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Automatic ball launcher for dogs
Automatic ball launchers are a perfect use of dog tech! They’re useful, fun, time-saving for you and an ideal combination of entertainment and challenge for your dog.
Automatic ball throwers, sometimes called automatic fetch machines, have been around for two decades according to GoDogGo which launched – sorry! 🙂 – its first machine in 1999. So the essential technology used in these units should be well tried and tested now.
Development has also brought prices down to a very affordable level and there are now dozens of ball throwers on the market. However, they are not all the same.
In this feature we pick our Top Automatic ball throwers and give you the information you need to pick the best one for you, your home and your dog.
How do automatic ball throwers work?
All these devices work in a similar way. They all use a tennis ball or mini tennis ball which you – or your dog – drop into a funnel-type opening at the top of the unit. It then launches the ball out of a front opening to a distance of between 10 and 50 feet.
Most ball launchers have an adjustable distance setting so they can be used both indoors and out, and the distance can be set to suit your dog.
All (except one which we’ve discovered – coming up) are electrically powered. If they require an adapter then it needs to be used near a power outlet. Some, however, use batteries or rechargeable batteries which means you can take them to the park or on a picnic.
How to use an automatic ball thrower with your dog
For most users, the aim is to get their dog to play with the ball launcher by him- or herself. This means teaching your dog not only to fetch a ball but also to drop it into the launcher so it can throw it out again.
Of course, that’s not essential and you can simply drop in the ball yourself although it will help if your dog actually retrieves the ball otherwise you’ll be getting as much exercise as your dog 🙂
Dog requirements for using a ball launcher
The main requirement is that your dog loves to play fetch. Not all dogs do. Some dogs like to chase something, catch it but then leave it. Some dogs chase it, play with it and won’t bring it back.
You can train your dog to fetch using positive reinforcement by offering rewards such as treats.
If your dog will fetch a ball back to you, you should be able to train them to use a ball launcher.
If they simply won’t retrieve, then a ball launcher is not going to make them do it.
Teaching your dog to drop
Teaching your dog to drop is one of the first early commands most people teach their dog. It’s useful not only when playing games but also if the dog should pick up something he shouldn’t have.
Once your dog can drop, the next step is to teach them to drop the ball into the ball launcher.
The iFetch site has some brilliant videos showing how to do this. Here’s one:
Train your dog to stand behind the unit when dropping it. DO NOT allow him or her to stand in front of the launch hole when dropping the ball.
This article is not about dog training so we’ll leave it there but it’s important that you know that some training will be required in order to get the most from an automatic ball thrower.
The DOs and DON’Ts of using an automatic ball thrower
Although the eventual purpose of an automatic ball thrower is for your dog to entertain himself, you should not leave him alone with the unit. You absolutely do not want him putting his paw or nose inside or chewing it or the adapter cable.
Also, while some units can be used with wet and slobbery balls, you should never use the unit if it’s wet. All units should be cleaned and dried after each use.
When using indoors, a little common sense will tell you not to point it towards anything breakable.
And don’t use anything other than the recommended balls or balls size. Other objects could be dangerous when ejected and could well damage the mechanism.
The problem with automatic ball launchers
The three most common issues owners of ball throwers complain about are:
- My dog chews the balls
- My dog doesn’t ‘get it’ or understand what to do
- The launcher doesn’t work or has broken
The first two problems occur because the user hasn’t understood what the launcher is, or how it works.
The ‘my dog chews the balls’ problem
Some dogs chew when bored but will otherwise happily play fetch with minimal chewing.
If your dog chews balls, they will chew the balls supplied with the launcher unless you train them not to. If you cannot stop your dog chewing items then any sort of fetch game is going to be difficult.
A certain amount of chewing is inevitable and acceptable but you’ll know if your dog’s a destructive chewer or not. How to stop your dog chewing his bed contains general tips on how to prevent unwanted chewing behaviour.
All launcher balls are hollow. A solid ball is obviously more durable but generally not recommended for launchers as they may be too heavy for the mechanism and may damage it.
However, some launchers recommend heavier, though still hollow, balls such as the Planet Dog Glow Ball which is made of tougher stuff than the average launcher ball. But check with the individual launchers.
The ‘my dog doesn’t get it’ problem
To get the most fun from a ball thrower, you want to teach your dog how to load the ball back into the launcher. You need to be prepared to spend some time training your dog to do this.
