Games for your Dog

apbc games dogs play

Playing games with your dog is an important part of relationship building and also provides improved mental stimulation. Meeting your dogs ’mental stimulation requirements’ is just as important as meeting your dog’s exercise requirements. There are many dogs that can be ‘run’ for long periods and still seem full of energy when returning home - this usually indicates a degree of under-stimulation—your dog may be physically tired but not mentally tired.

All games have rules and these should be clearly established from the outset. It is also important to remember that play and training are not two separate things—play can be used as a reward for responses to training commands and equally, training commands should become part of the game rules to ensure play does not become overly aroused or unmanageable.
Basic/Puppy Retrieve:
A retrieve is an excellent game to play as it encourages the dog to ‘want’ to bring items to you. This helps prevent possessive behaviour and combats issues like stealing or pinching items - if the dog gets used to bringing items to you, it makes no difference whether it is a toy or a pinched item, either can be easily relinquished from the dog.
The biggest mistake humans make with this game is to try and remove the item from the dog’s mouth as soon as they bring it back—this makes the dog reluctant to return to the owner. Furthermore if the owner then tries to chase the dog to get the item back, this proves to be a much more fun game for the dog. Always move away from the dog and use lots of voice encouragement to get the dog to bring the item nearer to you. Whenever your dog brings an item back to you avoid grabbing it straight away, fuss the dog, celebrate with him/her as the dog holds the item and be patient. Most dogs will drop the item eventually and you can then have a little play with the dog with the toy before it is thrown again.
If your dog shows no sign of bringing the toy back then start by practicing on a lead from a short distance. As the dog tries to move away or settle down with the toy simply tighten the lead slightly so it is uncomfortable to settle with - as the dog moves towards you give lots of encouragement ‘good boy/girl,’ etc. Be patent and stroke the dog when he/she makes effort to come towards you but do not grab for the toy. With practice your dog will come closer until he/she starts to learn that the best place to be with a toy is near to you.
Once a basic retrieve is well established it should be echoed with control based training commands like a more formal ‘give ‘ or ‘drop’ command and sit or down before the toy is throw again.
Tug Games
There is a lot of inappropriate advice given about playing tug games and it has been suggested that they may cause aggression. This is certainly not the case providing the rules of the game are established from the outset. Neither do you need to always ‘win’ the game (how boring is it to play a game and never win). Uncontrolled tug games (like any other game) can cause problems in some dogs but if the game is echoed with controlled based training commands there are rarely issues.
. Some dogs naturally tug and enjoy it, with these dogs the focus should be on establishing the rules. Tug should have a start and a stop command - the start can be any command (i.e. ‘tug’ ) used just before you encouraging the dog to take hold of the toy. The stop command should be trained as one would the ‘give’ or ‘drop’. When you want the dog to stop tugging it is very important that you stop tugging too - trying to prise or force the toy off the dog will only encourage him/her to keep hold and tug. Be patient and let the dog decide it is better to let go (receiving a food reward at first) and then start again.
As with all games, tug games should not be allowed to escalate, the rule being - if the dog is not calm enough to break the tug on command and then sit (or down) before being invited to tug again, then the dog is not calm enough for the game to continue. Games should be fun for both dog and owner but not to the extent where the dog becomes over-aroused and unable to respond to commands. Also any accidental mouthing on hands should be addressed by immediately stopping the game.
For dogs that are reluctant to tug this can be encouraged with time and patience. Many reserved dogs will automatically let go of the toy if you appear to want it—for these dogs encouraging tug games can really help build confidence. Always start with a very long toy (e.g. a rope toy) so you can hold one end quite far away from the dog (even a normal toy on a long piece of rope can work). As you move the toy around gently, reward the dog for any signs of tugging by letting go and allowing the dog to celebrate and chew on the toy for a bit before playing again. As confidence builds you will be able to tug less gently and for longer periods before letting go.
Search and Find Games
Search and find games are an excellent way of expending mental energy. They should be started at home until the dog is getting the idea of the game but they can then be used out and about on walks to improve bonding and stimulation. They are particularly good for dogs with a working drive giving them a more appropriate outlets for detecting scent than going off after squirrels, rabbits, etc.
Start with a new and exciting toy, big enough for your dog but small enough to fit your hands around so the toy can’t be seen when your hands are cupped around it. Ask your dog to sit and wait or ask another family member to gently hold the dog whilst you move around the room ‘pretending’ to place the item in 3 places (places the dog cannot see, i.e. just under the curtain or behind a chair). Keep your hands cupped together so the dog cannot tell if the toy has been put down but leave the toy in one of these 3 places. Return to the dog and open your hands to reveal they are empty—use a command like ‘find it’ and let the dog search the 3 places to find the toy - some encouragement may be necessary but try not to help too much.
Practice this a few times until the dog is getting the hang of the game. You can then start making the game a bit harder by including more places/options - this can be increased over a larger area as the dog gains confidence until the dog will willingly search a large area of the house and garden to find the toy. At this point the game can also be included on walks. The key with this training is making it easy for the dog to get it right and be rewarded by finding the toy—this will build confidence and enthusiasm for the game.
The dog should be able to find the toy based on your scent (from holding the toy in your hands) - however, for dogs that are not very toy motivated, you can used a toy that contains a small amount of food (e.g. a Kong) .
Inappropriate games.
Firstly any game can become inappropriate if the rules are not clear for the dog and they become excessive, uncontrolled or even obsessed with the game. For example repeatedly throwing a ball on the beach to ‘run’ the dog often encourages over-aroused and obsessive behaviour (particularly in certain breeds like Collies and Spaniels) . Accordingly, such excessive repetition of any one game should be avoided.
.There are two specific games that I consider inappropriate. The first is ‘chase games’ where the dog is encouraged to run away around the garden or out and about, often whilst holding a toy, whilst the owner chases the dog, teasing and jumping towards them. Many dogs like this game but in essence you are teaching the dog that it is fun to run away from you, particularly if they have picked up an item (a toy or a pinched item). This causes real problems for pinching and stealing then running away, and for recall.
The second game is play fighting, whereby the dog is encouraged to mouth (albeit gently) on the owners hands. This teaches the dog that it is okay and even a normal part of interacting with humans to use the teeth on human skin. Invariably, when the dog is over-excited, mouthing can become harder. If such behaviour forms a part of normal interaction at home then it is hardly surprising that the dog considers using his/her mouth as normal a way of interacting with humans in other situations.
Imagine your dog attempts to mouth at someone you meet out on a walk - even if he/she is gentle or only trying to play—if the other person is unsure around dogs, they may well think that your dog has attempted to bite them. This is a very dangerous president to set. It is fine to play more intensely with your dog (providing it is echoed with elements of control) but always ensure the dog’s mouth is focused on a toy and not on human skin.
Finally - play is not something that should just happen at home. Taking toys on walks and encouraging variety in the games you play will enhance your relationship with your dog and make you more
interesting. This in turn will help improve your dog’s responsiveness out and about.
Kate Reevell BSc (HONS) MSc. CABC, KCAI