It may seem from my last couple of columns — and from conversations with people I meet, social media posts and every other interaction I have — that I have puppies on the brain.
Actually, it’s just one puppy. But the first step is admitting you have a problem, and I’ll admit that since Lucy, a yellow Lab puppy, joined our family in January, she’s certainly been the center of attention.
Part of that attention has involved finding toys for her to play with. Every year, a new survey comes out that says people are spending more and more on their pets, and I can safely say I’m contributing to the trend. Over the past few months, I’ve spent lots of time — and a fair amount of money — in pet aisles and pet stores looking for things that Lucy can tug, chew or chase.
Puppy toy buying has been challenging, because anything we get not only has to amuse a very clever little puppy (she’s already figuring out how to open doors and drawers) but also hold up to our 10-year-old Lab Max, who can disembowel your typical puppy plush toy in about 10 seconds. We’ve tried a bunch of different things, from the various store-bought toys to some home-made contraptions, with mixed results. The first batch of plush toys was a good reminder as to why we never used to get plush toys for the dogs. The more durable toys haven’t seemed to hold the dogs’ interest, while the more interesting toys just haven’t held up.
Then I found something at one of our local warehouse stores, and it has been a game-changer — literally — because it’s led us to invent a new game to play with our dogs. The ball has a softball-sized, flexible shell with some holes in it. Stuffed inside is a plush toy with a squeaker. The aptly named product is called a Slobber Ball, and at least with my dogs, it only takes a minute or two for the ball to be covered in dog slobber. The dogs love chasing the Slobber Ball, to the point where they won’t even look up if we try to toss any of the other various balls we’ve acquired for their enjoyment.
Anyway, the game involves tossing the ball from our living room area, down the hallway and into our master bedroom (we don’t have hang ups about playing ball in the house with the dogs, but the kids are another story). Because the dogs enjoy chasing the ball down the hallway so much, and have become somewhat insistent that if we’re home, we ought to be playing ball, I started giving myself points for certain shots, kind of like bocce or horseshoes: 1 point for being able to get it through the bedroom door (which is trickier than it sounds with two dogs chasing after it, especially once the ball is loaded up with slobber); 2 points for getting it in the gap between the puppy’s training kennel and my dresser; and three points for getting it into the kennel.
There’s also trick shots, such as making it bounce at a right angle into the bathroom, or getting it to land on top of the kennel. But you also lose points if you toss the ball anywhere near the hallway light fixture, or if it bounces over the puppy gate and down the stairs.
There’s also some strategy. For instance, if the dogs knock the kennel door shut, you have to place your next shot so that they’ll knock it open again.
I jokingly told my wife about my scoring system, but I didn’t think anyone else was picking up on it until I heard her brag about hitting a 3-pointer.
Not all of dogs love the new game. In fact, our pug is not at all thrilled about 110-plus pounds of Labrador retriever galumphing around the house. Her strategy is, if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay in someone’s lap.
And I’m not sure how enthusiastic some of our guests have been when the dogs have insisted that they play, too. I guess not everyone enjoys a dog drool-covered ball being shoved on them.
I’m thinking that to take the game to the next level, we’ll have to keep a running score and institute a time limit — say, 10 minutes. That would put some more variables into play — when Max gets the ball, he brings it right back, but Lucy is still learning the retrieve part of the game, and when she gets it, she likes to run laps around the loveseat while Max chases her.
We have a dry-erase board mounted right by the “field of play” that would make a perfect scoreboard. It’s supposed to be for phone messages, but the kids don’t answer the phone anyway.
In the spirit of the season — it’s March Madness time — we could even put together a tournament bracket. The possibilities are endless.
All of this sounds pretty elaborate just to keep a puppy amused for a little while, and maybe I need a little profession help for my current puppy problem. But for the time being, I’m just going to play ball.
Reach Clarion editor Will Morrow at email@example.com.