Why & how to play with your dog

By admin Posted in Puppy /

Playing with your dog, especially while he is young, is extremely important as it helps to build and strengthen the bond that you have with him and encourages him to see you as his main source of fun and entertainment. This means that when you are out together, your dog will be more likely to obey a recall, even when engaged in play with other dogs, because he knows that returning to you does not mean an end to his fun, but rather an opportunity for more fun. Games also provide a healthy and socially acceptable way of satisfying a dog’s prey-drive. Energy and skills that would naturally be used for hunting can be redirected into harmless activities such as retrieving and tug-of-war. A dog that is focused on fetching his ball on the beach is far less likely to chase birds and joggers. Games and toys can also be very effective incentives and rewards for obedience training.

In order to raise a well-mannered dog, certain rules must be applied to games right from puppyhood:


  1. Encourage games with toys rather than wrestling and play-fighting. A puppy that leaps all over you and chews your belongings may be cute, but an adult who does the same thing is a menace. Both pups and adult dogs should be allowed free access chew toys that keep them occupied when they are alone, but all toys that you use in your joint play sessions must be kept by you. You should always end the play session by removing the toy and putting it away. Such behaviour is in line with your position as parent/leader.
  2. Dogs must be taught to let go of whatever toy they have on command. Having this control over your dog is valuable when he grabs something he shouldn’t have. Teach your dog that if he lets go of one thing, you will give him something else, maybe even a food reward. Simply snatching his toys away and then ignoring him will teach him to avoid you when he has something he likes. To remove a toy from a dog that won’t let go, place one hand over the top of his muzzle so that your thumb is on one side of his mouth and your fingers on the other. Carefully insert your thumb and fingers into his mouth so that you have a firm grip on his top jaw. (Place your fingers somewhere between the canines and the back molars to avoid having them pinched) Pull up on the jaw gently to loosen his grip and remove the toy with your free hand. As you remove the toy say “leave” and reward the dog once you have it. If your dog is particularly determined and this method does not work, giving him a pinch with your fingers on one side of his waist should prompt him to drop the toy. Please note, however, that the object of the exercise is not to hurt your dog, but to get him to release the toy with as little pressure as possible. Touching a dog close to the underside of his waist is a dominant gesture, a way of letting him know that you are the boss. It is this that should cause him to release the toy to you and not physical pain.
  3. Any unacceptable behaviour should mean the immediate end of the play session. If your dog bites, growls loudly or becomes very rough, immediately remove the toy and walk away. Yelling “Ouch!” as soon as his teeth make contact with your skin allows him to pinpoint what he did wrong.
  4.  Tug-of war is a controversial game with many ·experts· firmly opposed to it, because of the belief that it encourages aggressive behaviour. For me the test is whether the dog will let go of the object on command, despite how much he is enjoying the game. If yes, then I believe that the game is acceptable, if no, strike this game from your list! When playing tug-of-war games, you should win more than you lose. If you win all the time, your dog will lose interest in the game, but if he wins more often, he may begin to think that he is stronger than you and therefore a better candidate for pack-leader.
  5.  All games with children should be supervised. Dogs often develop very bad habits playing with kids who either encourage unacceptable behaviour or are unable to guide the dog towards what is acceptable. Children often tease dogs, intentionally or not, and playtime can get seriously out of hand. The sound of children shrieking can trigger prey-drive in a dog and may result in a nasty nip or bite.

Please also ensure that all toys are safe for your dog to play with. Avoid small balls that may become lodged in the throat and toys from which large chunks of plastic or rubber can easily be broken off and swallowed, causing intestinal blockages. Only play tug-of-war with objects that are soft (such as a stuffed sock or rope made of soft thread) and will not damage your dog’s teeth and gums and never lift him off the ground by means of the tug-toy in his mouth.


Useful Games

Incorporating the following exercises into your play sessions should greatly improve the control you have over your dog’s actions and may even save your dog from an embarrassing (for you!) or dangerous situation.

