where when we're at the park he easily finds a stick to play fetch with? What other activities can we do /play together for not only exercise but stimulation and connection? I know that I need to incorporate more into his new life to give him jobs and stimulate his mental and physical needs aside from what we're already doing like, going on walks, jogs, and doing obedience and tricks training. Please let me know other things we can do together to replace fetch and get exercise and stimulation. I am looking into doing agility with him but even if I can afford that, it'll likely only be once a week. 

Another negative effect of the fetch-obsession is that anytime we go near a park he is used to playing fetch in- he begins pulling on the leash like madman! I understand that I have totally encourage this behavior and that it needs to stop asap. Please help me figure out what to do to move forward. Thanks!

Here are some cute pictures to brighten your day :)





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Emmazool,  first welcome to the BC boards. You have a beautiful dog.

But.....I am truly not understanding why you feel this is such a big problem.

I personally don't think you have a problem at all with this dog, save for the fact that he doesn't recall to you if someone else has a fetch toy. Whether or not he wants to play with other dogs is not important. Many dogs, especially border collies, don't play with other dogs very much unless they are other border collies. If your dog doesn't really want to do that, why not let him do what he wants to do? Especially as, in a city, it is harder to give your dog enough exercise and fun and fetch is a good way to get that.

Here's my take on it, having lived many years with a fetch-obsessed border collie. I got Jester at age two when I was living in one room in Los Angeles. The only way I could get him enough play and exercise on a daily basis was to teach him (yes, I taught him) to play fetch. I took him to parks and church lawns and little vacant lots and anywhere I found that there was enough room for him to fetch. On the weekends we always went hiking, but weekdays there was not enough time to get out of the city.

Once he caught on he was wholly obsessed with fetching. It was his favorite thing, and it brought him great happiness, and brought me great joy to see him so happy. On days on bad weather or if I were sick we played in the house. We moved after a year to a semi-rural place and continued playing every day, both in and outside. It was never a problem in any way for either one of us, and here is why.

I always controlled the toys and decided when and where we played fetch and for how long. The basket of toys was available to Jester, but he was not allowed to bring one to me to throw unless I told him to.  I loved how his eyes lit up when I did. When it was time to stop, I would warn him by saying "last one!" before the last throw. He understood that, and would usually choose to bring the toy back, drop it at my feet, and then go get some water. He learned by repetition that "last one" always meant last one, with no exceptions. He learned that we only played when I chose to, with no exceptions. If he tried to bring a toy to throw when I had not asked him to, the whole box of toys because unavailable. Without exception. 

He became an amazing frisbee-catching dog and I wish I had some of his astonishing leaps on video. It was so beautiful to watch his delight and enthusiasm. He tried at first to bring me sticks when we were hiking, but I won't throw sticks due to the danger, so he learned that did not work and he stopped. Instead, he would bring me pine cones, and I would throw those, which was hilarious. One time he brought me a leaf and asked me to throw it. I laughed so hard, as did my companion. He brought joy to many people with his passion for fetching and he always  quit immediately and either lay down or went to do something else when I said "That'll do". No problem. At times I even used throwing something for him a couple of times as a reward for doing something I wanted him to do when I was training him. Great motivator.

Work with him on leash so that he knows that pulling will never, ever get him to the park sooner. He should never be pulling on leash no matter why. Never throw anything for him unless you asked him to go get something to throw. Don't allow others to throw things for him and if they do, politely ask them not to do that because you are training your dog, take your dog and put him gently on a leash and say "that will do" or whatever your phrase is that means it is over. He will learn that taking his toy to someone else results in the fun ending and will stop doing it. If he bring you a stick, ignore it and he will stop bringing you sticks. If he takes a stick to someone else, go bring him back as above.

Playing fetch is a fine game for a dog, especially one who lives in the city. Let him have his passion and his joy. As long as you are always without exception the only one who controls when, where, how, for how long and with what, there is nothing bad that can come of it. He gets his fun, you get a good way to exercise him at your own discretion and choosing, he learns not to beg for it (from anyone, ever) because that doesn't ever work, and everyone is happy.  Let him have his fun!

And, if you really think having a dog whose passion is fetching, you can send him to me. He and I would get along just great!

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Thanks so much for your response @D'Elle. I feel much better. I was getting a little worked up over it this morning.

