Structured Play

Daily life can be very boring for the average companion dog. After all, most dogs were bred to perform a useful function and these days the majority of them are expected to be happy to do very little except when we find time to take them out or give them our attention.

In the wild, dogs would occupy most of their time by hunting for their food. This activity was absolutely essential to their survival and usually occupied the majority of their time when they were not eating or sleeping. The breeding of modern day dogs has modified this behaviour but most dogs still retain the desire to chase and catch prey.

Different modern breeds of dog have been bred to accentuate or subdue certain aspects of this native behaviour. For example, sheep dogs have been bred not to demonstrate their primitive prey killing instincts but to divert them to stopping their prey and gathering them up.

This is not to say that all dogs of a particular breed will display the standard behaviours of that breed. Your dog may enjoy some forms of exercise and play more than other activities and you may need to experiment to find what he really loves. So we can base the games and tasks we offer our dogs on these basic instincts. Playing games is a wonderful way to help dogs feel fulfilled and happy. There are many things you could do with your dog, and his character and breed will help to demonstrate to you what he enjoys.

The rules of play

It is important to teach your dog the rules of play as soon as possible and for him to recognise what is and isn’t acceptable.

When he was a young puppy, his mother and his litter mates would soon let him know if he was biting too hard or doing something else unacceptable, and now that task falls to you. If you don’t let him know that he’s biting hard enough to draw blood or that leaping on top of you is unpleasant, he will happily carry on and when he has a full set of adult teeth it will become a significant problem.

Stop any game immediately if your dog’s teeth touch your hand or any other part of your body. He needs to know that this is unacceptable. Squealing loudly and freezing for at least 6 seconds will give your dog a strong message that you will not play if he continues to bite. Try not to pull your hand or any other part of you away from your dog as this will encourage him to pursue you. If he stills mouthes consistently, leave the room for a minute or two to show your disapproval.

Playing tug with your dog is considered by some to create problems. There are certainly some dogs that can get very over-excited when tugging. The important thing to keep in mind is that you control play and not our dog. If he becomes over-exicted, stop the game and if his teeth touch any part of your body do the same. The game can restart when he has calmed enough to wait for you to invite play again. At the ned of the game put the tug tpy away for next time.

Do put most toys away when the game is over. In this way your dog will see the appearance of the toy as the start of a game which is under your control. In general, keep some toys special and put them away after they have been played with. He will be more interested in play if the toys are less familiar and he will come to recognise that you control his play with them.

Trained Games

There is an increasing variety of organised dog activities available now all of which are designed to stretch your dog and make use of his natural instincts. The following are some suggestions.

Flyball consists of relay teams of four dogs and their owners who compete against other teams. One dog at a time runs through a course, jumping hurdles and triggering a machine that punches out a tennis ball. The dog catches the ball and returns down the course. Once the first dog finishes the course, the next dog takes a turn. The team that finishes first wins.

Tracking events test a dog’s ability to follow a scent. A competitor must locate items, retrieve them, and bring them to the judges.

Canicross is the sport of running off-road with your dog. The human participant wears a waist belt attached via a 2-metre bungee line to a padded dog harness.

In Dog agility, handlers direct their dog through an obstacle course in a race for both time and accuracy. The dogs run off lead to complete the course, and the handler is allowed to touch neither dog nor obstacles. If you have the space in your garden you could construct an obstacle course of jumps, tunnels, raised walkways, slaloms, etc. which you can lead your dog through at high speed for reward.

Some larger dogs with high levels of energy can benefit from carrying a weighted backpack sometimes when they walk, to increase the amount of energy they expend, and many dogs enjoy the feeling of being useful by carrying something. Please take advice from me before using weighted backpacks on a regular basis.

Home made distractions

Try dividing up your dog’s food occasionally into small portions and encourage him to find it from hiding places instead of being presented with it all in a bowl every day.

