Canine Playtime

All work and no play makes Fido a dull dog

Can dogs not know how to play?

Q: We adopted a dog from a shelter last month. She isn't very playful and she doesn't seem to know how. How can a dog not know how to play?

A: Dogs learn to play from each other. A dog that hasn't had much socialization or attention may have to be taught how. It won't be hard to teach your dog to play if you won't mind acting a little silly!

Dogs invite each other to play using body language. They bow, wiggle and bark. Try this with your dog: get down on your hands and knees or as close to her level as you can. Bend your elbows and lower your head, then bark! She'll probably tip her head and look at you as though you're nuts. Bounce up and down on your elbows a little and bark some more. Make it a "happy" bark, not a gruff one.

After a minute or two, she might start to bark back. This is your cue to run away! Run a few steps, turn back toward your dog, get down, bark and invite her to play again. Then run a few steps more and repeat the whole process. Even the most socially deprived dog will respond eventually. She may be a little clumsy at first and unsure about what to do, but she'll catch on!

What about playing "tug of war" with my dog?

Q: I've heard that I shouldn't play tug-of-war or wrestle with my dog. Why not?

A: We used "dog language" to teach your dog how to play. Some games have a different meaning in dog language than they do in people language.

Puppies wrestle with each other as soon as they can walk. Wrestling and playfighting is fun for dogs although it can sound very fierce to us. But these games are more than just fun for the puppies; they help determine the pecking order of the litter's pack. The most dominant puppy usually comes out "pack leader."

Wrestling and tug-of-war games are fine for dogs but not always a good idea for us. We're more fragile than littermates and we can be hurt by rough play. Most importantly, we want our dogs to know that we're people, not littermates, and should be treated with respect. Playing these games can give some dogs the mistaken idea that leadership of your family's “pack” depends on who's the toughest in a fight. They can also make a possessive or aggressive dog worse. Games that encourage the dog to growl and bite are risky and may confuse him. It's hard for a dog to understand that sometimes it's okay for him to be aggressive and sometimes it's not. How is he supposed to know the difference?

What kind of games are okay?

Q: What kinds of games are good to play with my dog?

A: Almost every dog loves chase games. Instead of chasing you, have her chase a toy. Sticks, balls, stuffed toys (especially ones that squeak), old knotted socks, anything that's safe for the dog to play with. Balls should be small enough for the dog to pick up comfortably but not so small they can be easily swallowed.

Dogs love "hide and seek" too. Make it easy for her at first. Get an especially good treat and hide in another room; somewhere obvious, just behind a chair or a door. Call her in and have her "find" you. Make a happy fuss when she does and give her the treat. Hide and seek has endless variations. It can be played inside or out, and with practice, you can teach her to find almost anything.

Training can be a game! You can help teach a dog to come when called by making it a game. Get at least one other person and a supply of treats. With your helpers standing a distance away, take turns calling your dog. She should get plenty of praise and treats from each person, the more enthusiastic, the better. This is just one way of putting some fun into your training sessions. Dogs learn tricks quickly because we make it a game. You can make your training sessions a game, too.

My dog sometimes seems to go crazy!

Q: A couple of times a week, my dog goes completely beserk! He starts tearing around in circles, doesn't matter if he's in the house or outside. He keeps running faster and faster, kind of wild looking. Is he nuts or what?

A: No, he's not nuts -- he's playing "crazy dog!" That's the name some people gave to this canine game that almost every dog creates at some time. A mischievous glint comes into their eyes and they're off -- running flat out and low to the ground, ears back, tail flying as they zoom around the area in wide circles, suddenly stopping to change direction and zoom back the way they came. For a few wild moments, they'll act as if you aren't there except maybe to ricochet off your body. No one really knows what comes over them, but it sure looks like fun!

My dog is bored!

Q: My dog is bored! At least that's what the vet told me. He's destructive and gets into mischief a lot of the time. I was told that I should find things for him to do and games to play but I can't think of any. Do you have any ideas?

