The importance of play.

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Playing with your dog is the best way to train them. Every single time we interact with our dogs we are training them because Dogs Do What Works. If a behavior is rewarding to the dog, it will be repeated. Play builds excited energy and we can put structure to games to use them to set up real life energy increases and decreases. A dog and human couple that plays together stays together! Humans often over-complicate dogs and place their emotions on pooches to justify why a dog performs certain behaviors. This is most likely not the case; either the human is not giving the dog enough credit for being an animal 1st and a pet 2nd or they have not done enough systematic training for the dog to have any clue what the owner actually wants. Humans are very verbal creatures, dogs are not. The more you can patiently observe your dog and use your body language and signals to build cues the easier it will be for you and your dog to understand each other.

Dogs have natural drives (see handout: What Drives Your Dog) which are a huge factor in play and social interactions. Nature is in there telling them to react to stimulus a certain way. We can use these factors in play to stimulate our dogs both mentally and physically to achieve well balanced and tired dogs. Tired dogs are so well behaved.

Natural dog games include but are not limited to: Chase Me, King of the Hill, Posses the Item, Tug of War, Capture the Flag, Dig and Destroy!

These games can spell disaster in our home environments if the dog picks an inappropriate item or time to play them (run with owner’s socks). You can have different systems of management to keep dogs from performing these behaviors or you can give them an outlet to experience the thrill of being a dog and enjoying their favorite activities. Especially with young dogs one of the first games it is important to teach them is tug and chase activities. Some people discourage tug because “it makes dogs aggressive” but that is a myth. Dogs will try to play tug with your shoe laces or the drapes if you don’t let them do it with a toy. The importance like any good game is setting rules and limits to the game.

Play Tips

Leash them up: Start any games on a long line to avoid having to play chase me, this will take chase out of the occasion so you can focus on the game you are trying to play.

Fetch or Get it Games: When you are playing with a ball or tossing a toy you are utilizing a dogs Prey Drive, “quick something moved chase it”. The key is to put value on the game not the object. Pick a small space and put your dog on a long leash, roll the ball or toss the toy a short distance, when they grab the object clap and praise them as you move backwards or run away from them, then as they follow you hold the leash gently and pet and praise them “good get it” or “good fetch”. This way you are rewarding the game not putting value on an object then chasing them trying to get it back.

Tug or Toy games: Give and Drop are two essential commands I teach right away. I teach “give” to mean let go of a toy in my hand. “Drop” means to trade for a better toy, treat or to drop something out of the mouth. The best way to do this is with tug. Dog has the object, you encourage them to tug and pull. Then make yourself calm and boring. Hold on to their collar or leash and hold your hand under the toy so you are no longer pulling on the toy just ready to catch it, say “GIVE” one time and wait. They can’t run away or continue to tug, as soon as they drop it, get excited, “YES” and the game continues right away. Repeat several times and the dog will begin to Give faster and faster finding it is more fun to give up the toy to make the game go on than to hold the toy.

Food and Scent Games: Humans forget how important food rewards are. All dogs have food drive and it is the easiest drive to manipulate. If your dog lives for food make them earn it! Skip a meal and make them earn breakfast on your morning walk by heeling on a loose leash, holding a down stay, practice that recall command for fun and food. If you have a dog with a great nose hide treats in puzzle games (there are many you can purchase) or searching for a treat ball in tall grass or pillow cushions. If your dog does not have a lot of food drive it may be because they know it is always there at 5pm sharp, mix it up a bit. Dogs are fasting creatures by nature.

Dig It: If your dog digs in the garden or in house plants, take them to sand or loose gravel to dig for a toy or stick they love. You can get a kiddy pool and fill it with sand for the backyard and hide some toys in there. Give them a place that is more fun to dig than anywhere else.

Breed and Temperament: What was your dog created to do? Think about your dog’s natural breed and in the case of “mix ’em up mutts” notice what kinds of play activities they perform. Does your dog chase dogs nipping at their heels? Does your dog love to sniff and ignore people and dogs? Does your dog live for the ball? Can your dog escape anywhere?

Think about it and consider a sport to get the wiggles out.

-If you have a big strong dog there are Pulling Sports where your dog can pull weight for fun, pull you wearing a harness on a bike, scooter or sled.

– If your dog loves to play ball look up Fly-ball Sports or use it for an obedience reward.

-If you have a dominant working dog breed (Germans Shepherd, Doberman, Bouvier de Flanders, etc) look into protection sport and Mondioring Sport.

-Agility is a great way for those little problem solving agile dogs to get put to work.

-There are also places you can go and your dog gets to herd sheep or ducks if they have a lot of prey drive.

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