Ask Cesar: Ball-Obsessed German Shepherd
First, we love you! My German Shepherd is great except when we play ball. He will run over anything in his way: smaller dogs, my foot, my children. Actually, he will knock you off a cliff if you don’t watch out. I’m over it!!!! Please please help!
As you may well know, German Shepherds are very powerful breeds. They require a lot of exercise to achieve balance and fulfillment, so playing ball with him is a great way to get that energy out. But if you don’t establish any rules, boundaries, or limitations, he will take advantage of play-time and not follow you as the pack leader.
It is important that you show your dog what is the appropriate type of play when it comes to fetch. You dog craves rules and structure, so assert your leadership and set some boundaries for playing with the ball. For example, make sure he is in a calm state of mind before you throw the ball. Make sure he is sitting and gives you his eye contact (or respect) first. This way, you are in control of the fame. His reward is your attention and the ball.
Also, give your own energy some thought. Before you throw the ball, are you getting him overly excited? What’s your tone of voice? Are you saying, “Go get it!” in an excited tone? Or are you using you calm, assertive energy? Practice this in areas where there aren’t other dogs or children around first, and when your dog shows you he can play in a calm, submissive manner, then you can gradually reintroduce him to areas with heavier traffic and distractions. Allow him to get to play with the ball at home or in your yard, without playing fetch -- this desensitizes him to the ball as well and can make it less enticing an object to obsess over to such a high level of distraction. It doesn’t sound like aggressive behavior here; it sounds like a dog who’s been encouraged to get to this level of excitement.
To make play-time more balanced, take your dog on a walk beforehand. He will most likely have enough energy to continue playing after the walk, but he will not be as energized as to run over the people and things in his path. This also conditions him to learn how to play. Remember, repetition is the key. Also, try hiding the ball at times, so it encourages him to play with his nose too, rather than just his eyes and ears with you’re playing fetch. Search and rescue activities might be good for him to stimulate his nose too. Take breaks between throws and teach him to play with different toys in between too, such as toys and frisbees to keep it exciting and prevent his obsession from recurring.