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The Power of Play – Train Your Dog While Playing


By: Drew Webster, CPDT-KA

Ask any trainer how they teach classes, and they will give you some well put together statement about how to provide instruction, “Say it, show it, do it” might be my response. They will skillfully show you how to get your dog motivated and set up for success as they model careful techniques based on movement and well-crafted exercises to teach your dog a new skill. Combined with positive reinforcement the dog will learn the exercise and ultimately begin to predict the desired behavior.

Now watch them work their own dog. What does the trainer do to train his own dog? He goes out and plays a game with him. Any great dog trainer can tell you: Dogs and owners who play together, stay together. There is nothing better for teaching your dog impulse control, confidence and bonding you to him than a game you both enjoy.

Not all dogs are into “object play” or interacting with a toy, so you might have to get creative with your game. Think for a minute about your dog. What would he choose to do today over any other activity? Perhaps he would choose to play tug of war with the dog down the street, chase squirrels, dig up the yard or, jump in the neighbor’s pool?

Your dog’s age, breed and temperament may give us hints toward his favorite games. A retriever may love to fetch on land or water, a terrier may love to play tug of war, and a herding dog may love to play a prey game, using his favorite toy tied to a string and a stick (think giant cat toy).

When you create a game for your dog it is best to put some structure to it. You don’t want the game to become another problem behavior, so set some rules. The way we play with our dog matters. If you choose to play fetch or tug spend some time working on dropping or releasing the object (try starting with two of the same toys and trading him one for the other to the command “drop it”). If you are going to play searching games take some time to build a fun course. Think about an area of your home where you could set up seven to 10 empty small boxes; hide treats in five or more of the boxes and encourage him to “find it.” Play often causes dogs to get excited. This will help you work through frustration and impulse control behaviors like barking or jumping up. If you reward incompatible behaviors you will have a dog offering wonderful behaviors for the thing he loves most.

For example, my dog jumps with excitement for a Frisbee. I taught him that laying down starts the game. He no longer jumps when I grab the Frisbee but lays down in eager anticipation.

If you are looking for something fun, consider looking up some of the most exciting canine sports almost any dog can play. Go online and search for “canine nosework”, “disc dogs”, “flyball” or “treibball” and you will have options to choose from. Before you know it you will have a new fun way to exercise your dog that you both will love!

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