Acceptable toys and games

By Paula Jordi

Playing with your dog is not only important for the dog’s development, but also strengthens the human/canine bond.

Puppies begin to play with their mother and each other as soon as they start to walk, around three weeks of age. They first start, in a clumsy way, by waving a front paw at each other, progressing on to more dominance-related games. These games teach puppies bite inhibition – not to hard-mouth, keeping their mouths soft. During play, if one puppy bites too hard, or is too rough, the other puppy squeals and the game is over. If they want the game to continue, they learn that they can only keep the game going if they play according to the rules, just like children do. Play helps to develop muscles and coordination, hunting skills – shaking and killing, problem-solving, exploring – using all their senses, thereby creating a less fearful, more confident, social and balanced dog.

When playing with your dog, it is important to take the breed specifics of the dog into account. Unless you are an experienced handler or competing in a dog sport, I never recommend playing games with companion dogs that bring out certain unwanted breed-related characteristics. While it is safe to bring out the breed in Gundogs (examples being Spaniels, Retrievers and Pointers) because they are instinctively bred with soft-mouths, it is not safe to do the same with the hard-mouth breeds such as Bull breeds and Terriers.

Rules of the games

  • All play sessions must be structured, with rules, regulations and discipline.
  • The puppies or dogs must be in a calm state before the play session.
  • The humans must initiate, control and end the games.
  • The intensity of the game must be monitored, whether the game is with the human or another animal. Keep the intensity at a medium to low level to avoid the game escalating out of control, which can lead to aggression, obsession or fixation. We tend to do that naturally with our children, we just need to apply the same rule with our dogs.
  • Dogs must give up their toys willingly.

Acceptable games

Recall games – The recall is one of the most important games that you can play with your puppy. It is very important that your puppy learns that “come” means “stop whatever you are doing and come to me”. Coming when called could save your puppy or dog from possible life-threatening situations, such as being hit by a car, or being attacked by another dog. These games also teach your puppy his name and that it is rewarding to come to you when called. If you are playing with a puppy, get someone to hold the puppy while you run a short distance away, in sight. Then turn around and call the puppy to come in to your space and reward with a food treat. Once the puppy is consistently coming to you when called, you can progress on to playing “hide-and-seek” games, in which one of you hides and the dog must go and look for you. I find this game to be very popular with all my clients’ children and their puppies. Older dogs needn’t be held but rather told to stay while you play these games. I often encourage my clients to feed their dogs one of their daily rations, split into three or four containers – one to be placed in sight, with a trail of food to the next two or three containers, which are hidden. This is a fun way of encouraging your dog to use his nose, while at the same time draining him mentally. In addition, he is also working for/earning his food.

Obstacle course – Obstacle courses are excellent for challenging and draining dogs, both mentally and physically. Setting up an obstacle course in your backyard need not be expensive. There are kits on the market that you can buy or you can improvise with empty crates or boxes, old tyres, broomsticks, empty drums, etc. When setting up your obstacle course, remember to take your dog’s age into consideration – young puppies should not be doing high jumps, but scrambling over obstacles is suitable, so keep everything relatively low at this stage. Start out by luring the dog with a food treat all the way around the course, progressing on to only giving the food treat at the end of the course.

Retrieving – Some dogs are born retrievers, while others are not. Even dogs with inborn retrieving are not necessarily natural retrievers. With patience and fun, all dogs are capable of retrieving. Most dogs have no problem retrieving the toy; the difficulty lies in returning it to the human. In my training classes, I find that people who have played and mastered the recall games tend to have fewer problems with their dog bringing the toy back. Start by activating the retrieve toy on the ground by dragging or rolling it, if it is a ball, to generate interest. Once the puppy follows it and pounces, you then throw it a short distance. If the puppy picks it up, call him back to you and when he is close, don’t reach for the toy, just praise him calmly while stroking his body. Wait patiently and the puppy will release the toy and then when he does, you then take the toy and praise with a food treat. In time you can introduce a release command, but never try to force the toy out of the puppy’s mouth – rather trade with a food treat or another toy. If the puppy by-passes you or won’t return with the toy, try sitting on the ground when he is running back towards you. Turning your back and walking away also works, as the puppy will catch up to you and you can turn around and trade for the toy. Once the dog is retrieving successfully, remember to wait for the dog to be in a calm state and is making eye contact with you, and not looking at the toy, before you throw the retrieve toy. By playing this way you avoid the dog controlling the game and becoming fixated or obsessed with the toy. Don’t be tempted to do too many retrieves. Stop the game while the dog is still keen. Make sure the dog is in a calm state when you end the game and put the toy away.

