At Thursday’s Brazil Open exhibition game between Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain and Gastao Elias of Portugal, it was the ball boys, or ball dogs, rather, that stole the show.
In an attempt to showcase abandoned rescue dogs and their abilities and desires to be trained and learn, Andrea Beckert, a trainer from the Association of Animal Wellbeing, worked with four rescue dogs that had been found abandoned in the slums of Sao Paolo, Brazil, for months in order to train them to be “ball dogs” for the Brazil Open. According to CNN, the dogs, named Frida, Mel, Isabelle, and Costela were trained to pick up errant tennis balls, and return them to her, much like a regular ball boy would.
Costela, Beckert says, is the Portuguese word for “rib,” a name that stuck with the dog because of the state he was in when they found him.
“When we found him abandoned in an empty lot he was so skinny and ravaged by ticks that we called him Costela.”
Beckert says the reasoning behind the Brazil Open ball dog initiative was to show the country that abandoned dogs are just as good, if not better, than store or breeder bought designer dogs. Rescue dogs often have much more love to give, and a willingness to please their families, which allows them to be easily trained for any task — even chasing and returning tennis balls on the court.
“We want to show that abandoned dogs can be adopted and trained. After all, it’s not easy to get a dog to only pick up the lost balls, and then to give them up!”
During Thursday’s exhibition game, the four ball dogs wore orange bandanas and chased down balls that were hit out of bounds by Baena and Elias — the 122nd and 140th ranked players — many of which were hit out of bounds on purpose, in an effort to show that well-fed and well-treated dogs can be happy, loving companions, says Marli Scaramella, the organizer of the Brazil Open ball dog initiative, reports Sportsnet.
For about a half an hour, the dogs were cheered on while they retrieved the tennis balls in their mouths, and returned them to Beckert at her command.
Beckert also said that while the ball dogs looked like they were easily trained to retrieve the balls, she made sure to note that their training wasn’t just about returning the errant tennis balls to her, but that she also had to train them to not be afraid of the noises coming from the court or the throngs of people in attendance. Something, she says, that isn’t the easiest task for dogs that were once badly mistreated and abandoned by previous owners. While Thursday night’s ball dogs seemed at home in their surroundings, it definitely took time to get them there. Some dogs that were trained for the ball dog initiative are understandably still skittish, and need further training.
“These are dogs that were mistreated. We have to make them adapt, feel the environment, the court, the noise of the balls and the noise of the people. Some are doing well, others are still a little scared.”
Aside from the “pick the ball” and “let it go” commands the ball dogs learned, they were also taught the basic commands of “sit” and “stay,” Beckert says.
Beckert added that her association currently houses roughly 1,200 abandoned or mistreated dogs, and says she hopes the display of her ball dogs at the Brazil Open will raise awareness to the plight of abandoned dogs in the country, and help to get them adopted out to families wishing for a loveable and loving companion.
The dogs will participate in the awards ceremony on Sunday. All four Brazil Open ball dogs still live at the shelter, awaiting adoption.
[Photo by AP Photo/Leandro Martins]