1. Releases oxytocin in our brains. Good for us and the dog
2. Increases the bond between owner and dog
3. Increases mental and physical exertion
4. Gives us the opportunity to bring training into play with self control.
Puppies have an inherent desire to play. They have been playing with their litter mates and their Mum. When they live with humans as puppies they continue to want to play. It is useful to maintain this desire to play so it can be used as a motivational tool and reward for given behaviours. Your adopted dog may never have played with a human or may be traumatised and unable to play. Or he may just think your and his idea of PLAY is very different.
Some clients say to me — ‘oh my dog won’t play’. This can be common with rescued dogs. What the dog may be saying is ‘I don’t know how to play the way you want me to’. Dogs do not always naturally want to play ‘bring back the toy’. That becomes boring very quickly if the game isn’t varied. The old school trainers do not believe in teaching retrieve through play for a misguided fear the dog will not learn to bring the bird back undamaged. I am sorry but in my opinion they are wrong. Teaching retrieve through play is huge fun for owner and dog alike and produces just as good and steady retrieve as any other method (in fact I have ‘repaired’ many ruined retrieves where the dog has been forced to pick up and hold using coercive and punishing methods)
By observing your dog when he is amusing himself or playing with another dog you can get ideas. The common ones will be Tugging, chasing, pouncing, or carrying a toy. Some dogs like to chase, some love being chased.
Start with a game that is similar to what you have observed. It is ok to play chase if the toy is his . So put the game ‘on cue’. I use ‘I am gonna get you’ then the dog knows it is the chase game. Often when you stop chasing the dog will bring back his toy as he wants the game to start over. They also know ‘fetch’ is the game to bring something back and get it or another toy thrown. ‘Get it’ means I will allow you to play tug.
Tug games are great fun but must have a few ground rules. Playing tug will not ‘give your dog a hard mouth’. Your dog may only tug when you cue it. He must stop when you ask him to and if he happens to catch any part of human anatomy or clothing the game stops immediately. It is useful to have a special tugging toy which is kept under your control. It is a very useful and powerful motivator. It can teach self-management and is a great way to encourage the dog to hold something in his mouth.
If dogs like to play rough and tumble with you be careful that again it is controlled and on cue. One of my spaniels loves to jump at me. She is allowed to do that as a reward for fetching something. When I give her the cue! She is allowed to go hunt a hedge as a reward for walking nicely to heel because hunting hedges is very high on her list of things she loves to do.
Some dogs love to pinch things so allow them to steal something you have placed there as a reward for giving you a behaviour. Get the idea?
Food is a great motivator and a good way to give your dog information about what you want them to do. Games can be more motivating though especially in the working dog who then perceives his work as play and he will listen to you as the director of that game. How many of you have watched a sniffer dog work its paws off for a throw of its tennis ball from its handler? That is because the handler has used a natural chase pounce and hold behaviour and encouraged it on a specific toy. Police dogs also work for a kong or a ring in the same way when doing man work or searching. Pointers are not natural retrievers but they love to chase point and pounce. Use a flirt pole (A soft toy on a stick) to encourage this natural instinct in play.
So don’t get too hung up on the idea that rewarding your dog is all about food. Think outside the box. Watch what your dog is telling you. Work as a team and have fun.
Don’t ever force your dog to play. The sure fire way to turn your dog off interacting with you and toys is for you to force the issue. If he walks away let him go. Keep sessions short and varied, Never shove a toy in a dogs face.
Using a combination of food and toys is a highly effective way to teach your dog what it is you want.
Have fun with them.
Ideas for play at home:
Hide and See
Hide yourself or a toy or some food. Hiding yourself then calling is a great way to help recall. Hide food in boxes, under things. Hide toys.
Playing tuggy is interactive and most dogs love it. Make sure there are rules in place. Tug only when cued, stop when asked and no nipping of hands or clothing. Great way to build self management in the dog.
Only ever have 3 or 4 toys on the go at any one time and keep a special one which your dog goes crazy for. That’s your toy which you allow him to play with when you want him to respond to you. Bring out fresh toys every week or so and put the others away.
Training turned into a game. — paw touch, nose touch, roll over, sit up and beg, tidy the toys etc etc. Be inventive. Teaching your dog that working with you is huge fun and very rewarding.
Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers. Even toy dogs will hunt. Don’t feed out of a bowl every day. Scatter feed outdoors, use slow release dispensers such as Buster cubes, and treat balls, plastic bottles. Take food out with you so the dogs earns it. Feed any interaction with you that you like. Throw food away from you. When the dog return throw another. So much you can do with something the dog not only enjoys but has to have —-his food. Don’t waste that opportunity