A dog will not understand that they need to drop the ball into the launcher in order to get another throw. They don’t make the connection between the two events as we are able to do.
So initially, no dog will ‘get it’ and all dogs will require some training to make the association. Some dogs may ‘get it’ in an hour or two but others may take several days.
Minimum required training
At the very least you need your dog to retrieve and give you the ball. You can then put it into the launcher yourself. From there you may be able to teach them to drop it into the launcher on their own.
However, you also need to accept that some dogs just won’t want to fetch and drop. If your dog already fetches and will drop a ball, you’re half way there. You might want to train them to do this before buying a machine because if they don’t, a machine is not going to magically make them do it 🙂
The ‘my machine doesn’t work/is broken’ problem
Automatic ball throwers are heavily mechanical. There are gears and wheels and springs and what not inside which wind up and whack the ball. While not exactly delicate, they need to be treated with care.
They don’t like water, foreign objects, and need to be used in accordance with the instructions. After use, they should be cleaned of dirt and dried, again, as per the instructions.
If you look after the machine it should give you good service.
If your machine does break down
However, some users report their machine breaking down so it’s important to check the warranty and buy from a company that will replace or repair the machine in case it goes wrong.
Although some manufacturers sell direct (and some ONLY sell direct) my preferred method of purchase is from Amazon. Returns are easy and hassle-free, and I have always found their customer service to be excellent, especially in cases of faulty goods.
That’s not to say that you won’t get excellent service elsewhere but do check the small print in the T&C for warranty and return requirements.
Of course, these are all things you should consider before buying anything 🙂
Now – onto the reviews
The Best automatic ball throwers for dogs reviews
It’s nice to have a Top Ten or a Top Five, isn’t it?
That’s what we set out to do; after all, there are dozens of automatic ball throwers out there.
Best from the past…
However, after much investigation, we discovered that some ‘best buys’ from previous years were no longer available or not widely available.
Many still appear in certain Best Buy lists and some still appear on Amazon but are listed as ‘currently unavailable’ so we had to discount these from our current list.
So after a great deal of research through automatic ball launchers that ARE still available, we settled on just four reliable manufacturers who are currently producing and shipping automatic ball throwers.
Having said that, between them we have a total of 8 excellent ball throwers so read the reviews and see which ones are the best fit for you and your dog.
The iFetch story – in brief
Grant Hamill was trying to do his homework and their Toy Poodle, Prancer, kept dropping a ball at his feet wanting to play fetch. Grant wondered if someone could make a device to throw the ball for him.
His Grandfather took up the idea and after some crowd funding in 2013, the iFetch was born.
Maybe they weren’t aware of the GoDogGo 🙂 Whatever, it’s a great story and the iFetch has introduced a really cool, stylish design to the automatic ball thrower.
We’ll start with the iFetch. This uses mini 1.5″ balls and three are included with the unit. It’s intended for smaller dogs, perhaps up to 40lbs. However, do make sure that the balls are large enough for your dog as a small ball could be a choking hazard.
Also, although the balls feel robust for their size, if your dog’s a chewer rather than a fetcher, the balls may not last too long although you can buy replacement balls.
If the balls are too small for your dog, check out the iFetch Too!
Small and perfectly formed
Because it only launches small balls, the iFetch doesn’t need to be very large and it weighs only 1.38kg (3lbs).
It uses an adapter but it can also run off six C batteries (not supplied) if you want to use it outside or away from a power socket.
There are three distance settings – 10 feet, 20 feet and 30 feet.
The iFetch is a stylish, well-designed unit which can run with an adapter or from batteries. It’s ideal for use both indoors and outdoors.
It’s perfect for use with smaller dogs who are comfortable with the mini-size balls.
Buy from Amazon
There are two major differences between the iFetch and the iFetch Too. Most importantly, the iFetch Too can launch full-size 2.5″ tennis balls so it’s far more suitable for medium dogs and ideal for large dogs.
Because it launches larger balls, the unit is larger, too, and weighs 5.6kg which is just over 12lbs.
New balls please
The unit comes with three iFetch tennis balls which are 2.5″ in diameter. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) defines the official diameter as 6.54–6.86 cm (2.57–2.70 inches) o there’s not a massive difference.
However, a major feature of the iFetch Too is that it will launch balls up to 2.7″ so ‘proper’ tennis balls work well.
