Shelter dogs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, have been trained up as “ball-dogs” for a tennis match.

The stray dogs, who once roamed the city’s streets, were used in place of traditional ball-boys and ball-girls during an exhibition match of the ATP 250 Brazilian Open tournament, which took place at the end of February.

After winning their matches earlier in the day, tennis players Gastao Elias of Portugal and Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena took to the court once more – this time, not to establish their own sporting superiority, but to showcase a rather different set of skills.

Wearing orange neckerchiefs, the four shelter dogs demonstrated their flair for fetching, playfully running after the often intentionally missed tennis balls, picking them up with their teeth and then returning them, somewhat reluctantly, to their trainer, Andrea Beckert.

The rescue dogs – Frida, Mel, Isabelle and Costela – had been trained for months prior to their debut on Centre Court and had been taught to recognise basic commands such as “pick up the ball”, “let it go”, ”stay” and “come”. The adorable dogs were an instant hit with the crowd, receiving far more cheers and claps than the players themselves, despite the routine difficulties in persuading the enthusiastic employees to give back their new toy once it had been captured.

Andrea Beckert, the dogs’ trainer, described how the biggest challenges in training the dogs up for their first performance had been stopping them from getting distracted and increasing their confidence in front of large crowds. “We have to make them adapt, feel the environment, the court, the noise of the balls and the noise of the people”, he explained.

The unusual scheme was thought up with the intention of promoting the adoption of abandoned street dogs. According to the organiser of the ball-dog initiative, Marli Scaramella, the aim of the project was to show that with a bit of love, feeding-up and training, even animals coming from traumatic or abusive backgrounds can be happy and affectionate pets.

The founder of the initiative also spoke about the importance and value of doing such an activity at an important sporting event such as the Brazilian Open tournament. Scaramella, who is also president of the animal charity known as ONG ABEAC (Associação Bem-Estar Animal Amigos da Célia), explained how the project had been a fantastic way to gain publicity for, and educate people about, the animal charity, and to raise awareness about all the dogs that are still looking for a home.

The shelter, where the four ball-dogs still live, currently houses over 1,000 dogs and cats.

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