The tail wagging game: This teaches a dog to focus on your face, make eye-contact with you and pay attention – For a puppy or small dog, start by sitting or kneeling on the ground. For a larger dog, sit in a chair. Call your dog to you and say his name. When he looks up at your face, immediately reward him with a tit-bit and lots of praise. Show him that you have another tit-bit and, this time; hold it in front of your face. Say his name and excite him with your voice so that his tail begins to wag. Reward him with the tit-bit and praise. Slowly begin to extend the time he is required to look at you before he is rewarded. If he loses concentration and looks away, speak to him to get him to focus on your face again and reward him. Never reward when he looks away. This exercise is especially useful if you wish to obedience train your dog, as it helps to develop the concentration span needed for more complex and lengthy exercises.

The chase recall: Once your dog reliably retrieves (runs after a toy you have thrown and brings it back to you), this exercise will teach him to come back mid-retrieve, i.e. without fetching the object, on your command. For this you will need two retrieve toys and a helper. Get the helper to stand several meters away from you and engage in a retrieve game with your dog by throwing one of the toys directly past your helper. After a few retrieves, throw the retrieve toy to your helper so that he/she can catch it and hide it away. Your dog should be mid-chase at this stage. Immediately call out “leave!” and, as your dog turns to look at you, show him the other toy, which you have kept hidden until now, wave it around to entice him and throw it in the opposite direction. Allow him to retrieve this second toy and reward him enthusiastically for doing so. The point is to teach your dog that if he leaves one game of chase, you will have another one lined up for him. In this respect it is advisable to use a more exciting toy for the second retrieve. After all, if your dog is ball-mad, he is unlikely to leave his ball for a stick. After a while, your dog should learn to abandon the chase for the first article on your command, even though you have no helper to remove it from his sight. Having a dog that is reliable in the chase recall is very useful when a cat, cyclist or another dog’s ball is the object of pursuit. Once learned, this exercise should not be repeated too often; otherwise your dog may start to hesitate on every retrieve.

Hide and Seek: This game is useful in that it teaches dogs to find objects on command by using their sense of smell alone. Start by showing your dog a favourite toy and letting him smell it. Give him a sit/down stay (if he has not yet learned this, get someone to restrain him) and allow him to watch while you hide the toy somewhere close by. Use a word or phrase such as “find it”, “seek” or “where’s it gone” to encourage your dog to look for the hidden object and praise him enthusiastically when he finds it. Encourage him to pick up the toy if he has not yet done so and reward him by having a game with it – if you hid a ball, throw it for him, if a tug-toy, play tug-of-war. Once he seems to understand the game, i.e. he is running out keenly to look for the toy; it is time to teach him to rely completely on his nose to find it. To do this, go out of his sight when you hide the toy, so that he cannot rely on his eyes or his memory to tell him where it is, and continue with the game as before. Remember to rub new or unfamiliar toys in your hands, so that he can identify them by your scent.

Most dogs seem to love this game and, when they have found their toys will prance around with them in their mouths, tails wagging, as if to say, “Look how clever I am!” Hide and Seek can also come in handy if you drop your wallet or keys in the park!

Down at a distance: Only teach this once your dog understands and readily responds to the down command. The purpose of this exercise is to give you the ability to stop your dog in his tracks no matter where he is or what he is doing. There may be an occasion where calling your dog to you in order to gain control over him is not an option, for example, if he has to cross traffic to get to you. Downing him on the spot would then be the best way of gaining control over him until you can get to him or the danger has passed. Start by giving your dog the down command when he is a pace or two away from you, stepping towards him at the same time to prevent him from moving forward. Once he is responding promptly, repeat the exercise, but instead of moving your feet, simply lean towards him. When this is successful, stand up straight and give the command. You can then begin to increase the distance between you and your dog when the command is given. This exercise can also be taught when your dog is running towards you. Start by downing him just before he reaches you and then further and further away.

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