Engaging in activities you both enjoy will improve your bond.
Fun comes naturally to dogs and humans. Just watch a litter of puppies at play – or class of children romping in a kindergarten schoolyard – and you’ll be quickly convinced that fun is a primary (innate) reinforcer for dogs (and kids). The wise dog owner/trainer takes advantage of this, using play (not just food!) to reward desirable behaviors in training sessions and in real life, and giving canine-human interactions a positive classical association to help create a strong relationship between dog and owner.
The dog-human social contract is all about our relationship with our dogs. Play builds relationships – hence the importance of play. As children, the friends with whom we form lifelong relationships are likely to be the ones with whom we have the most fun sharing mutually rewarding and enjoyable activities. Play. Play for its own sake, just because it’s fun, and helps us remember what we love about our dogs.
As we mature, we tend to get serious about life – perhaps too serious. Hence the new-age sometimes-appropriate advice to find your “inner child.” Your dog is the perfect companion to accompany you on your journey to find more fun. Here are some ideas to help you remember how to play with your dog.
If your dog has sufficient social skills so that you can safely take him out into the world, make it a point to do so! If most of your time with your dog is spent at home, you may discover an entirely new and enjoyable side of him off his home turf. After all, there will be completely new sights, interesting sounds, and best of all from a dog’s point of view, novel smells for him to experience.
Take a hike. If you’re fortunate enough to live near a place where dogs are allowed off-leash, and your dog has a reliable recall, go for a long hike. I mean a long hike. When we lived in California I used to take Keli, my Kelpie, for an occasional all-day adventure in the Mt. Burdell Open Space Preserve near the Marin Humane Society where I worked. With a daypack full of provisions, a tatami (lightweight woven mat that rolled up for easy carrying), and a couple of books, we’d hike a while, climb on or jump over fallen trees, relax a while, play in the pond, watch redtail hawks soar, stop for lunch, fetch tennis balls a while, pretend to herd a few cows, hike a while, and finally head back to the car, tired, relaxed, and happy.
For a variation on the theme, sometimes several friends and co-workers would join us for a dog-pack hike. Occasionally we loaded up the cars and headed out to Pt. Reyes National Seashore for a change of scenery. The dogs didn’t care where we went, as long as we had fun. If off-leash isn’t allowed in your local parks, or you’re still working on that recall, you can do the same thing with a long-line to keep Rover in sight. Maybe not quite as much fun, but almost.
Have a dog pal party. It’s a special occasion – your dog’s birthday, or the anniversary of her adoption, or the recent arrival of a new canine family member. Throw a dog pal party! Invite all your dogs friends from training class, offer the canine guests some FrostBite, Chilly Dawg, or Frosty Paws (ice cream treats created for dogs), and pupcakes (healthy homemade goodies in muffin papers), and organize games like Bobbing for Hotdogs. (Use sliced “pennies” of hotdog in just a few inches of water for small dogs, a bit more for larger dogs. And make sure dogs play just one at a time.)
Holidays offer theme-based party opportunities. Talk to your friends about a party rotation plan, where one person hosts a spring-themed party (how about an Easter egg hunt, substituting dog treats for the eggs?), another does Independence Day (no fireworks please!), and someone else takes Halloween. Costumes. Oh, costumes! If you’re ethically opposed to making dogs wear costumes, have the humans wear costumes that complement their dogs. The Border Collie owner could dress as a shepherdess; the Lab owner could come as a duck . . .
While the dogs play dog games with each other, you can play human games, like Dog Trivia. Google “dog trivia” to find challenging canine questions, or make up your own. Unleash your creative side, and see how many great party ideas you and your friends can come up with.
Go to the dog park. If you’re fortunate enough to have a good dog park in your community, take advantage of it. Check it out first, to be sure it’s clean, well-run, and securely fenced, that canine bullies aren’t allowed, and small dogs have a separate area where they can’t get run over by bigger play pals. Make sure you’re comfortable with the rules, which may include a requirement that dogs be spayed or neutered and currently vaccinated for rabies; a prohibition against food, to reduce the potential for resource-guarding fights; and a request to keep small children outside the fenced area.
Playtime at the dog park doesn’t have to be limited to dog-play. At Remington Park in Sausalito, California, regular users used to hold an informal Friday evening wine-and-cheese party at the park for the humans while their dogs romped.
Attend a pool party. Every year at the end of August, when the community pool closes here in Hagerstown, Maryland, the city and the Washington County Humane Society jointly host the Potterfield Pool Pooch Plunge.
For one afternoon, dog owners can bring their dogs to the pool and play with them in – or out of – the water. Hugely popular, this event is in its fifth year here, with nary a serious unpleasant incident despite more than 100 dogs in attendance. Event planners have a veterinarian present to monitor dogs so no one gets too tired or waterlogged. They also arrange a few lighthearted contests for the party-goers, awarding prizes for the best trick, the best tennis-ball catcher, the longest tail, the best bark, and more.
