Like many dog trainers, I started my career as a traditional obedience instructor who focused on teaching compliance rather than building a connection between human and animal. As I grew into the behaviour consultant and animal trainer I am today, I realized a really important fact: Traditional Obedience is boring. Okay maybe that is a bit harsh since there are many skilled handlers who enjoy obedience. However, for your every day dog owner who just wants a well-mannered, safe and happy dog, obedience isn’t the final answer. There are many fun activities that dog owners can do with their dogs that teach appropriate manners; self-control and safety cues and they include rewards, interactions and play.
My epiphany happened about 15 years ago as I was transitioning from obedience instructor to a reward-focused animal trainer. I wanted to create an environment that was fit for human and dog learning and in order to achieve this I wanted my classes to be low-stress, fun, interactive and easily applied to real life. Recent research has shown us that dominance or alpha theory is not applicable to dog training exercises therefore playing with your dog is not so much about “winning” a game as it is about getting connected and having a great time together.
A game is anything your dog finds fun. So you can be creative with this and incorporate games into your daily walk routine or playtime in your backyard. Below are 8 Games I have created and play with my dogs just about every day. Have fun, get connected and start to enjoy training your dog.
Game #1 – The Name Game
In all of my years of training dogs, I can say the name game is the one exercise that is not practiced enough. Many dogs have a hard time generalizing learned behaviors so just because you teach something one place, doesn’t mean that your dog will carry that information to another. Remember that in the beginning we are first teaching our dogs to be open to receiving information and learning. Success in training your dog will depend on how well you prepare them for optimum learning opportunities.
I play The Name Game everywhere I go. This is my favorite warm up exercise, especially when I go to a new environment with unfamiliar smells or sounds. I simply say my dogs name and when she looks at me I give her a yummy cookie. I will repeat this at least 5 times but really until I have my dog’s focus on me. Only once my dog has connected with me will I continue on with the planned activity.
Game #2 – The Shadow Game
For most dog owners the ultimate goal is achieving the ability to walk their dog at liberty without a leash in a dog park. This is a wonderful goal to work towards and in my opinion teaching a recall is the most important response to a cue your dog will learn. The key to establishing a reliable recall is in the foundation that you build and like any building, if there is a weakness in the foundation, the whole thing will come tumbling down. The Shadow Game is the foundation for both recall and polite walking exercises.
Start at home in a quiet environment with your dog on a leash. Pack up some treats for rewards and start to walk around in any direction. Any time your dog catches up to you give him a cookie. If your pup gets ahead of you, simply turn gently 180 degrees and place a treat on the ground. As your dog munches the cookie, walk ahead a few paces but be ready for him to catch up to you again and give another treat when he does. Go forwards, backwards (your dog comes towards you), sideways, fast, slow, stop, run, walk, go around trees, over rocks and anything else you can come up with to get your dog to follow you like a shadow.
The idea of this game is to get your dog to follow you willingly, not to drag your beloved beast around by his neck. Take the time to show him what you are doing rather than surprising him with a quick turn. I play this game on all of my walks whether we are walking on leash or at liberty. My dogs love to watch me move and match my speed.
Game #3 – Give
Dogs are opportunists and scavengers by nature so you can count on your dog picking up something they shouldn’t at some point in their life. The Give Game not only prepares you for this situation but also gives you a foundation behavior for many other games such as Find the Toy and Return to Sender. Never pull a toy out of a dog’s mouth or you may cause an opposition reflex where they hold on tighter and possibly create tension that could lead to possessive aggression.
Start with your dog on leash or in a small room where he can’t run away and cause you to play “catch me if you can.” Toss one of his favorite toys on the floor and when he picks it up call him to you or reel him in on his leash gently. Take one hand and hold on to the toy and cue him to “Give” the toy to you. With your other hand present a treat to trade him for the toy. When he gives the toy immediately praise him and give him the treat.
Practice this as often as possible with toys and other items your dog may pick up and always remember whatever you trade with must have a greater value that the item in the dog’s mouth or the game will lose all value. To challenge his understanding of this game, give the cue and wait for the response before you bring out the cookie for a reward.
Game #4 – Hide and Seek
Although it may seem like the games we play are just for fun, always keep in mind that puppies learn their life skills through play and experience with littermates and other dogs. Hide and Seek is a fun game to play for dog and human but it also offers a very real life skill to your dog. Imagine you are out on a hike and become separated from your dog. It’s a scary thought indeed but if you’ve played Hide and Seek as a game you have prepared your dog to remain calm in this situation and to use her doggy senses to seek you out.
