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Holiday Play Is Important

Tis the season for overcommitment and stress. Lucky for you, you’ve got a dog. Dogs are masters at living in the present moment, taking time to relish in every scent trail and belly rub without worrying about the next task at hand. Following your dog’s lead can serve as a fabulous way to relax and recharge, and planning for some quality time with your canine sidekick is an excellent way to reduce anxiety and stay in touch with what matters most in life over the holiday season.

One of the primary joys of having a dog in one’s life is having a constant companion and playmate at the ready. Yet as a trainer, I’ve noticed that so few people actually know how to play with their dog. This is one of those places where our species-specific tendencies and differences can get in the way of really connecting. You may be thinking it’s preposterous for me to suggest you don’t know how to play with your dog, and maybe you are doing just fine. However, over the years I have worked with thousands of dogs and their people, and in my experience, the majority of them could up their play-game to enhance their relationship and get the most out of their play sessions. Does your dog ever blow you off when you invite him or her to play a game of tug or fetch or to wrestle? How about if you call him or her to come? If so, you may have a play problem. Here are a few examples of mistakes people make when playing with their dogs and how to correct them.

Think Beyond the Ball Game

Overall, I am a big advocate for playing ball with dogs. I much prefer it over a stint at the dog park, for example, as ball is an interactive game of cooperation that includes you in the fun. Yet some people still manage to kind of check out with the Chuckit! If you are going to play ball with your dog, why not add some spice and variety to your game? Pretend to race your dog to the ball occasionally (spoiler alert: The dog will always win). Or put your dog in a sit or down-stay and place the ball out in your yard or in a field somewhere, then pretend to hide it elsewhere in a few other locations and ask your dog to find it. Now you’ve got a dog on the hunt. Using their nose and their brain to problem-solve rather than simply doing mindless repetitions of retrieving in a straight line all of the time.

The Chase Game

Most dogs love a good game of chase, and most people do, too. This is one game that definitely works well and is understood by both species. Yet when people play chase games with their dogs, all too often they are the ones in hot pursuit. This is where we’ve got it all wrong. The smart way to play chase with your dog is to let your dog chase you. Why? Well, for one reason, nearly any canine is much faster than a human being, and, therefore, we never catch them. This sets us up for a potentially dangerous situation. If your dog is used to outrunning you as a game, you may well have a very difficult time closing the distance between the two of you when you need to do so, such as if they’ve accidentally jumped out of the car, or barged out the front door, or at the dog park when it’s time to go home. You don’t want your dog to learn to play keep away. On the flip side of that, however, if you teach your dog to chase you and even take a dive occasionally and let them jump all over you joyfully, you’ll have an extra ace up your sleeve beside your formal recall if any of the frightening situations above ever occur. Letting your dog chase you builds up the strength of your attraction and closes distance quickly, both good things. Plus, dogs are predators; they love to give chase. It’s a wonderful reward for a dog, and I’d much rather my dogs learn to chase me, rather than squirrels or other dogs.

Tug, Take Two

No other game is met with more resistance nor more poorly executed than tug of war with dogs. Some people fear it causes aggression and will not play with their dog. Forbidding tug is not necessary. In fact, played mindfully, with rules of engagement, tug can actually enhance your dog’s jaw and impulse control. Additionally, if your dog loves to tug, it’s best to name it, and put it on cue so you may control when it happens and also clearly teach what constitutes an appropriate tug toy. (Hint, it’s not your leash or clothing.) Mindful tug with rules allows you to channel your dog’s energy and use it as a super high-value reward in training, too. Tug is great because unlike with fetch, your dog always stays near you and completely focused on you. There is no room for a passing squirrel to interrupt your game. However, tug is the game that so many people are clueless about when it comes to initiation. If I had a nickel for every person who tried to entice a dog to play tug by shoving a toy in the dog’s face, I’d sure have a lot of bones. Millions. The key is not to push your tug toy toward your dog, but rather to give your dog something to chase and catch. What do you do when someone pushes something at your face? Even if it’s pie or pizza, you’re most likely to pull your head away so you can bite the tasty treat on your own terms, rather than having someone else shovel it in your mouth. The same is true of tug toys. Let your dog come and get it. Sure, make it dance, wiggle, and be enticing, but do so by moving the toy erratically away from the dog. Let the dog pursue. Let your dog begin the chase and capture the prey. Because basically tug is the next step in the chase game: Once your dog has the toy, pull! It takes two to tug, so actively pull to create resistance. By the way, all of this play has a purpose beyond stress relief for both you and your dog. Playing games can be a fabulous reward in training, something besides food to let your dog know he’s doing a great job. Also, play training is an excellent a way to make training time inherently fun. So, please do yourself a favor and play your way through the holidays. Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.

Main article photo by: tom_bullock-Creative Commons