The company also recommends medium-size Chuckit balls which are slightly smaller but heavier so won’t launch as far. They also recommend the Planet Dog Glow Ball (make sure you get the 2.5″ ball, not the 3″ one) which launches almost as far as a tennis ball and works well when slobbery or wet.
Do note, of course, that balls of different weights and sizes will perform slightly differently.
Going the distance
There are now four distance settings – 10 feet, 25 feet, 50 feet and random.
When you throw a ball for your dog do they dart away a few yards in anticipation of where you’re going to throw the ball? I usually turn around and throw it in the opposite direction 🙂
The random setting doesn’t do that but it does take away the expectation that the ball is going to land in roughly the same place each time which offers your dog an additional challenge.
Time to launch
Another small variation occurs as a result of the random setting and that’s the time to launch.
The time it takes the unit to launch a ball after it’s dropped in the funnel depends on the distance. Shorter distances fire out more quickly than longer ones (due to the way the firing mechanism ‘winds up’). So if your dog is really clever and can anticipate when the ball is about to be launched when the distance is fixed, the random setting will make it less predictable.
All this and rechargeable Too!
The other major change is the inclusion of a rechargeable battery which can give you around 250 launches. You are no longer tied to the house or garden or need to replace batteries.
The unit has a useful battery charge indicator which shows when the battery is low and very low. If the battery is empty, a full recharge takes around three hours.
Slobbery when wet
If you have a particularly slobbery dog, the slobber will go into the machine along with the ball! Also, if you’re playing outside and it’s damp, the ball will get wet and this will go into the machine, too.
The main effect of this is to reduce the distance the ball will travel. However, of course, the interior of the machine will get damp.
Cleaning the iFetch
Slobbery, wet or not, whenever you’ve been using the machine, as small amount of moisture and dirt will inevitably find its way into the machine.
Clean with a slightly damp cloth. If the unit itself gets wet, dry it thoroughly before using again.
iFetch Too summary
Like the iFetch, this is a cool-looking unit but this one throws real tennis balls. The rechargeable batteries make it super portable and the random setting will keep your dog guessing.
It’s perfect for medium and larger dogs.
Buy from Amazon
It works by gravity. You dog drops the ball into the top then it randomly rolls out of one of three holes so your dog will never know which direction it’s going to go.
The Frenzy uses mini 1.5″ tennis balls, the same size as the iFetch, which store neatly under the unit when not in use.
Being gravity-driven, the balls don’t travel far, typically 3-6 feet depending on the floor surface. Because of this, it’s mostly suitable for smaller or less energetic dogs.
You might get more distance if you can find a solid rubber ball the same size. It would also be more durable if your dog has a tendency to chew.
While the funnel for dropping the ball onto is quite broad, it’s quite shallow so a ball dropped from a height runs the risk of bouncing out.
Take a look at the iFetch Frenzy at play.
iFetch Frenzy summary
Perhaps ‘Frenzy’ isn’t quite the most accurate word to describe this and it definitely won’t excite the more energetic dog. It may interest smaller dogs who like to play fetch.
The most common complaint comes from users who had not read the product description. No, it’s no electric-powered. Yes, it uses mini balls and No, the balls won’t roll far on a carpet.
You’ll probably know if it may interest your dog or not.
The great thing about the Frenzy is it’s very portable and there’s nothing to wear out so if your dog likes it, it will likely last a lifetime.
Buy from Amazon
GoDogGo claim to have produced the first automatic ball thrower back in 199. It was called the Automatic Fetch Machine and was developed for the family’s Chocolate Lab, Hershey (great name for a chocolate dog :-)).
GoDogGo has two models – the GoDogGo G4 Fetch Machine and the GoDogGo JR Fetch Machine. The main difference is the size of the balls they launch and the distance they launch them.
GoDogGo G4 Fetch Machine
The G4 is 13.5″ wide and 16.75″ high.
The first thing you notice is the bucket on top. Technically it’s an Ergo Bucket 🙂
Yep, it doesn’t look as sleek or hi tech as some other launchers but the bigger opening means it’s a lot easier for your dog to drop the ball into, especially if they haven’t quite grasped the fact that they need to drop the ball INTO the bucket/funnel rather than just beside it.
The launch distance can be set to Low, Medium or High. The actual distance a ball travels depends on the ball but it will typically be from 15-45 feet.
The distance adjustment is under the unit which needs to be turned off before adjusting. It’s not quite as convenient as having a control on the side especially if you want to change the distance during a session.
