by Claire Anderson
One of the questions we hear most often from our clients is, “what games can I play with my dog?” The answer? There are many great games both you and your dog can enjoy! The options are endless.
Play is one of the best ways to bond with your dog, build trust, and tire that pooch out so you can both snuggle up and watch Netflix. Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to play, so read on to ensure you are providing your dog with the best forms of play. These games are guaranteed to enrich your dog's life and build your relationship!
Fetch is one of the oldest and most popular games to play with your pup! In fact, we made a video about the importance of playing fetch as an exercise. Some dogs (like retrievers) were born to fetch and do it instinctually. But if your dog isn’t already fetching, not to worry! It is trainable!*
How to play 'fetch':
1. First, you must train your dog to pick up the toy. To do this, simply start with your dog's favorite toy** and a treat! Wiggle the toy to initiate play, then at the moment your pup grabs the toy, praise and reinforce. Repeat this as many times as necessary, saying "fetch" as he grabs it.
2. When your dog is happily picking up the toy on cue, start gently tugging as he holds it, gradually increasing the amount of time you tug. When he will hold the toy for at least 5 seconds, you are ready!
3. Ask for a sit and when your pup does, praise and toss the toy a few feet away while saying the cue, "fetch!". When he picks it up, praise and hold your treat where he can see it. When he moves back to you, praise again and offer the treat. Use your "drop it" cue if you have one. If not, most dogs will happily drop it for the treat anyway!
*Not all dogs enjoy retrieving items. For example, if I throw a ball for my dachshund, Miles, he MIGHT lazily look at it and then look at me like I must be crazy. More likely though, he won’t even lift his head. That’s okay! To each his own. Don’t force it. There are other ways to play!
**If your dog doesn't like toys, here's how you can build interest in toys!
The game of “Find It” is great for any dog, but especially those scent hounds like beagles, dachshunds, terriers, and coon hounds (to name a few). It goes by other names too, like scent work and nose work. Basically, you're hiding an item and then asking your dog to “find it.” However, this is not something your dog automatically knows, it needs to be taught. But once your dog knows it, you’ll have hours of fun in your future!
"Find it" is a great game for your dog because you can play it indoors on a rainy day, and it requires very little participation on your part so you can do it while your on your computer or reading a book.
How to play 'find it':
1. Person (A) holds Fido the dog.
2. Person (B) takes the treat or the toy and places it somewhere where Fido can see it.
3. Person (B) says “Find it!” as Person (A) lets go of Fido.
4. Fido finds the treat or toy!
1. Ask Fido the dog to sit or lay down, and then ask them to stay.
2. Take the treat or toy and place it somewhere slightly hidden.
3. Release him from his stay as you say “Find it!”
4. Allow Fido to search for the treat or toy until he finds it.
Note: If your dog gives up and sits next to you for longer than 30-45 seconds, you can help him by standing closer to the treat or toy, but do not point towards it to help him. The purpose of the game is to get him to use his nose and brain to search for something, which provides mental and physical stimulation and strengthens his independence.
The nice thing about combining it with his stay is that it is also a practice in impulse control and gets him to use his stay in a new context.
Hide and Seek
I love this game and it is perfect for those of you with children!* You can also use your dog's meal time to play this game, which will tire both your dog and your kids.
How to play:
Load up your treat pouch with your dog's meal or favorite treats. One person will hold the dog while the other person hides. Make it very easy for your dog at first by not going far. When you're ready, the hidden person will excitedly call the dog and the handler will release him. When he finds you, praise enthusiastically and give him his rewards! Keep repeating until your food rewards are gone.
*Always supervise play with children.
Many (not all!) dogs love water. I once had a client whose dog loved taking showers with her! There are many ways to interact with water. If you have a pool or live on a lake, river, or ocean, great! You can swim and play with your pup in the water. Not all dogs are natural born swimmers, so dog life jackets are a good idea.
If you do not have easy access to water, buy a foldable pet pool for your yard. Another fun way to interact with your water dog is the hose or sprinkler. Many dogs enjoy chasing moving water. Lastly, bubbles can be loads of fun for both you and your pooch. We love this bubble machine and you can even get flavored bubbles!
Catch Me If You Can
Dogs love to chase and be chased! In your yard or at a park, start by standing in place with your pup. Suddenly, say their name excitedly and run away from them! Most dogs will enthusiastically follow! After a bit of chase, let them catch you, praise and reward with play or their favorite treats. Repeat.
Note: it is always better to have your dog chase you! This will help strengthen their recall and teach them to follow you. If spend most of your time chasing them, you are teaching them to run away from you (not ideal for many reasons)! If you are playing in a park that is not fenced in, it is best to use a long training line so you can ensure your dog's safety.
Agility is probably the game that is the most effective at building communication and attention. And guess what? You don’t need a full agility course to play agility games! You can use items from your garage, or obstacles that already exist on your normal walking path for example. Agility can do wonders for fearful or reactive dogs as well.
For beginners, I recommend getting a simple agility jump or a hula hoop and luring your pup through or over with his favorite treat or toy. If you want to take your agility training to the next level, contact a positive reinforcement based trainer that can help!
Tug of War
Tug of War is another tried and true game to play with your dog and most dogs love it. However, it's important to teach your dog how to play tug of war properly, which will benefit both you and your dog the most.
Before playing tug of war, make sure to teach your dog how to drop it on cue! Dropping an item on cue can be taught very simply by trading your dog another toy or treat and pairing the release of the item with the phrase "drop it." Play a game with two of his favorite toys or a toy and a treat. Trade him the treat for the toy or the toy for the toy, saying "drop it" as he drops what is in his mouth. Simply trade him for something with more value to him such as a treat or a squeaky toy.
Dance and Chill
Turn up your favorite dance music! This game is very simple and is super fun. Fill your house with your favorite upbeat music and have fun. Run around, spin, dance, and play with your dog. This can be a major stress reliever for both of you! When you are both tired out, turn down the music and find a cozy spot. Lay down and snuggle up because it is chill time! This game is wonderful because it also teaches your dog to get geared up and then calm up. It is a great way to prevent over-stimulation and teach relaxation.
What’s in the Box?
This one is super fun and can be great for fearful, nervous pups. Simply fill a cardboard box with noise makers like noisy paper, cans, empty plastic bottles, or balled up newspaper*. Sprinkle treats inside the box and allow your pup to explore! He may be nervous at first and that's okay! He can take his time. If he won't go near it, then start with an empty box and add treats. When he's comfortable, you can gradually add the other items. Vary the box and it's contents so it stays novel and exciting for him. Always supervise with this game to prevent your dog from swallowing something he shouldn't. This game is a great confidence-booster, especially for dogs who have noise sensitivity or fear of new things. Progress gradually and keep it fun!
*Only use safe items and supervise carefully!
Follow the Leader
Many people spend most of their walks just trying to get their dog to go in specific directions, which ends in frustration on both sides of the leash. Let’s have some fun instead! Take your dog to a green space or hiking trail and let them be the leader! I encourage you to use a longer line for this, like a 15 foot dog leash. Your dog will follow his nose and you should follow (within reason, of course—safety should always come first.) It is important every now and then to stop and engage with your pup in a positive, fun way. Simply call your dog to you, ask for a sit, and reinforce with a treat!
Play is the best way to engage with your dog and can be incorporated easily in your every day activities, like your walks, mealtimes, and training sessions. If you'd like more help enriching your dog's life with play, don't hesitate to contact a positive reinforcement based trainer today!