The Games People Play … With Dogs

Any relationship would be taxed if one of the parties involved insisted on winning all the time. Golf, tennis, racquetball – what if your friend just HAD to win every game, refused to relinquish the ball and ran taunting circles around you? Most people would refuse to play with such a vexing person, refuse to take their phone calls, even.

It’s surprising how many self-respecting individuals will blithely engage in games with dogs who behave exactly like the boorish friend described above. Students of dog behavior and body language can almost hear these dogs saying, “Hey, Stupid, play with me now!” “I’m fast, you’re slow.” “I’m a winner, you’re a loser.” “It’s MINE! You can’t have it till I say so.”

Make no mistake; playing with dogs is certainly one of the joys of dog ownership. Dogs are refreshingly eager to romp with us, and if we do it right, games forge a tighter bond, relieve stress (in both parties) and get us moving. The very best games cleverly disguise training during play and exercise the dog’s brain along with his body. More on that later, but first, let’s look at a few popular games and how they can undermine your relationship.

Games Gone Wrong

Fetch – a fantastic way to exercise your dog … unless it looks like this: Dog repeatedly spits ball at human until human relents and tries to pick up ball. Dog then grabs ball as human reaches for it. Sequence is repeated as many times as dictated by the dog. Human finally gets the ball, throws it, then tries to catch dog, who runs circles around human, dancing just out of reach. Human either gives up and the process starts again, or dog prances off to destroy the ball, thus ending the game.

If it seems like Buddy is wearing an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt while playing fetch, it’s time to take control of the game. Try putting him on a 6-foot leash before the first ball is tossed. Ask for a sit, and reward him with a throw of the ball. Let him drag the leash while he runs after it, and if he tries to play keep-away, you, smart human, quickly step on the leash. Gotcha! Ask for another sit and repeat the process.

Catch Me – one of the best ways to convince your dog, without a doubt, that you have no authority and no good sense. Owners play this game to exercise their dogs or when duped into it during “fetch.” Catch Me looks like this: human bends over and claps hands, pretending to chase dog. Dog zooms in circles around the human, at best perfecting his ability to never be caught, at worst practicing his ancient predatory circling skills.

Ever watch a working Border collie herd sheep? When your dog runs circles around you, you’re the sheep.

Wrestle Mania – an unfortunate favorite in many families and smacks of the old saying, “It’s all in fun until someone gets hurt.” Wrestle Mania simulates fighting, complete with growling, pinning, grabbing and kicking. When dogs spar with each other, they use their teeth (much like we use our hands). Their canine contemporaries – in fur suits and tough hides – are well-equipped for such abuse, but our skin is much more delicate. Wrestle Mania can set a dangerous precedent whereby the dog assumes all humans want to “mix it up.” Children usually lose in interactions with dogs proficient in Wrestle Mania: Rex might restrain himself while playing with Dad, but is likely to take it up several notches (showing no respect or inhibition) with a child or more passive adult. Grandma comes to mind.

Unless you want to designate yourself, your friends and family as glorified chew-toys, it’s best to avoid wrestling games.

Face Games – a favorite among macho, Rambo-wannabes and isn’t much of a “game” at all. Face Games (for lack of a better term) involve slapping the dog on the side of the face and grabbing at his fur. This game guarantees the dog will become wary of human hands and possibly dangerous when someone tries to grab hold of his collar in an emergency. One person can ruin a puppy with sadistic games, so be an advocate for yours and keep him out of Rambo’s area of operation.

Tug of War – promotes the dog’s bite, hold, shake and kill instinct – traits generally not considered desirable for a family pet. Tug of war was once viewed as a complete no-no in family dog training circles but has recently made a comeback, especially as a reward during training. In the spirit of this new attitude, we’ll relent and say, if you must play tug of war with your dog, here are the ground rules:

1. You start the game.

2. You end the game.

3. You keep the toy.

And for the love of Dog, before playing tug of war, establish some rapport with your dog first! Train Sasha to respond immediately to “give” or “drop it.” Otherwise, rules two and three shall be rendered moot.

The final word on tug of war: Never, ever play tug with a dog that has exhibited any kind of aggression or has a history of biting.

There are many fun, appropriate, and stimulating games that build a happy, safe relationship with your dog. In fact, games are an integral part of a reward-based training program. In our next installment we’ll discuss several of our favorites, including more tips for fetch and tug of war.

Editor’s note: This a best-of column that was originally published November 26, 2008.

Carla Jackson is a certified pet dog trainer who owns and operates Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free dog boarding and training facility. Carla is a past instructor at Haven Humane Society and specializes in private training/behavior consultations for the family dog.

Carla Jackson
Carla Jackson is a professional pet dog trainer and owner of Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training, behavior consultations, puppy socialization and day training. You can find Jackson Ranch on Facebook, visit the Jackson Ranch website, or call (530)365-3800.
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