Swimming - Dogs instinctively swim – they “dog-paddle”. Some breeds, such as your water dogs – Retrievers, Spaniels, Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, and German Shorthaired Pointers – take to this activity quite naturally. Again, as in retrieving, these dogs are not necessarily natural swimmers. I have Golden Retrievers and, as puppies, we take them out to a dam where they tend to follow the adult dogs into the water. Like Cesar, I strongly believe that there is no better teacher for a puppy or dog than another, more experienced, balanced dog. The best place to introduce your dog to swimming is at a nearby dam or stream. Here the dogs wade into the shallow water, gradually getting in deeper where they lose their footing on the bottom and start to float, thereby forcing them to dog-paddle. Initially, they tend to panic and beat the water with their front legs, but they soon get the hang of it. If your only choice is your swimming pool, then you will need to take the dog in with you. Few swimming pools possess the sloping entry into the water that rivers and dams do and some have quite deep steps for dogs to enter into the water. Start by putting the dog on a leash and gently lifting him in your arms. Always wait for him to relax before taking him into the water. Gradually, while keeping him close to you in the water, walk around with him until he is swimming comfortably on his own.

Never throw or force him into the pool. Be patient, walk him in and out of the pool and swim with him until he is confident to swim on his own. Apart from swimming being an excellent form of play and exercise, hydro-therapy is beneficial for dogs recovering from injuries and surgery. Swimming games must be supervised and the same safety issues relating to swimming pools with children are applicable to dogs.

Tug-of-war - This game has become highly controversial – some people encourage it and some don’t. Personally, I don’t recommend this game unless you are an experienced dog handler and you know all the rules of the game. It is unrealistic to expect the inexperienced general public, with their companion dogs, to understand the dangerous implications that may arise from playing tug games. They can bring out unwanted characteristics in certain breeds that might result in aggression. In my experience, the common problems resulting from playing tug games are: people can’t walk past the dogs without them hanging on to their clothing and tugging; taking washing off the line; biting on to the leash while trying to walk them; to inevitably growling and biting their owners. Children are more at risk of being bitten because they want the toy out of the dog’s mouth and seldom win the battle.

Rough and tumble or roughhousing - As with tug-of-war games, I don’t recommend this game either for similar reasons, including chasing and jumping up on people and children. Playing this game with your puppy can create aggression problems later on.

Acceptable toys

Toys help release pent-up energy and loosen teeth that need to come out. By giving your puppies and dogs toys, you not only enrich their environment, but there will be less temptation for them to destroy household items. Today, the variety of dog toys and puzzles to be found is astounding – as many as there are children’s toys!

Like children’s toys, as long as they are made out of durable material and are safe, they are acceptable. Never give dogs old, discarded items to play with as they cannot differentiate between new items and old ones, shoes being the best example. You do not need to spend money on toys for your dog as you can make your own – a piece of rope with a knot tied in it, the inside roll from a paper towel, and an empty plastic cool drink bottle with some food pellets inside all make good toys. Some of these will be shredded, so supervise and remove all bits that can be ingested. If your dog is the type that destroys and eats toys, then only give him those that are indestructible, like a Kong toy. Never leave toys or food chews lying around all over the house or garden as they lose their meaning and value; pick them all up and keep them in a container. When necessary (as a distraction when leaving for work or when entertaining guests), take a few out and give them to the dogs, making sure to pick them up when they are no longer needed.

Playing is fun for both dogs and people, but remember that playing supplements the necessary exercise that dogs need in order to drain pent-up energy and frustration. Playing does not replace the walk. There is no better way to challenge your dog’s nose, eyes and ears than making up fun games to play with him – so go out, enjoy your dog and have fun at the same time.

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