How often do you let loose and really play with your dog? Most of us don’t play with our dogs as much as we would like – life is just too busy. We can manage a couple of walks a day and some attention whenever our canine kids come looking for it, but finding the time for romping on the lawn is tricky. What we don’t realise is that play is essential for dogs’ mental and emotional health – the more you play with Fluffy the happier and better balanced she will be.
According to a recent, ongoing study by researchers at Bristol University, dogs that don’t get enough play can develop behavioural problems, becoming more anxious and reactive towards people and other dogs. The researchers admit that it’s difficult to say with certainty that lack of play is directly responsible for the behavioural problems, what is certain is that play provides vital intellectual stimulation. Dog trainer Gail Fisher says that play also allows dogs to practice behaviour that comes naturally to them – hunt, chase, scent, chew and tug.
It’s not just about the mental stimulation and physical exercise, however, it’s also about having good, plain fun. Dogs have so much fun when they play that, according to Emily Blackwell, they will slow down their pace and change tactics to prolong games with their humans.
It’s important to bear in mind that there are two tricks to playing properly with your dog.
You have to find the kind of games and toys that your dog loves.
Dogs have different tastes, likes and dislikes. Some dogs will stare at you as if you’re a nutcase if you throw a ball for them to chase, but they’ll turn into the nutcase when you bring out a rope toy. Other dogs will mug you for a tennis ball but turn a blind eye to a squeaky toy.
(It’s worth noting that the study found that fetch and tennis balls tend to be popular among most dogs.)
Play preferences are often breed-related. Herding and gun dogs and hounds like games that involve hunting, chasing and retrieving. Guarding and hunting dogs like tug games. Terriers like noisy toys that can be shaken, tossed and tugged.
Remember to rotate toys so that they don’t lose their novelty value and introduce new toys and games periodically to keep your dogs interested.
You have to teach your dog to play nicely.
Play often gets out of hand – we amp our dogs up so much that they get unintentionally snappy with their teeth. With excitement levels this high, dogs have no control over how hard they bite and they can do a fair bit of damage without meaning to, even if you have taught them bite inhibition. It’s up to you to keep the play from escalating to high arousal levels. If you see your dog is getting overexcited, simply step back, stop the play and get your dog to do a few thinking exercises – a sit, a down or paw. This allows them to regain some self-control and you can start the game again. You can do this whenever your dog mouths you, so that they learn that any mouthing, no matter how soft, is unacceptable. It’s also a good idea to avoid all sorts of wrestling games with your dogs because of the danger of rapidly escalating arousal levels, especially with big breeds and fighting/guarding breeds. Their jaws are strong and even though they don’t mean to, they can hurt you.
You don’t have to restrict yourself to ‘traditional’ dog games like fetch and tug. Activities like agility, flyball, rally free and canine freestyle all count as play and they’re a great way to have fun with your dog, strengthen your bond and get you and your dog thinking.
Play dates with other dogs are also a good idea, even if you have a multiple dog household. It’s nice for dogs to play with different breeds and sizes so that they can practice different types of play behaviour.
The good news is that it doesn’t take hours of continuous play to meet your dog’s needs. About 15 minutes of play 2 – 4 times a day is sufficient to keep them from bouncing off the walls and will do wonders for your relationship.
Remember to provide other things for your dog to do during the day when you’re at work or busy with chores. Interactive toys, especially food-based toys like Kongs, are great for keeping your dog mentally occupied. Sturdy chew toys are also great for relieving stress and expending energy – things like sinews, ostrich necks and ducks feet also work. Digging patches are good for dogs who like to dig their way to China.
For safety’s sake, always monitor play between dogs, especially new dogs, and children. Buy age and size appropriate toys. You don’t want your Rottweiler choking on a small squeaky ball that is suited to a puppy or Chihuahua.