Lots of sizes
The GoDogGo G4 works with ball sizes from 1.75″-2.6″. The company suggests you use Chuckit tennis and Chuckit Ultra Balls, the Tuff Ball, the Kong Ball, Squeaker balls, and racquet balls. As with all launchers, the distance is dependent on the ball type, weight and condition.
Another advantage of the bucket is that you can fill it with multiple balls – up to 17 full-size tennis balls or 25 smaller balls. This could keep one dog – or several dogs – busy for quite a while.
Having said that, while training, it’s best to use just one ball so your dog knows he has to drop it in the bucket before another one is launched.
Another setting you need to make is the launch delay time which can be 4, 7 or 15 seconds.
This is, perhaps, not so important if you’re playing with the Fetch machine with your dog. If your dog is retrieving and dropping the ball into the bucket himself, you’ll need to work out the optimum delay time to suit your dog and keep him interested.
Adapter and batteries
The unit can run directly from the mains via an adapter or you can power it with batteries for use on a field or in a park.
However, the manual warns not to use the adapter if there are batteries in the machine. You DO read the manual, don’t you?
So this is weird as most battery/adapter gizmos take care of such situations automatically. It’s not difficult to create a break circuit so the batteries are disconnected if an adapter is plugged in. But better yet, why not use rechargeable batteries?
Yes, the Fetch Machine has a remote control which works up to 50 feet away from the unit. With it you can launch balls remotely, one at a time.
You can also use it to set the launch delay time.
The Fetch Machine has a sensor that will not activate the launch mechanism until there’s a ball ready to be launched. It fires the ball in an upward trajectory and you need to keep your dog – and others! – more than two feet away from the front of the machine.
Most dogs will race ahead of the launcher in anticipation of the next ball and, due to the high arc, some dogs will be able to catch the ball before it hits the ground. This is great fun, and if your dog shows an interest in doing this, you can adjust the distance to help them.
Here’s the Fetch Machine in action:
GoDogGo JR Fetch Machine
The JR Fetch Machine is almost identical to the G4 although it is a few inches smaller being 11.5″ wide and 13.75″ high. There’s not much difference but the JR is designed for use with smaller balls than the G4, from 1.75″-2.25″ (racquet ball size).
Its launch distance is also slightly shorter ranging from 12-35 feet.
G4 or JR?
The major difference is the ball size. The G4 can handle balls up to 2.6″ (proper tennis ball size) while the JR only goes up to 2.25″. The smallest ball for both machines is 1.75″ which is slightly larger than the 1.5£ mini tennis balls used by some other launchers.
So the question really comes down to whether or not you want to use full-size tennis balls.
If your dog already plays with tennis balls, it’s the G4. Otherwise if you have a small dog or a medium dog who prefers smaller balls, that may not seem so important.
GoDogGo G4 and JR Fetch Machines summary
The GoDogGo Fetch Machines have several excellent features to make the most of the automatic ball throwing experience.
The wide Ergo Bucket is ideal for dogs who haven’t quite mastered the accurate drop, and it can hold multiple balls.
The time delay is great for anticipation and matching to your dog’s retrieve time, while the throw arc enables your dog to catch the ball in mid air if you make the correct adjustments.
The remote control allows you to interact with your dog in a way you simply can’t do with an auto launch system.
There are a few niggles which could easily be corrected with a design tweak and it’s strange that after 20 years these haven’t been addressed. However, don’t let that dissuade you from investigating one of the most powerful and feature-packed automatic ball throwers on the market, and they come with a 6-month warranty.
If you’re in the USA or Canada, note that the GoDogGo machines are ONLY available directly from the company.
There are two distributors in Australia:
GoDogGo in Australia
EURPE: GoDogGo in Europe
Buy from Amazon
CoolMate – iDogMate
CoolMate is the company that makes the iDogMate automatic ball thrower. Like many other throwers, there are two models.
iDogMate Fetch Midi
The iDogMate Midi is the larger of the two throwers designed for medium and large dogs. It handles balls from 2.4″-2.7″ so perfect tennis ball size. You get three 2.5″ balls in the pack.
The thrower is square-shaped but with lots of smooth curves and looks very modern and stylish. It measures 13.8 x 13.8 x 9.4 inches and has side handles making it easy to carry around.
If you regularly take it to the park or a field, you can buy the optional iDog Carry bag which holds the unit, the balls and the adapter. This also makes a useful storage container.