If your community doesn’t already offer this delightful doggie diversion, put a flea in someone’s ear at your humane society or parks and recreation department and see if you can get the ball rolling. Your dog-friends will lick your hand in gratitude if you’re successful.
Support a good cause. Animal shelters across the country sponsor a variety of events as fundraisers for their animal care and protection causes. You might find – or organize! – any of these events or others in your community:
• Dog Walk-A-Thon
• Bark in the Park
• Polar Bear Plunge
• Flea Market
• Pooch Parade
• Canine Games
Many of the events welcome dogs, and often include games, vendors, and food for dogs and humans. You can meet other dog folks, play, eat, and buy dog stuff. What better way to have fun and support a good cause all at the same time?
Explore your town. Once a week (or more!) hop in your car with your dog, and drive to a different part of your community for each outing. Park and walk around. Look for dog-friendly shops, outdoor cafes where you can dine with your dog, little-known parks, and serene hiking paths.
You don’t have to go somewhere to play; there are plenty of activities you and your dog can enjoy in the comfort of your own home, indoors or out.
Find it! You can play this game inside, outside, or both, and create your own variations. Start with your dog in front of you. Say “Find it!” in an excited tone of voice and toss a treat to one side. As soon as he gobbles down that one, toss one the other direction and say “Find it!” again. After a half-dozen tosses, have him sit-and-wait while you place a treat 10 to 15 feet away in plain view. Return to his side and tell him to “Find it!” After a few of those, start “hiding” the treat while he watches you – behind a chair leg, under a pillow, around a corner. Then return and send him to find it. Make the hiding places harder and harder, so he actually has to start looking (with his nose) to find the treats. Most dogs (and their humans) adore this game; those canine noses are so talented, it doesn’t take a Bloodhound to sniff out yummy treats.
You can also play “find it!” using a favorite toy. Variations of the game include:
• Find and destroy: Treats are hidden in an empty cardboard container taped closed; your dog must shred container to get treats (don’t let him eat the cardboard!).
• Find the human: Your dog waits while you hide, or you can just duck behind a tree when he’s not looking. Give him a “Find me!” cue to let him know the game is on. Or, your dog stays with you while someone else hides. You tell him, “Find (insert name here).” The person hiding can make noises if necessary to encourage your dog to find them. Give your dog treats and praise when he finds the missing person.
Fun with toys. Of course, there’s the ever-popular “fetch the ball” and “catch the Frisbee” kind of fun with toys. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those, today’s generation of dog toy play possibilities goes way beyond a simple game of fetch. There’s a wide range of various interactive toys now available, just waiting for you to get silly with your dog.
These are not toys you just hand to your dog and go back to work while your dog plays – these are toys that you and your dog do things with together. There are a host of different tug toys: Wubbas, Udder Tugs, bumpers, and fleece tugs – and tug toys with a zing, like the “Chase-N-Pull,” that has a square of fleece attached to the end of a rope on a pole, that you swing around for the dog to chase, grab, and pull. There are interactive stuffed toys, such as the “Hide-A-Toys” and “Egg Babies,” where smaller stuffed toys are hidden inside larger ones for your dog to pull out, so you can stuff them back in again, so he can pull them out again.
And there’s the new genre of wooden puzzles – the Nina Ottosson toys (reviewed on page 18), guaranteed to make you and your dog think. These puzzles are a great activity to include in your dog parties!
Finding my inner child
When I realized that the fun part of my relationship with my dogs was suffering as a result of my addiction to the principles of behavior and learning, I started making a concerted effort to turn off that part of my mind at least some of the time when I’m with my dogs.
Now, when we hike around the farm, I sometimes take a book along, and we hang out a while at the picnic table by the creek, in the shade of the trees. I worry less when one of them takes an excursion out of my sight into the woods. They never go far, and they always come back quickly, without getting into trouble; our 80-acre buffer is good insurance that they won’t wander over to the neighbor’s house. It’s second nature to me by now to have treats in my pockets, so they still get some reinforcement for desirable behaviors, even when I try to have my training brain turned off. But I no longer let it take center stage all the time when we’re just in “relax and hang out” mode. Sometimes it’s good to just be with your dogs.
Note: Dog Play
Parts of this article are adapted from my new book, Dog Play: How and Why to Play With Your Dog, due for release from Dogwise Publishing in June. The book is packed with information about dog play, including more games and activities you and your dog can have fun with and tons of tips on how to play with your dog. There’s also a chapter on the “play-deprived” dog – so if you have a dog who’s forgotten how to have fun, you can re-introduce her to the joy of play.