The Power Of Play

Nothing is as delightful to dog owners than seeing their pet engage in the lighthearted activity of play, whether it be for recreation, a game or exercise.  While dogs acting playful might seem to be pleasing, the actual power of this play is highly underrated.

Back in the 1980’s, the game of tug-of-war was touted as a game that could promote and even create aggression in dogs.  Many people bought into this premise, and in fact some still do.  The old saying, “when you know better, you do better” has never been more appropriately used than in this circumstance.  

As we all watched the popularity of dog sports grow, it became more noticeable that many of these high-energy dogs were playing tug as a reward for their behavior.  Border collies in particular seemed to enjoy this game and were willing to run entire agility courses not only for the fun of the course, but to play tug with their owner upon completion.  For me this was definitely the start of a new way of thinking.

Surely, if this game caused aggression we would start to see a lot more aggressive dogs, but the opposite seemed to be happening.  The dogs started to focus a lot more and seemed more willing to work for their handlers.  

Search and rescue handlers and their dogs got in on the action and using tug toys as an aid, these dogs are motivated to maximum ability in order to play a game of tug at the end.  The power of this game seemed to be quite successful.

Upon observation, it was never the game of tug that was a problem, it was only a problem if the dog would not drop the toy.  To avoid this problem, it is important when teaching a dog to play tug that you also teach a “drop it” on command.  Say the word “drop” and offer your dog a treat.  As he drops the toy to get the treat, remove the toy.  The trick to this is that you must offer the toy back to your dog with the words “take it”.  By doing a number of repetitions of drop and take it, you will enforce the idea to your dog that it is okay to give up your toy.  Not only do you get a treat, you often get your toy back.  

Tug toys come in many varieties.  You can use anything that allows you to be on one end, and your dog to pull at the other end.  Long braided toys made out of fun fur seem to be quite popular. Cut fun fur into 3-4” strips.  Tie a knot in one end and braid it quite tight.  Tie a knot in the other end.  Then, for additional strength, take the whole rope and tie it in a knot in the middle.  Or, if your middle name is not Martha, you may find purchasing one a little bit easier!

Your toy should be kept up on top of your refrigerator when not in use.  It does not belong to your dog, but to you.  You start the game and you end this game.  This is the primary rule.  The winner of the game is the one left holding the toy at the end.  Most of the time, this will be you.  Occasionally, it is fine to let the dog win.  The old wives tale that you should always win, is just that…a tale.  If this were the case, you would find many dogs give up on the game and become uninterested.  

In play, you may hear your dog growl a little bit.  This does not seem to be a problem, although this sentence may alarm some dog owners.  In my experience, and the experience of many dog trainers, the growling is just a matter of play.  The only consideration you need to be concerned about is a problem with the drop on command.  In saying this, if you have a dog that is aggressive by nature, you may not be comfortable playing this game as it may be difficult to turn the dog off. We are now seeing lots of dogs trained with tugging games, with virtually no impact on the nature of the dog.  Sure, you may get the occasional dog that will have difficulty relinquishing his toy, or become overly enthusiastic when playing tug.  In this case, this may not the game for your dog. This, however, does not seem to be the normal circumstance.

Tug games are often used to help shy or under-confident dogs to gain some self worth.  These dogs need special consideration. By letting this type of dog win the game, you will help build the confidence he may need to explore other opportunities in life.  

So…how do you get started?  First, pushing a toy into your dog’s face will often make him back away.  It is best to play hard to get.  Keep this toy in a handy drawer for a week or so.  For a few days, take out the toy and play with it by yourself.  Toss it in the air and seem interested in this toy.  Then, put it back in the drawer.  About a week later, start to let your dog occasionally get the toy as you toss it around.  The majority of the time, it is yours to keep!  Then start letting him have it 50% of the time, then increase that.  Before you know it, he will be anxious to play.

The power of play has many other sides.  How about simply for a bit of fun?  Many dog owners do not know how to interact in games with their dogs.  Sure, they know how to instruct the dog and how to ruffle their dog’s head, but when asked to play with their dogs, they are often at a loss. Having fun with your dog is the name of the game.  Teach them fun activities and enjoy yourself.  After all, isn’t this the main reason you got a dog?

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