The importance of playing with your dog
How you play with your dog (and how you don’t) makes a big difference on how your pet behaves, both in and out of play sessions. Playing can enhance your relationship, increase your dog’s willingness to do what you ask, teach emotional control, and in general make life a lot more fun. However, inappropriate play can also teach bad habits and create dogs who are emotionally out of control.
Many games with your dog should involve toys. Some of your dog’s toys should be of hollow, indestructible rubber into which you can stuff food, called Kongs. These are great at keeping your dog occupied when you don’t have enough time to play with him and it will encourage your dog to play by himself. There are many interactive toys out there that can entertain your dog for a long time. Have plenty of toys around, but only leave 3 or 4 out at a time and rotate it with some ‘new’ toys every week (even though you bought them months ago).
Although all dogs should have toys they can play with by themselves, the best kind of play is interactive play with you. It’s not only fun for both of you, but it’s full of opportunities for your dog to learn and become more responsive and better able to control himself when being emotionally aroused. It’s also a great way to enhance the bond between you and your dog.
Teaching your dog to fetch
This is an excellent way to exercise your dog. You can stand in your back garden enjoying your morning cuppa, while your dog runs its tail off – well, as long as your dog brings back the ball so you can throw it again (otherwise, that is chasing not fetching!).
To get started, practise in an area with few distractions. Start by waving the ball in front of your dog. It’s usually the movement that interests the dog, not the object. When he’s focused on the ball, throw it 4 to 5 feet away. When he grabs it, that’s great, but resist the urge to say “good boy!”. You can now clap your hands and start running away from your dog. This will encourage your dog to move towards you with the ball in his mouth. Don’t worry if he doesn’t bring it back all the way. As soon as he drops it, pick it up and throw it again immediately. Don’t ask him to sit after he brings it back, that won’t make him bring the ball back and might even feel like a punishment to him. You want to reinforce your dog for bringing it back by immediately having it again.
Repeat this a few times, but be careful about asking for too much too soon. Don’t worry if your dog loses interest after 3 or 4 throws, this is common at this stage of training. Gradually, over a period of months, throw the ball more often, ending either before your dog gets bored with the game or before he gets too tired. If your dog at the end fails to chase after the ball, no problem, game over. Don’t coax and plead, just walk away. Otherwise, you are being taught to fetch the ball yourself and be forewarned: dogs are really, really good at teaching humans to retrieve!
Teaching tricks to your dog
Teaching tricks is another wonderful way to play with your dog. Trick training has the advantage of being enjoyable for both of you, while still teaching your dog that it’s fun to pay attention. Teaching a trick is also a great mental exercise, and dogs need mental exercise as much as they need physical exercise. It makes sense if you think about it: Our dogs’ ancestors were problem-solving, strategic hunters who had to plan and coordinate their activities based on a complexity of factors. Many of our dogs are woefully under-employed, and teaching tricks is a wonderful way to engage their brains.
The tricks you can teach your dog are limited only by your dog’s physical condition and your imagination. You can teach your dog to sit pretty, to look sad, to take a bow, spin, roll over, shake, pray or even roll himself up in a blanket when you say “night night”. It’s a good idea to use a clicker when teaching such tricks, as it gives the dog feedback with such precision. There are many books out there in the market that take you step-by-step through clicker training on some of the more popular tricks.
There’s no reason not to think of ‘sit’ and ‘lie down’ as tricks too, and that might be a good thing. People seem to be more relaxed and cheerful when they are teaching their dogs ‘tricks’ rather than ‘obedience’. They also have more realistic expectations about tricks, rather than expecting their dogs to obey out of respect and submission. Remember you get back what you put in. If you want your dog to be enthusiastic, then be sure to be enthusiastic yourself.
Good dogs are made, not born, and they rely on you to be their coaches, supporters and benevolent leaders. So, here’s to a long, wonderful life for both you and your dog! Keep practising and playing together to forge the relationship you want.