The Importance of Play in Your Dog’s Life

Dec 16th, 2008 | By admin | Category: Dog Training Advice

Kindly supplied by Julie Davies (Puddle Paws)

Play is an extremely important part of your dogs’ development.

Playing provides physical exercise, mental stimulation which benefits may aspects of your dogs’ life and helps strengthen the bond between dog and owner.

Puppies begin to play with each other and their mother at about four weeks old. These games help the puppy to develop physically by developing their muscles and coordination, and mentally by teaching all the skills they need to become a balanced and social dog. The mental skills learned by a puppy from their mother and litter mates are how to inhibit bite, hunting skills, shaking and killing prey and communal behaviour.

Puppies learn to play bow to other puppies to invite them to play and you can also see this in older dogs. Puppies also learn through play how to play the dominant / submissive role in their pack and is a good indicator of which dogs are more submissive and which are more dominant (even if it will not be relevant as there will be no future pack once the puppies are separated into separate homes). When dogs play this game you will often see a more dominant dog fall to the ground and roll on its back in a submissive position and this is all part of practising the behaviour and is a great game when the dog can pounce back up again and run away with the prized toy to initiate a chase.

Learning communal behaviour through play forms social bonds and moulds adult behaviour. A puppy who has learnt how to play well from an early age is more likely to be a good communicator, whereas a puppy who has not played, been isolated from other dogs/littermates and/or humans will not have learned bite inhibition, how to communicate and will be more likely to develop fearful and aggressive tendencies to control it’s surroundings in the future.

Play stimulates the dog to be inventive by problem solving and helps the brain develop.
It also teaches action patterns (how to carry out a sequence of events), such as back tracking to find a hidden object. Playing games lets your dog explore using all senses such as sights, smell, touch and listening which helps with socialisation. Your dog will be less fearful and anxious and more confident if he has learnt under safe conditions to play and explore other dogs, humans and objects.

Dogs are natural predators and it will benefit your dog or puppy greatly to include the natural behaviour of hunting, chasing, chewing, retrieving, digging, shaking prey and barking into these games.

In the past we have been discouraged to play games such as tug-of-war with our dogs as we were told it would make our dogs more dominant towards us, especially if they win.
This has since been proven to be a great game, but you must make sure your dog knows the release command.
If we play games such as tug it is a game that uses natural predatory behaviour. Using these natural behaviours as part of a game deflects natural aggression and teaches cooperative behaviour.
NB. * It is important to remember not to let the dog become over-excited or mouth at hands and clothes. If this happens the game must end immediately – it is important to teach the rules of the game to your dog first and to ensure the dog knows the release command*

If you do not allow your dog to use his predatory behaviours in games like these the dog will be more likely to make up his own game using his predatory skills, such as stalking and killing your shoes or digging your flowerbeds.

Play is such a great mental stimulator that it has been shown that the brain deteriorates slower in a dog who has lots of mental games that one that does not, and will be healthier in the long term.

You can use play as a teaching tool also by teaching your dog retrieve, recall, carrying objects and also basic obedience commands. Clicker training and lure and reward are great tools to teach the required actions, you can also teach sequence behaviour with these methods by teaching your dog to do a little more each time to receive his reward until the desired action has been taught.
Always make sure play is fun and rewarding and never punish for the wrong behaviour as your dog will not want to play anymore and you will loose a valuable learning tool.

There are lots of great toys on the market for our dogs which stimulate physical exercise and mental problem solving skills.
These toys include Frisbees for chasing – this uses sight tracking skills and chase and retrieve. My dog likes the sight tracking and chasing but the retrieve is not quite there yet as he prefers the ‘keep away’ game more!

Kong’s are fantastic strong rubber toys with a hollow centre that can be stuffed with treat such as dog biscuits, cheese, chicken and peanut butter (the smellier the better to keep him interested). Kong’s are especially useful if you are leaving the dog for a few hours as it will keep him busy trying to get the treats out of the centre, and he can chew the rubber Kong itself to relieve stress and boredom.

Buster cubes are hard plastic cubes which have a hollow centre or sometimes a maze like centre which treats can be dropped into. The dog can smell the treats and has to learn to push the cube onto each side to be able to receive his treat reward.

Ropes are good to keep teeth clean and allow your dog to chew the correct object. I have always taught dogs to chew the ropes instead of the sofa and it has saved me a lot of money!
Ropes are also great for chasing and killing, if you play tug-of-war with your dog you can both shake and ‘kill’ the prey and is a great bond builder between you and your dog. Make sure however that your dog learns the release command and regularly use the command in the middle of the game with a treat reward to ensure it stays safe and fun.

Hide and seek is a fun way to use your dogs senses to the max. You can hide yourself in the house or outside and shout your dogs’ name. When he hears his name being called he should listen, look and smell his way towards you. When he finds you give him really exited vocal praise and a reward. This will also make him more attentive towards you.

Digging can be a major problem, especially if you have beautiful flower beds. Dogs love to dig and it is a great exploration game. Dogs also dig to find a cool spot to lie in when it is hot weather. I have previously made the mistake of cementing my whole garden due to muddy paw prints all over the house. Since then I have learned how important it is to allow dogs to exercise their natural behaviours and as with hard floored yards, a sandpit can be provided to allow your dog to dig in the correct place. It is great fun to hide toys in the sandpit which your dog will love finding.

Retrieving games are great fun, energy burning, uses visible tracking and also reinforces the recall. Gun dogs are usually the most natural retrievers but some do not seem to use this natural ability. With gentle fun training including positive reinforcements most dogs will learn to love this game. Retrieving lets the dog chase and seek out the ball but can be made even more stimulating by throwing the ball into long grass or bushes so that he also has to use his sense of smell to find the ball.
If your dog enjoys the ‘keep away’ game of running off with the ball rather than bringing it back to you the best and most fun way to tackle this problem is to make it into a game and put it on cue. When your dog gets hold of the ball and does not show signs of bringing it back say ‘I’m gonna get YOU!’ in an exited voice and chase him. He will love the chase and want to keep trying to initiate it.
Keep saying ‘I’m gonna get YOU!’ and chase him a few times. When he tries it again simply ignore him and sit on the floor. He will should come to you and even poke you with the object to get you to chase him again. When he comes to you say ‘come’ and treat him. He will have to drop the ball for the treat.
Then play the game again, and then wait for him to come to you again to initiate the game. This way you can teach him the desired behaviour in a positive way and with no punishments.
When you start punishing your dog for the wrong action you are likely to link the punishment with the game and he will not respond to playing anymore in case he receives a punishment.

Bubble Busting!

The game I like to play is bubble busting. It is fun, cheap and can be played indoors on a wet day.
It is as easy as it sounds, you simply blow bubbles and the dog catches them.
This game makes the dog focus on the bubbles by sight tracking them and then he has to catch them with good timing and coordination. You can also make him use his sense of smell and taste by purchasing bacon flavoured bubbles which are available in most pet stores.
A variation on this is to place a bubble machine outdoors and let your dog chase away till his hearts content. It is a fantastic energy burner, takes almost no time to prepare and great fun for owner and dog.