I appreciate you recounting your story to show me how you've dealt with a fetch-loving dog and through your story and advice I realize that I have been making a couple mistakes, which is why I think we've been having problems. First, I haven't always been the one to call the shots in terms of when, where, how, for how long and with what he is able to play fetch. I sometimes am in control, but other times he's pulling me to the park or bringing me a ball or another toy in the house for me to throw for him, and I usually oblige. Also, when we have guests, he is so persistent with them that I have to put the ball away, or he just gets downright annoying. Thankfully he hasn't started barking for me to throw him the ball! So thank you for showing me that playing fetch and even being obsesses is ok when it is controlled by myself or my partner. Also, I appreciate the advice on how to deal with Scout trying to get others at the park to throw the ball for him. I will try that today and see how it goes. 

He is also an amazing Frisbee catcher and I would hate taking this bit of joy away from him, so thanks again for your help!

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I agree with @D’Elle

Our last dog was a lab/beagle mix and she was ‘obsessed’ (if that’s the right word) with slingy/chuckit. In her prime and after a walk to a suitable spot we would chuck her tennis ball a huge way off - up to 100 times in her prime. It tapered off with age. 

We also did ‘last one’ although as she aged she would hang onto the ball and stand off to one side for a breather, after which the number of times we chucked it reduced over the years to just a handful. 

She was also never one for that much interaction with other dogs although she had a couple of doggy friends we’d do joint walks or have play dates with. 

I don’t think it’s obsession either. I’ve seen obsessive behaviors in dogs and children and it normally shows as a kind of anxiety/repetitive action that’s separate from the activity they are supposed to be engaging with (if that makes sense). 

Your pup will adapt and it sounds like you are doing all the right things. 

I read a lovely piece by a vet recently about dogs behaviour up until the time they fully mature (2 or 3 years for example) and that’s that his clients always try and attribute changes in behavior like frustration or manners or training going haywire to an event or circumstance whereas he points out that with growing up, dogs will have off days irrespective of anything else going on around them.

I understand your concern. I’m good at seeing positives in others and their dogs but when it’s my own pup i’m Always seeking similar reassurance haha! 


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For an alternative activity for your dog in the city, look up parkour / canine parkour.  You begin to think of urban structures as parkour objects. Maybe makes it a bit more interesting?

There are several organizations that offer parkour titles, but since I do not participate, I can not tell you the pros and cons of the different organizations. I am not a big fan of titles, but to achieve a title, you generally have to train for a goal - which is a good thing. You also have to video your efforts to submit for judging towards a title.

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Emmazool, I always had all the toys put away when guests came, because no one could resist him when he brought one of his stuffed sheep to them to throw. Putting them out of reach removed the possibility and there was no problem. One thing I can tell you is that 100% consistency for the dog's lifetime is needed with this, because if your dog is like Jester, he will always be hoping that one day the rules will change and you and everyone else will throw things for him endlessly whenever he wants. :lol:

In my opinion, his not getting it whenever he wants is much better for him in other ways as well. It teaches him that he has to wait for things and the joy is even greater when it is finally time to play.

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You can also try to mix up your fetching game to engage his brain more or just to have some variation.

I am training my dog to fetch like they train retrievers to fetch for the hunt (the positive way - not the e-collar way). It is not as exciting as playing with a ball and definitely not as fast paced.
But I think it is fun to mix it up and to teach my dog new things. 

I bought a retrieving bumper and taught my dog to fetch it "the regular way" by just throwing it. And after that taught a "trailing memory" where you drop the bumper while walking, double back with the dog and align the dog for the fetch. I am planning to introduce multiple bumpers soon and distractions.

I came up with this idea because I have this wonderful book about training retrievers, but no retriever to train :)  but hey, border collies can do anything, right?
In the book they explain how to teach a dog to be steady on the hunt and reliable: you have to pick up 50% of the bumpers yourself, so the dog knows not all bumpers are his. I mean, it may not be necessary for a household pet, but I tried it out with Molly and she is a lot more patient with bumpers now than with balls. It is a good waiting exercise anyway. Although I look like an idiot fetching my own bumpers!





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33 minutes ago, Flora & Molly said:

I bought a retrieving bumper and taught my dog to fetch it "the regular way" by just throwing it. And after that taught a "trailing memory" where you drop the bumper while walking, double back with the dog and align the dog for the fetch. I am planning to introduce multiple bumpers soon and distractions.

That is such a great idea! Thank-you so much!

I know our boy is so keen to learn new things but I can never think what to teach.

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