Beyond Fetch and Flyball
Dogs crave interaction from their best buddies – and play is a great way to have fun with your four-legged pals. But playing with your dog is more than just fun – it provides numerous benefits for all involved in the game.
"Play is great exercise," says Eric Goebelbecker, a certified dog trainer and founder of Dog Spelled Forward LLC (http://www.dogspelledforward.com). "I tell my students that walks don't count when it comes to exercise. Their dogs need mental exercise too. Play engages both the mind and the body."
Play also allows you to bond with your best buddy. "The family that plays together stays together," says Goebelbecker.
On a deeper level, playing with your dog allows your dog to understand you – and vice versa. "Dogs have a pack mentality, and it's important that they know the people in the household are "top dogs" in the pack," says Gary Cassera, behaviorist and owner of Balanced Dogs LLC (http://www.balanceddogsllc.com). "Dogs have leaders and followers in their minds. If you're establishing the structure in their activities, you're the leader in their minds."
The best games are simple to learn. Fetch is the time-honored standard for a reason – it allows for interaction and physical activity without a lot of complicated steps or rules.
If you want to do more than throw a ball or a Frisbee, try these 4 easy interactive games suitable for all family members:
1. Hide and Seek
This classic is a favorite of all ages – and it's even more fun when you let your dog do the seeking. "Start small, letting your child hide with a treat right behind the couch, almost in plain sight," suggests Cassera. "Let the child call the dog, and let the dog find him." If necessary, an adult can help the dog seek out the child. The game sounds simple, but teaches your dog to come when he's called, lets him use his nose in a constructive way, and allows fun and safe interaction between the smallest family members and their favorite pet.
2. Jump the Hoops
Let one member of the family hold a hula hoop upright on the floor. Let a grown-up lead the dog through the hoop, then praise him or give him a treat when he goes through. After several successful walks through the hoop, raise it a little bit above the floor. Continue in this way until the dog gets bored (or the child gets tired of holding the hoop!). The game helps the dog improve his agility and keeps him exercised.
3. Hide the Treat
Take three empty containers and place them upside down on the floor. Let your dog get a sniff of one of his favorite treats, then hide it underneath one of the containers. When your dog "chooses" a container (by sniffing or placing his paw on it), turn over the container. If a treat is revealed, allow the dog to eat it while complimenting his accomplishment. Reinforce the dog's obedience skills by instructing him to sit while you hide the treat. You can also use a simple command, such as "Seek" or "Find," to signal that the dog can begin to search for the treat.
If your best buddy is a real sport, try playing a game of hoops. Place a laundry basket, bucket or similar container on the floor, putting a weight inside to anchor it. Let your dog sniff the ball, then drop it into the container while saying, "Drop." Do this several times while he watches. Then give the ball to the dog, lead him to the container and repeat the command, "Drop." Keep trying until he drops the ball into the container. When he does, praise him or give him a small treat. Repeat several times to establish the connection. Eventually it will connect, and you can begin rolling or tossing the ball to the dog, then giving the "Drop" command.
The key to any game is establishing rules, Goebelbecker says. You should be in control of the situation at all times. If your dog is playing with small children, a supervising adult should be present.
"Just like children, dogs can get too rough when they play too hard or for too long without a break," says Goebelbecker. When dogs become "mouthy" – using their mouths more – it usually signals arousal, not aggression. "It's time for a break," Goebelbecker says.
"Most, if not all, dogs love to play and it's an important part of a complete life," Goebelbecker says. "When we 'dog people' talk about what a dog needs to survive, we refer to food, water, shelter, exercise and love."
"Play is a part of love," he adds.