A: You bet! There's lots of games you can play with your dog to stimulate his mind and help keep him occupied and out of trouble. Best of all, they're fun for you, too!

Dogs that become bored quickly are usually bright and quick learners. That's why they get bored — they get tired of doing the same old things all the time and seek out new, more interesting activies. Trouble is, what's interesting to them — chewing up your new shoes, digging up your flowerbed or barking at squirrels — is often aggravating to us!

Did you know you can teach your dog to play soccer? Start the game by gently kicking the ball along the ground toward your dog. Encourage him to get it. The ball is too big to pick up with his teeth and it will take him a few minutes to figure out that he must push it with his nose or bat it with his paws. Give him lots of praise as he begins to catch on. As he gets better at it, you can include more people in the game. For breeds too small to handle a soccer ball, soft rubber balls can be found at petstores.

Does your dog get into mischief when you're busy doing something, like getting ready for work? Give him a problem to solve! Put a treat inside a cardboard box and let your dog work to get it out. Make it easy at first — start with a box without a lid and let the dog see you put the treat in it. Work up to more difficult ones, like freezer boxes that open from the side. Depending on your dog's skill, you may end up with pieces of box all over the floor but you'll have a very happy and busy dog throughout the process.

The “Buster Cube,” a toy available in petstores, is based on the “get the treat out of the box” principle and has been known to keep some dogs occupied for hours. A sturdy plastic cube, it's designed to be stuffed with kibble. The dog must turn it this way and that to make the kibble come out piece by piece.

“Find It!” is a game that almost every dog loves. They love using their noses, and because it requires concentration, it is a great exercise for an overactive dog. You can teach your dog to find almost anything but it's usually easiest to start with a treat, something the dog really likes. Have your dog sit and stay. If he doesn't know these commands yet (it's about time you taught him, don't you think?), you can have someone gently hold him in position. Show him the treat, then let him watch you put it behind a door or a chair. One trainer recommends putting it under a towel laid out on the floor. Then tell him to “Find it!” When he does, give him lots of praise. And of course, he gets to eat the treat.

After a couple easy finds, make it harder for him. Put him on the sit/stay, then hide the treat in another room. Come back and tell him to “Find it!” As he gets better and better, make the game even more difficult by putting the treat in unusual places like bathroom sink. Don't worry if he takes a long time to find it — you're doing this to give the dog some work to do, let him do it! Just don't make it so hard that he becomes frustrated and gives up. If that happens, go back to the beginner's level and slowly work back up.

“Find it!” has a lot of practical uses. Once your dog can locate hidden treats successfully, you can teach him to find specific objects. Start first with his favorite toy. Using the beginner's method I just described, put him on a sit/stay and let him watch you hide it. Then tell him to “Find your toy!” and release him. Just as you did with the treats, gradually make the game harder and harder until he can find the toy when it's hidden just about anywhere. (You can play these games both in and out of doors.) Reward him with lots of praise and a brief playtime with the toy when he finds it. You can even teach your dog to pick up his toys and put them away in his toybox!

By substituting various objects for the toy and using the object's name in the command: “Find the ball!” “Find the shoe!,” “Find the keys!” etc., you can teach your dog to tell one object from another and find almost anything for you that he's able to carry. One owner who took her dog to work with her used this skill to great advantage. She left her office for lunch one day, locking the door behind her — but she'd left her keys on the desk! When she realized her mistake, she went outside to a slightly opened window, called to her napping dog and told him to “Find the keys!” which most he happily did.

Vicki DeGruy

This page is a part of the Dog Owner's Guide internet website and is copyright 2021 by Canis Major Publications. You may print or download this material for non-commercial personal or school educational use. All other rights reserved. If you, your organization or business would like to reprint our articles in a newsletter or distribute them free of charge as an educational handout please see our reprint policy.

We will be modifying the Dog Owner's Guide site with new and updated articles in 2021 as well as new booklists so check back often to see what's new!

Contact us