There’s no denying the fact that play is an important part of our dogs day. It helps keep them fit, it relieves stress, and it strengthens their bond with us.
But it’s also a great opportunity to teach your dog some valuable skills. And the best part is that play is fun, so you might not even notice you’re actually training.
Here’s 5 valuable skills you can teach your dog during play.
Play Can Increase Your Dogs Impulse Control
Have you ever met a dog that had really bad manners? One that jumps up on people, runs out the door as soon as it’s opened, and is extra pushy? That’s a great example of a dog with no impulse control.
Just like humans dogs have to learn to control their impulses, and we’re the ones responsible for teaching them. Play is a great way to reinforce some basic impulse control, and it helps give your dog some decent manners.
One simple game that’s good for increasing impulse control is tug. Most dogs love a game of tug, though some can get pretty unruly and over aroused during it.
To increase your dogs impulse control during tug you’ll need to set a few rules. If your dogs teeth touch your hand during the game it stops. If they become more excited than you’re comfortable with the game stops.
By stopping the game when they touch their teeth to your hand or when they get over aroused you’re teaching them that those behaviors have consequences. Eventually with enough practice they’ll catch on, and they’ll start to follow the rules.
An extra fun tip for the next time you play tug: let your dog win sometimes. It will not make them more aggressive or dominant, it just makes the game more fun for them if they get to win from time to time.
Puppies are extra mouthy when it comes to nearly everything, including a game of tug. If you’re struggling to keep your puppy from biting during tug you might want to work on the basics of teaching them bite inhibition first.
Play Reinforces Basic Training Commands Like “Drop It”
Does your dog have a reliable “drop it” or “leave it?”
One of the worst ways to find out is by having them pick up some random nasty thing off the street, so it’s a nice skill to have in place before that happens.
One of the easiest ways to teach a reliable “drop it” is by playing fetch. Dogs don’t necessarily play fetch by the rules naturally, some chase after a ball and then run around like a madman. When that happens you can teach them that the game only continues when they bring the ball back and drop it for you.
After your dog retrieves their ball (or frisbee) call them back to you. Once they’re within reach tell them to “drop it.” When they drop it praise them like crazy and continue the game. If they refuse to drop it the game stops.
The game continues as long as they learn to drop the ball for you. If you keep up the praise when they bring the ball back and keep it exciting that should be enough incentive to keep them playing by the rules.
For some dogs (like Laika…ahem) “drop it” isn’t an easy thing to teach. Praise wasn’t always enough for Laika, so I started playing fetch with two toys. Playing with that extra toy in my hand as she came back after retrieving was enough to keep her excited enough to willingly trade. I still said “drop it” every time, and she eventually started to drop it before I even asked.
When you play fetch with your dog you can also help reinforce their recall command. Keep it fun and exciting, and remember to always keep it positive when your dog comes back to you. If you scold your dog after they come back to you they may be a lot less likely to want to come back the next time.
Nose Work Helps Them Hone in on Their Natural Scent Abilities
Even though dogs have amazing noses they don’t necessarily rely on scent cues all the time. Like us they use they’re usually using visual cues. To help them hone in on their natural scent abilities you can teach your dog some basic nose work games.
One of the easiest ways to start is the three cup game.
Grab 3 cups (or containers) and some treats. Place the 3 cups in front of your dog and put a treat under one of them. It’s OK if your dog watches for awhile, it can take a little bit for them to catch on to what you’re asking of them.
Tell them to “find it” and praise them like crazy when they point or signal to the cup with the treat under it. As they start to understand the objective you can make it more challenging by moving the cups around after you place the treat.
This game is also good for impulse control, since it’s much easier to play if you teach your dog to paw or signal gently at the cup rather than grab it with their mouth or knock it over.
Use Puzzles to Work on Your Dogs Problem Solving Skills
We’ve all heard the saying that a tired dog is a good dog, and while it’s mostly true there’s different ways to be tired, and physical activity alone isn’t enough for all dogs.
Adding in some mental exercise can really tire a dog out. Laika is much calmer and relaxed after a training session or playing with a puzzle than she is after a 2 mile walk. Every dog has a different activity level, but all dogs can benefit from adding in some mental exercise to their daily routine.
When it comes to puzzles and brain games for dogs there’s a ton of options. You can buy dog puzzles at the store, use treat dispensing toys, work on some free shaping, or play a game of “find the treats.”
If you’re interested in buying a puzzle for your dog I suggest you gauge their interest first by making a simple puzzle for your dog with a muffin tin, tennis balls, and treats. To play all you have to do is place some treats in the tin and place the tennis balls on top. If your dog enjoys it they’ll probably love all those fancy puzzles you can buy at the store. If not I wouldn’t bother.
I’ve bought plenty of puzzles but they don’t seem to do much, at least not for Laika. She gets the treats out of them in about 3 seconds and that’s that. Game over.
I’ve had more luck with treat dispensing toys, since they keep Laika busier for longer, and they’re a nice way to slow down her eating. I love the Kong Wobbler since it keeps Laika busy for longer, slows down her eating, and makes her use her problem solving skills to get the food out.
Another simple way to work on some problem solving skills for your dog is by playing “find the treats.” My favorite treat to use is chopped carrots, though you can use whatever healthy option you have on hand.
I’ll have Laika wait in another room as I hide carrots throughout the house, making sure to place them in some non-obvious spots such as under rugs and on chairs. Once I tell her to “find the treats” she’s off and running around like crazy. I don’t know why but she does not get sick of this game…ever.
It’s a really simple way for dogs to hone in on their scent skills and solve problems. And in this case by solving problems I mean figuring out that there’s carrots hidden under my rug.
Play Can Increase Your Dogs Confidence
When you play with your dog using positive reinforcement you’re giving them direction. They rely on us to teach them what to do, and play is one of the easiest ways to do it. Dogs that know what’s expected of them and have a routine tend to thrive.
When you play with your dog you’re teaching them various skills and introducing them to new cues and objects. By keeping it positive they’ll be gaining confidence when it comes to new situations and things.
For fearful or shy dogs building confidence may take longer, but it’s still possible to work during play, and it’s definitely worth it. Each new situation that you create for your dog in a positive way will help them face new ones in the future.
What Skills Has Your Dog Learned From Play?
What lessons and skills have you taught your dog during play? Does your dog have a good “drop it?” What are your favorite puzzle and brain games to play with your dog?
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