Finding hidden objects is a game that many dogs adore, particularly the gun dog and terrier breeds.  Ask your dog to sit and stay and show him an item of food. Let him see it and sniff it and then put it further away from him and ask him to find it. Don’t make it too hard at first and don’t forget that he will use his nose more than his eyes so it doesn’t necessarily need to be out of sight. Increase the difficulty of the search over time and then you can start replacing the food item with other objects. Do this by making sure your scent is on them and that your dog sees and smells them before they are hidden.

The same principle can be applied to getting your dog to bring back items he has found. The possibilities are endless with this exercise. Ensure that the item smells of you and that your dog sees and sniffs it before being asked to find it, and encourage him to bring it to you for a treat reward. As he becomes proficient at this game you could move on to asking him to find and retrieve particular objects from a group of objects. Start with an object in clear view and make it obvious by pointing, what you want him to fetch. Once he gets the hang of what you are asking him to do you can teach your dog to differentiate between objects by repeating the names regularly as he moves towards them.

Once your dog can reliably find food or an item which you have either thrown or hidden for him you can teach him to find a morsel hidden under an upturned container.

Place a smelly, tasty treat under an upturned pot and ask your dog to find it. When he sniffs the container or pushes it with his nose, congratulate and reward him. You could choose to allow him to overturn the container and eat the contents or not, as you wish. Introduce an appropriate command as he gets better at the task. When he becomes proficient at this exercise, try using three containers, only one of which has a treat hidden under it. It will make the game easier if you make a small hole in the base of the containers so he can easily sniff out the contents.

You can then experiment with shuffling the containers to increase the challenge for your dog.

Once your dog is proficient at this game you have an opportunity to encourage him to find all sorts of things.

Put an object you’d like him to find underneath one of the containers, ensuring that you rub it well to transfer your scent to it. On your command he should find this item as well as he found food morsels. When this happens, praise him hugely and give him a treat. Over time you can repeat the name of the object the dog is finding and encourage him to learn the sound of the word.

Try placing the object in a different place and ask the dog to find it by name. Increase the complexity of the hiding place slowly. Always stop if your dog gets bored with this exercise and remember that he should successfully find the object 9 times out of 10 to be considered trained.

There are many intellectual dog games available to buy these days which encourage dogs to think about how to find treat rewards. You could even make your own. Here are a few examples:

Put sheets of newspaper and/or cloth in a cardboard box with treats between the layers. Encourage your dog to investigate and he will have great fun digging and exploring to find the rewards.

Take an empty plastic drink bottle, cut holes in the sides and put some small treats in it. Give it to your dog so that he can find a way to get them out. (Don’t forget to remove the lid to avoid choking). You can use an empty egg box, cereal boxes or any other cardboard container. Stuff them with waste paper and some treats and give them to your dog to destroy!

Fill the toe of a sock with smelly food. Put him out of the room and drag the sock along the floor to a hiding place under something. Make this a short distance to begin with and place a few small items of food along the trail to encourage him. He will soon get the hang of following the scent and you can reward him with the treats inside the sock.

If you have time you could even teach your dog to perform tricks if you think he would enjoy them.

N.B. Always reduce your dog’s food rations when playing treat based games with him to avoid overfeeding him.

It is well worth checking out the history of your dog’s breed as far as you can to establish what tasks his ancestors were originally bred to perform. Even a mongrel will display the characteristics of one breed or another (or several!) and his behaviour will most likely give you clues as to what activities he will enjoy. For example the Schnauzer was originally bred for ratting, herding and guarding property and children. Consequently they have a high prey drive and will probably thrive on chasing, retrieving and finding objects that resemble rats!

Incidentally I would not recommend that you offer squeaky toys to such dogs, or any dog with a tendency to chase smaller animals or to become dominant, as these toys resemble small animals and ‘killing‘  them can increase your dog’s more aggressive instincts.

Whatever you choose to do, ensure that you always use positive, reward based training methods, take the training in small steps and you will find that your dog will love every moment. Stop playing games with your dog when you feel you want to and always before he loses interest.