Start at home just by practicing a come when called in another room and rewarding your dog with a treat and warm praise when she finds you. Keep practicing by hiding further and further away so your dog has to search the whole house to find you. Now you can practice the same steps in the outdoors by starting easy and then gradually making it harder and harder to find you. Have a friend distract your dog and then walk away and hide behind a tree or a bush. As soon as you’re out of sight, call your dog and when she discovers you give her a treat.
When your pup has grasped the idea of the game make the hiding places more ambitious and include the whole family so she can find each of you one by one.
Game #5 – Find the Toy
Any chance I can, I like to get my dogs to use their “doggy senses” in play. I encourage creativity, problem solving skills and self-discovery by allowing my dogs to explore the world through their own experiences. Make the Find the Toy Game special by only using the game pieces while you are playing this game otherwise keep them put away until it’s game on.
Start with two boxes and a valuable toy. Have your dog sit and allow him to watch you place the toy under one of the boxes. Now shuffle the boxes around and then tell him to “find the toy!” If necessary you can help him out by pointing to the correct box and encouraging him to get it by pawing, nudging or flipping over the box. Praise warmly when he finds the toy and ask him to bring it to you. Trade him for a cookie to ensure he remembers the Give Game but then return the toy to him as a reward for his hard work.
As your dog masters this game, you can challenge him more by adding more boxes or using boxes that need to be opened rather than flipped over. Never let your dog become frustrated with this game otherwise it may become difficult to get him excited about trying new games or other training exercises.
Game #6 – Follow Your Nose
The great thing about scenting games for dogs is that all dogs can do it no matter their age. Even a senior dog can easily play at their own pace to reach the wonderful jackpot at the end of the trail.
Make a “scent bag” by tying something yummy, smelly and slimy in a piece of cloth and attach a string to the end so it can be used to create a smelly trail on the ground. I like to use freeze dried tripe soaked in meat sauce for this game but anything that your dog thinks is yummy would do just fine as long as it leaves a scent trail along the ground. Pull the bag in a winding, zigzagging path that goes around trees, under foliage and even through puddles. Leave a special surprise jackpot at the end of the trail for your dog to find.
Put the scent bag aside otherwise your dog will just focus on eating the contents but allow him to sniff your hand. Take him to the beginning of the trail and encourage him to sniff by brining your hand to the ground. Help him if needed by leading him along the path. Practice this game often and soon enough you can take it out into the forest to play more tracking games together.
Game #7 – Return to Sender
Some dogs come preprogrammed to play fetch games but not all dogs are keen on this one so it is important to know your dog’s interests and favorite games. Don’t try to force a game on a dog that just isn’t interested in it, as that is a great way to ruin your relationship with your beloved companion.
Many dogs will run after a toy or ball that has been dropped, tossed or thrown but start the game in close to you rather than throwing the ball far away without building a foundation. Drop the ball in front of you and say, “get it!” to your dog. When they pick up the ball praise her lavishly and then play the Give Game and trade the ball for a treat. Take your time and slowly increase the distance that you throw the ball from you. Be sure to stay consistent with this game so your dog knows that the return to you is part of the game. At anytime if you run into trouble just go back to the distance where you last had success and play there for a little longer until you can push the distance once again.
Once your dog can play this game you can start to play fetch games in the water to ease any strain on joints or sore limbs. Safety is everything so make sure you choose a ball that is the right size for your dog to lessen the risk of choking. A favorite toy for many dogs is made by mother nature herself but a stick can splinter in a dog’s mouth if they are grabbed with too much enthusiasm. Be safe out there and know the risks for the activities you participate in with your dog.
Game #8 – You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Trust exercises can be challenging at times when they don’t go as planned but as long as you chunk them down into achievable increments, you can build a lasting bond with your dog with a strong root in trust. One game that I play often with my dogs is stepping over them while they are in a down position. To get started with this game you will need to teach a reliable down with duration and start to be able to walk around your dog while she holds the down.
Ask your dog to lie down and praise gently when she does. Walk around towards her tail and just step over her tail so you have one foot on either side. Don’t stay there long, instead return to her front and give her a cookie for trusting you. Repeat that a few more times until she is comfortable with you back there. Taking your time and ensuring you only progress when your dog is comfortable, take another step forward from her tail so that you have one foot on either side of her body. Keep going until you can essentially straddle your dog and walk from tail to head with her completely comfortable and enjoying herself.
The key to earning the respect and trust of your dog is to listen to their silent voice. If you push them into fear they cannot learn and will not feel comfortable with you performing that task. If you come upon a place where your dog is uncomfortable, that’s okay, stay there a while and let them know it will be okay. They will thank you for it by giving you their entire heart and soul.
I have spent the past 15+ years learning the science of how all things learn and mastering my art as an animal trainer, behaviour consultant and transformative coach. With my specialty in canine reactivity, fear, aggression and canine communication, I have many insights to share into understanding, preventing, predicting and changing canine behaviour.