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Make Training All Fun and Games for Puppies

Puppies are all about play. Finding a way to engage with your puppy through play training will do wonders for your budding relationship.

The benefits of adding training games to a socialization plan are innumerable. First, games give puppies a focus in stressful situations, and a puppy can’t be anxious and playful at the same time. That’s key, since the goal of socialization is to creative positive experiences with all types of new things. Playing a familiar and fun training game with pups increases their relaxation and builds up their confidence. Games also provide mental stimulation. Most importantly, playing training games with your pup is an activity you do together. You are building bonds through the common language of play.

Two of the most versatile and simple training games are hand targeting and find it. They produce behavior our dogs naturally do—investigation with their nose.

The best advice is to make every game a win-win experience. Step one is to teach your puppy these skills at home. Get your pup hooked. It won’t take long. Once your puppy is an expert in your living room, you can take your act on the road. Instructions need to be clear and easy to follow, so take baby steps. If you go too fast, you will confuse your pup and take the fun out of it.

When play training, it’s your job to make every move a positive experience.  Reward with enthusiasm and yumminess. Positive reinforcement will motivate your puppy to keep playing. Frustration and punishment have no place in training; they can trigger fear and break down the newfound relationship you and your pup have established.

Once your pup is hooked, prepare to play in new places.

In new situations, make sure your pup is in the “play-zone.” Can he or she pay attention? Are there things around that are making him or her nervous? Will he or she take a treat? If not, find a quieter, easier place to play. Short, sweet games will speed up the socialization process. Always end on a win.

For better insight, imagine the play-training exercises from your puppy’s perspective: I love my new home. My human is my BFF. I love being with her, getting belly rubs, zooming around in circles, chewing on things, and shredding toilet paper. Lately, my human has started playing games with treats, and they are so much fun. I’d rather play those games for treats than tug on her jeans.

This touch and find-it thing is all right. Touch is cool, because every time I touch my nose to the palm of her hand, I get a treat. It’s easy-peasy. I want to check her hand out anyway. There could be something there for me. Every time, like magic, a morsel of goodness appears. Then she says a word: “Touch,” right before she shows me her palm. After a few practice sessions, I’ll go to her palm wherever she is.

Find-its are the best. She tells me “find it!” and tosses a treat on the ground; I find it and gobble it up. A real no-brainer. She does it at mealtime. She takes a handful of kibble, and one at a time, she tells me to “find it” and throws it in different directions. I sure have a nose for this. She tosses some into my crate, too, but she doesn’t say “find it.” Still, it’s kinda the same. She just tells me to “go to my bed” and tosses one treat after another into my crate. Now I run in there on my own, just ’cause. And when she says “find it!” my nose automatically goes to ground.

We tried these outside. At first, when she took me outside and put me on the ground, I was way outside of my comfort zone. I went on high alert. There was a swirl of loud noises, machines whizzing by, humans that don’t look like my human, and some had big, scary dogs. Everything seemed to be coming toward me, but I was wearing a harness attached to something that kept tightening up, so I couldn’t escape and go back inside.

My human understood and told me that things were OK and the something smelly and irresistible pricked up my nose-hairs. I heard the magic words: “Find it!”

I pounced forward and discovered the bounty: the stinkiest, most delicious morsel ever. She did this again and again. Next thing you know, we had turned the corner onto a quieter street. It was still worrisome—just not as much. Then I heard “touch,” and I whipped around to see her open hand, and I shoved my nose against it. “Yes!” she exclaimed, and handed me that bit of bliss again. It was so stinky, soft, and yummy. Let’s keep on playing!

Then a tall bearded man with and big boots came over and asked if he could pet me, and she let him play the game. He squatted down to my level but stayed a couple of feet away.
He held out his palm a foot away from me so it wasn’t scary and was right in my face. His hand was big and rough, but I moved toward it on autopilot. I gingerly touched my nose to his palm and heard, “Yes!” I whipped around and got that stinky thing again. That wasn’t so bad. The next time she said, “touch,” and I shoved my nose into his palm, and he gave me the treat. Fun! Let’s do it again.

Suddenly there was a big boom and hiss, and I jumped backward. A bus! She told me “find it,” and my nose bee lined to the ground. I was back in the game. I heard the bus, but it was way in the background. That was fun! Let’s do it again!

And so it goes. Once you embark on training games with your eager puppy student, you’ll never want to stop. Your puppy won’t want to stop either. And the world will be a better place for both of you.

Aishe Berger, MSW, CTC, CPDT-KA, is the owner and director of training of SF Puppy Prep, a school for young puppies and their humans. SF Puppy Prep is also a Beast of the Bay winner for best training class 2016 and 2017. When she’s not training pups, she loves to train senior dogs and is a two-time Muttville adopter.

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