Dog playing fetch

Do you like playing with your dog, or do you approach it as one more pet care chore? Playing is fun — especially when the game is engaging for all those involved. Play can build trust, teach self-control, make exercise irresistibly fun — and stimulate your dog’s mind. Here’s how you can get the most out of the games dogs like to play, for you and your best friend.

When playing with your dog, remember that all games should have consistent, predictable rules. Here's a quick guide to the right way to play some common games and how to avoid encouraging the wrong behaviors.

Fetch: Building Trust

Fetch is a game that builds trust between you and your dog. It teaches your dog valuable skills, like returning to you and surrendering an object.

When playing fetch, always use a size-appropriate ball, to prevent your dog from choking. Rather than chasing your dog to get the ball back, train him to run back to you with the ball. Start by running backward and calling your dog's name from a short distance away, to encourage him to follow you. The instant he turns to come to you, pull another ball from behind your back and throw it.

When your dog picks up the ball, repeat the run-and-call, but this time, don’t throw the second ball until your dog has taken several steps toward you. Keep repeating this sequence, but each time wait for your dog to get closer to you before you throw the second ball. Work up to having him bring the fetched ball all the way to you before you throw the “bonus” ball.

The next step is to teach your dog to surrender the ball he has just fetched. When your dog returns to you with the ball, say “drop it” and then present the second ball. Once he is able to reliably and happily drop his ball on cue, ask for a “sit” or "down” before you throw the second ball. This teaches your dog that he needs to return the ball to you and remain calm for the game to continue.

Tug: Teaching Self-Control

When playing tug, your dog grabs and pulls a toy, often a rope, with his mouth while you hold on to the other end. When done properly, this game can hone your dog's self-control and teach him how to calm down when he’s excited.

Tug can be a productive outlet for energy as well as a way for you to bond with your dog. Unfortunately, when done improperly, tug can cause dogs to learn poor manners, such as putting their teeth on skin, jumping up and pawing. Tug can also overstimulate easily excitable dogs, and it may be hard to calm them down. You will need to determine if tug is the right game for you and your pet. If you decide that your dog can handle a game of tug, be sure that only members of the household who can consistently follow the rules are allowed to play this game with your dog, in order to avoid fostering any bad behaviors.

The first rule of tug is that your dog needs to drop the tug toy on your signal. Start by teaching him "drop it." Once he has mastered this command, then you can switch to an official tug toy.

Designate only one or two toys as “tug toys,” to prevent your dog from seeing everything, such as a child’s stuffed animal or your favorite shirt, as fair game. When you aren’t playing the game, put the tug toys away. That way, bringing them out becomes the signal that the game is on.

Once you’ve brought out the tug toy, don’t let your dog take it until he is invited to do so. This will prevent your dog from being the one to initiate the game whenever he gets the urge.

When taking the object, dogs will sometimes make contact with your hand or another part of you by mistake. If this happens, without saying a word, instantly put the tug toy behind your back for 10 seconds while looking away from your dog. When the 10 seconds are over, begin playing again, but make sure this time to add a Zen break before your dog gets too excited. A Zen break is when you teach your dog that taking a pause to “sit” or “down” makes the game continue. The fringe benefit of this rule is that you remind your dog of the importance of keeping his jaws off people at all times, even when he is excited.

Search: Engaging the Mind

This game teaches your dog to focus on his most valuable sense: smell. It’s also one of the best mental stimulation games you can play with your dog. You’ll be amazed at the power of your dog’s incredible nose when you play search games.

Start by saying a cue, such as “find it,” and tossing a small treat on the ground in front of your dog. As your dog gets the hang of finding the treat, make the game harder by tossing it farther away, where your dog can't see it — into tall grass, for example. As your dog's ability to find the treats improves, hide other toys he enjoys, such as a rope toy or stuffed Kong, in even harder-to-find places, like under a piece of furniture.

Another variation on this game is the classic hide-and-seek. Tell your dog to "stay." Go out of the room or out of his line of sight and hide, and then call him to you. (You can have another person stay with the dog if you think he will have a difficult time waiting to be called.) When your dog finds you, reward him with a treat. Not only is this game exciting for your dog, but it also hones his ability to come when called.

Chase: Exercising the Body

Chase gives your dog an opportunity to run and to pretend to stalk prey. Most dogs love playing chase, but as in tug, specific rules need to be observed, and only family members who can consistently follow those rules should play the game.

A specific chase toy, such as a stuffed animal on a long rope, allows you to appease your dog’s natural desire to chase while directing him away from animals and people. This allows the dog to chase without making you (or your kids!) the pretend prey. You can buy a chase toy or make your own with a dog toy attached to a sturdy rope or the line on a fishing pole (no hooks, please).

Before you get out the chase toy, make sure your dog knows the signal for “drop it.” Once he catches the toy, ask him to drop it (rather than tugging it out of his mouth) before the game begins again, as the toy and rope may not withstand heavy tugging or chewing, and pulling on fishing filament could injure tender tissue in his mouth.

When playing chase, it is important not to run after your dog. When dogs play chase, one dog will often run after another and then they will reverse roles. You might be tempted to replicate this type of play with your dog, but doing so could teach your dog to run away from you, which could cause problems. For example, if your dog were to get loose, he may run away from you, thinking it’s a game, rather than coming when you call him. It is also important that you avoid chasing your dog to retrieve a toy or other household item. Any time you chase the dog, he learns to play keep-away. This can lead to a serious problem if your dog ever picks up something dangerous, such as a dead animal, and instead of dropping it when you ask, makes a game of running away from you.

For all games, setting and following the rules — consistently and predictably — ensures that playtime is not only fun and engaging, but also reinforces positive behaviors. Now that’s a great way to play!

Don't miss Mikkel Becker's tips on preventing play from going wrong.

Adapted from an article that appeared in the spring 2013 issue of HealthyPet Magazine®..