Play With Your Dog
Ball! The magic word to my dog that means it’s time to run, chase, jump, catch and take it back for me to throw again. His body language says it all. This is fun! Look at me! I can catch the ball! What’s more, he does a ‘lap of honor’. Such is his pleasure at catching the ball that his feelings of satisfaction, fulfillment, and enjoyment are plain for all to see. Just watch any dog in the park playing ball and you can learn much about the animal’s relationship with their owner – if there is respect and if there is a willingness to please.
Games can be fast and furious, or intricate and mentally demanding for dogs. Playing ‘fetch’ fulfills many of our dog’s needs. The prey drive is satisfied by chasing the ball and catching it, and a sense of achievement comes from having possession of a high-value item (the ball, albeit temporarily), and the interplay with the owner when the ball is released ready to be thrown again. Dogs are social animals and enjoy interacting with their owners, especially when both are having fun.
Play behaviors arise during puppyhood, with littermates from as young as three weeks old wrestling together, rolling over, nipping, biting, yapping, sparring on their back legs and chasing each other. It is clear that play helps dogs to learn social skills, awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, and bite inhibition – all of which will be useful throughout their lives. Of course, all of these skills can be found in aggressive dogs behavior, too, but puppies learn to give an introduction to their chosen playmate to indicate that they want to play and not fight for real. When the dog’s tail end is held high, with his back legs extending upwards and the forelegs pressed into the ground, his face is also expressing that he wants to play – maybe he’s even ‘smiling’. Who could resist that invitation to play? I admit I would find it difficult!
Play & learn
I love playing with dogs, but what they may not realize is that I am actually training them as I do so. It is, without doubt, the best way to teach new, good habits and immediate responses.
As with any game, there must be rules; just imagine playing rugby or football without rules! No one would be surprised if there were serious injuries, or worse. So, have it in mind what you want to achieve when you start to play with your dog, and you should be pleasantly surprised at his response. Here’s one game you can try: you’ll need a high-value item that your dog really loves, such as a tuggy or a ball on a rope, plus a flowerpot. Get your dog engaged with the toy, but always keep hold of one end of it. Give your dog the signal to release the toy – use a verbal command, such as “Leave”, “Drop” or “Give”, together with a hand signal, which could be holding your hand out under the dog’s mouth, or bringing your hand above his head as if you want him to sit. So now you have taught him to watch your body language and to listen to you. So far, so good.
Now give your dog a “Stay” command, and take a few paces towards the flowerpot, which you have previously placed in position. It can either be upside down, in which case you can place the toy on the upturned pot so that your dog can see it, or you can stand it the right way up and put the toy into the pot. Walk back to stand beside your dog. Give him a “Watch” command to get eye contact, then indicate with your arm towards the pot and say “Fetch”. You may have to walk to the pot with him for the first few times, especially if you have put the toy inside, out of sight, but dogs soon get the idea of what is required if it is to their advantage. When the dog brings the toy back, say “Leave” (or your preferred command), and offer your hand for him to put it into your palm. Now, for all this hard work, there has to be a high-value reward, so you could play tug, or even throw the ball for your dog to retrieve. The more you play this game, the more you can expect your dog to learn, and the more variations you can incorporate. Why not give a “Down” or “Sit” command as your dog approaches the flowerpot, just before he retrieves the item? Or you could teach him to “Sit” or “Down” halfway back, especially if you regularly extend the distance you stand away from the flowerpot. The options and opportunities are endless.
So, just this one game has taught or reinforced six commands: watch, sit, stay, down, fetch, and leave. In fact, you can teach endless behaviors to dogs provided you make the game fun and rewarding. I always take the toy back and put it out of sight once the game is over so that when I next play, I know where the toy is – and so does my dog… Quite often he will go to where it’s kept and indicate that he wants to play. Sometimes I’m agreeable, sometimes not. Remember that the ball is in your court – literally! – and it’s important that your rules are respected.
Have you noticed how much we talk to our dogs when we’re playing with them? Most of the time they just enjoy the noise; it seems to add to the atmosphere of playtime, and it also spurs them on. Our phrases and choice of words tend to be repetitive; quite similar to the way in which we talk to children. I often notice that much of my verbal communication is rhetorical, and I answer my own questions! Yes, we dog owners can appear to be mad at times, but we have a lot of fun, don’t we? We all play with our dogs in different ways, but there is no better way to train a dog than through play. It is mentally and physically stimulating.
Learning new skills takes time, so any new technique has to be honed, and if you find that your dog is not responding as you expect, take a moment to examine what you are doing or saying, or even how you are speaking to your dog. Our body language needs to be in harmony with our words, and we have to have a positive mindset if we are to get the expected outcome of any training. Take, for example, the owner who wants to compete at agility, and trains her dog to weave. The dog does it perfectly. Twice. Then, being so thrilled at the dog’s performance, she sends him through the weave a third time. This may well introduce doubt into the dog’s mind that what he has done is not quite right, or has not pleased his owner, so he tries something else; maybe he misses out a few of the poles.
The golden rule when training dogs through play is to know when to stop the game. Always end on a good note. Training a dog is straightforward if you stick to your programme and objectives, but if you find yourself feeling frustrated, finish the game, put the toy away, and relax. There is always another day to play and get the rewards of time spent with your best friend.