The design makes it very stable and it won’t be easily knocked over by a boisterous dog. The large funnel on the top is a good-size area for your dog to drop the ball into.
The iDogMate can be powered by an adapter but it’s also fitted with rechargeable Li-ion batteries so it can be used anywhere. A full charge will provide enough power for around 1500 launches although the launch distance will decrease as the battery runs down.
Launch distance and remote control
The unit comes with a remote control which can be used to set the launch distance and turn the machine on and off.
The launch distance can be set on the machine itself to 10, 20, 40 or 50 feet plus random to keep your dog guessing. The balls are launched in a nice arc enabling a quick and clever dog to catch them in mid air.
The remote control allows you a little more interaction with your dog. If he or she moves towards the spot where they think the ball will land, you can keep them guessing by changing the distance.
iDogMate Fetch Mini
The iDog Mini is slightly smaller and uses smaller balls, 1.5”-1.67”. You also get five balls in the box rather than three.
The launch distances are slightly shorter, too, at 10, 20 and 30 feet.
Otherwise, the units look similar – the Mini being a Mini Me – and work in the same way.
iDog Fetch summary
The iDog design is really cool and the unit is solid and unlikely to get knocked over.
The Midi unit can throw balls further than the average launcher which is ideal for large and energetic dogs. The high arc is also great for dogs who like to catch balls in mid air.
iDogMate G4 – Checl prices on Amazon
As of writing, the iDogMate G4 does not appear on Amazon Australia although it may do when you read this. Here’s the iDogMate page.
iDogMate JR Checl prices on Amazon
Petsafe automatic ball launcher
Looking at the design, the Petsafe automatic ball launcher is not as sleek or stylish as some other launchers but it is extremely functional and has some unique features. You can’t judge a ball thrower by looking at its cover 🙂
The thrower is easily carried by a handle on top of the unit. The funnel, or hopper as Petsafe calls it, is the entire top of the unit which is a good large area for your dog to drop the ball into.
The hopper can hold up to three balls at one time although in most circumstances with one dog you’ll only need to use one ball. However, if you have two or three dogs this would allow them to all play at the same time.
One of the Petsafe’s main features is safety. It has a front-facing motion sensor and will not launch a ball if a dog or human is within 7 feet of it. It also has a sensor in the launch pocket to prevent a launch if there’s an object directly in front of it.
It’s not called Petsafe for nothing!
Up and at ’em
The launcher uses normal-size tennis balls and comes with two. It can throw them 8-30 feet. There are 9 distance settings which you make with a physical knob so there’s a lot of control over the distance.
You can also adjust the angle of throw, again with a physical knob cutely shaped like a paw. The angle can be varied from 20 to 45 degrees through 6 angle settings.
Between distance and angle, you have great control over the trajectory. This is excellent if your dog likes to catch the ball in mid air
The unit contains a speaker and makes a sort of screechy whirring sound before it launches the ball. This may alarm some dogs and almost certainly will irritate some users. Have a listen:
Having a rest
The unit is powered by an adapter or it can run off batteries (not supplied).
It doesn’t power off automatically although it does go through a rest cycle so it will run for 15 minutes, stop for 15 minutes then start again.
This is promoted as another safety feature so your dog doesn’t get overtired. That might be a neat idea but you can’t adjust the rest time, and who’s to say exactly when your dog should rest, anyway?
You can override this by switching off for 10 seconds then on again, but that’s still a little gap between helpfulness and functionality that needs filling.
Here’s a video of the Petsafe in action which highlights its main features.
Petsafe automatic ball launcher summary
It’s not as hi tech as some of the other launchers but sometimes good ol’ engineering does a better job and Petsafe offers a very impressive 2-year warranty. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s also one of the cheapest automatic ball throwers in our roundup.
When you also consider the variable distance and angle controls, the myriad safety features, and the fact that it handles full-size tennis balls and the Petsafe becomes a very attractive option
Buy from Amazo
Automatic ball throwers summary
These four companies produce the best automatic ball throwers on the market today. There isn’t an absolute Best. They all have their pros and cons but you should be able to find at least one which ideally suits you, your dog and your environment.
I hope you found this article and the reviews interesting and useful.
You may also be interested in these articles and reviews:
If you have any questions about automatic ball throwers or would like to share your experience of using them, please leave a message in the Comments below and I will reply as soon as possible.
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