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Play is an important way to teach your dog good manners, but it's important to play right. Children are taught that if everyone playing the game isn’t having fun, then it isn’t a good game, and the same is true when playing with your dog: If the game gets too exciting and out of control, bad things can happen and the wrong behaviors can be taught. Always ask yourself what you are teaching your dog when you play a game with him, and take the time to teach your dog the right way to play.
Before you ask your dog to fetch or tug, it's important to teach him to respond to a "drop it" command.
Begin with an item that has little value to your dog but that he is willing to put in his mouth when asked, such as a rope toy or a ball. Give the cue “take it” before giving him the toy. After the toy is in your dog’s mouth, say “drop it” and put a tasty treat, such as lean deli meat, in front of his nose. As soon as your dog drops the toy, reward him by tossing the treat out and away so you can reach down and grab the toy to try again. Remember to reward your dog with a tasty treat the moment he thinks about dropping the toy (the second you see his mouth begin to open). Over time, you can reward your dog in other ways, such as by praising him and giving the toy back to him.
If your dog ever growls, freezes or shows any sign of aggression when a person approaches his toys, contact a professional, starting with your veterinarian. This type of behavior can be a sign of a more serious behavior disorder.
Don’t roughhouse. Playing roughly with your dog by using your hands to get him riled up can lead to an out-of-control situation that can suddenly turn frightening and confusing for your dog. Puppies rarely have the self-control to roughhouse with a human. If the puppy nips too hard and the person reacts in a confrontational way (even a “No! Bad dog!”), it can cause the puppy to become uncertain toward people. Actions that might seem fun, like rolling a puppy on his back or putting hands up toward a dog’s face to get him biting at your fingers, often cause the dog to get too wound up.
Make sure you initiate play. When your dog initiates play, ignore him until you give a signal that the game is on. This will keep your dog from always being amped up, hoping for a game to begin. When you teach your dog that you always initiate the play, it helps him to relax until he hears the play signal.
Pick safe toys. Dogs should be carefully monitored when playing to prevent ingesting pieces of toys. Many dogs are de-stuffers, meaning they take a toy, tear out the stuffing and kill the squeaker, much like a wolf would pull out the insides of prey. There is no problem with this behavior (except for the cost of toys!), unless he ingests the material. In that case, it’s important to provide less destructible toys. Instead, try sturdy food puzzles that your dog can "de-stuff" to uncover treats inside. And while a stick may seem convenient for a game of fetch, use a toy instead; sticks have been associated with obstructions in the digestive tract, impalement injuries and eye damage.
Don’t reward unwanted behavior. When you give a dog a toy, you are rewarding him for the behavior he is exhibiting at that moment. A common mistake is tossing a ball to a jumping, spinning or excited dog, which reinforces this behavior and encourages him to be hyperactive. To prevent this from happening, wait for your dog to calm down before continuing with play.
Always supervise play with children. Kids and dogs will miscommunicate; it's just a fact of life. The child might intend one thing but the dog understands something different. For example, a child may try to pet a sleeping dog, simply because she wants to show affection, but the dog may be startled awake or feel like his territory is being invaded, which could result in a bite. An adult should always oversee playtime and be aware of how kids are playing with the dog.
Dogs get especially excited when something is moving away at a fast pace and may react by nipping at the heels or jumping up on the person. This is often the case with small children who exhibit fast and unpredictable movements. While many dogs are solely playing, this can also be a serious predatory behavior, which warrants professional guidance if any aggression is noticed. Children and dogs should always be supervised when together, and children should be taught not to run away from a dog.
To make sure playtime is safe and fun for both your children and your dogs, plan supervised game times when you can play structured fetch, search or hide-and-seek. Even with adult supervision, it’s essential that your dog understands “drop it” and displays no signs of aggression when playing with kids.
Adapted from an article that appeared in the spring 2013 issue of HealthyPet Magazine®.
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