How often do you play with your dog? Is it part of your routine together, or something that gets sidelined depending on your mood and motivation after a hard day? Do you prioritise training or physical exercise over games with your dog? Perhaps now’s the time to think again!
Playing games with your dog can bring great benefits. Most dogs just love to play, and it can open up avenues of motivation, stamina, and improved responsiveness. In my experience, dogs are generally good at playing – it’s the human that needs reminding!
What kind of play?
The type of play that you choose to engage in with your dog needs to be the kind that he would choose! This means that you need to get inside your dog’s mind to determine what kind of game he would really like to play with you. My dogs all have their own individual favourites: chasing, tugging and searching. I know this because although all three will happily get involved in almost any game going, their levels of excitement and pleasure are obvious when they are playing the game that they really love.
To a certain extent, the type of game your dog loves most will be determined by breed or type motivation. Dogs which have a high ‘prey drive’ are often more likely to be motivated to enjoy chase games – chasing a ball or other toy – than they are just sniffing. However, my Collie-cross loves being chased even more than chasing – so we put a smattering of this in the mix whenever we play.
Of course, if you have more than one dog, it’s important that they are all enjoying the game as much as each other. Watch out for one dog becoming too serious or suddenly shifting to a hard-wired behaviour pattern that could end in tears. If your dogs are very different in their preferences for which type of game they find enjoyable, but not over-arousing, then you may need to separate them while you play with each dog individually.
Play by the rules
Of course, playing wild games with your dog does have its potential down-side if you do not have adequate control in order to be able to grab calm from chaos at a second’s notice. Building a ‘safety valve’ into your play means that you can allow your dog to really let himself go when enjoying the game without fear of losing control completely. For this reason alone, it’s sensible to build in rules at the outset. These will be different for every dog and every owner, but my top two are simple: no touching of human skin or clothing with teeth during play, no jumping on people while playing! These misdemeanours are sufficient to earn the dog a red card, which results in the cessation of play for a few minutes. Of course, you can stop play at any time – by simply saying “Wrong”, switching off your interactions and leaving the room – if you feel that the play is getting out of hand or if you are teaching a rowdy teenage dog how to play appropriately with humans. Once your dog has got the idea that rough play results in the equivalent of being sent off, you can then instigate a warning – like a yellow card – by saying “wrong” if things need to calm down just a little. Suddenly, the very act of playing is helping to teach your dog to moderate his own behaviour.
(By the way, if you have a reluctant player you might want to check out ‘The Motivation Movie’ DVD – with obedience supremo Joanna Hill – her methods are brilliant for all dogs, not just those who are being trained for competitive sport.)
Once you have established the ground rules, play can be much more exciting for you both. Frankly, much of the play that I see between humans and dogs is half-hearted at best, off-putting at worst. For play to be truly fun, it’s essential that both dog and owner can get in touch with their inner puppy and really give it their all. How about making up a new game just for your own dog? In my house we play four-way sprints (fast and furious, involving circuits round the sofa), boys vs girls tug of war (dogs and people in gender teams), and wacky races (don’t ask).
You might want to close the curtains though…