Whenever I meet with families and their new puppies, I always try to discuss with them proper play techniques. Some people find it rather funny when I bring up the subject since playing with their dogs seemingly has nothing to do with training. Many people expect a trainer to come in and teach them how to become the enforcer of rules, not how to let loose and be silly with their canine friends. After all, who needs someone to teach them and their dogs to go wild?
Perhaps not everyone, but many people could use at least a pointer or two when it comes to playing with their four-legged pals. The two biggest concerns that I have are: 1) People generally don’t play enough with their dogs and 2) When they do play, there aren’t any rules.
Playing with your dog everyday can turn a decent relationship between you and your pup into something great. It allows the two of you to bond and it demonstrates to your dog what value lies in the interactions they have with you. I personally enjoy terrific games of Monkey in the Middle, Fetch, and Tug with Lucy and I must say, those times are some of the most precious in our relationship. Playing can also be used as a reward for good behavior. Rather than always using food to reinforce manners, chasing a tennis ball or tugging can be equally rewarding if not more so for many dogs.
For those who do play with their dogs, my concern is for the lack of rules during their games. Why is it that we find it necessary to follow rules when people play with each other, such as in any sport, yet many people will play with their dogs without any parameters whatsoever? Guidelines are put in place to keep things civilized, which is the exact reason why we should set very clear boundaries when we play with our dogs. Otherwise, you might easily teach your pup that in having fun, they need not maintain any sort of self-control.
Now, I don’t mean to take all the whimsy out of playing with our dogs. By all means let loose and enjoy yourself and don’t be so concerned with rules that you become militant in your style of play. Just make sure you’re consistent in letting your dog know what’s appropriate when having fun. Here are the rules I like to follow:
1) Canine teeth must stay away from human skin. Any type of hard mouthing means the game ends.
2) The dog should not jump on the person unless specifically invited to do so.
3) When the dog is getting too rowdy and excited, pause for a bit of manners training. Ask the dog to lie down, for instance, in order to earn another chance at chasing the ball.
4) The person should always have control of the toy, so make sure that your dog is able to release objects from their mouths. If not, teach them a solid “Drop” cue. It is wise to also teach them a “Take It” cue so that you can specifically invite them to pick up a toy.
5) Give your dog sufficient time to go nuts and savor the moment, but make sure they are able to follow your cue when you want them to settle a bit.
7) Play appropriate games only. (I once asked a client if he played with his dog and he said, “Yes, hand games.” Well, I was not familiar with such games and so I kindly asked him to elaborate. Turned out he was offering his hands to entice his puppy to chew on them. This is a great example of what’s NOT appropriate!)
6) Try to play a little everyday! Enjoy each other’s company.
Above is a video of me playing Tug with Lucy. You will see that I set the tone for the game. I also took the opportunity to practice some of her manners skills since tugging is an extremely high value reward for her.
For great ideas on fun games for you and your dog, check out Pat Miller’s book, Play With Your Dog.