By Dr. Karen Becker and comments by Diane Weinmann
We all love our pets but dogs seem to need a lot of entertaining, right? No worries, you’ll have a lot of fun too if you play these games with them:
1. Play Frisbee fetch — If your dog loves to play fetch-the-ball, consider adding a Frisbee to the mix. Agile, athletic dogs can be taught to catch flying discs. It’s a good idea to start small, by rolling the Frisbee on the ground toward your dog. Once she’s picking up the disc as it’s rolled to her, try tossing it to her at a very low level.
If she’s able to catch or at least stop it in mid-air, you can gradually increase the height and distance you throw it. If the Frisbee seems to hold your dog’s interest and focus, you’ll can teach her to bring it back to you so you can continue throwing it for her.
2. Expand your dog’s vocabulary — With time, patience and lots of practice, most dogs can learn to associate certain words with certain objects. Here’s how to start. Give two of your dog’s favorite toys a name — something simple, like “ball,” “bear” or “baby.” Remove all other toys from sight to help him focus. Say the name of one toy and throw it so he can retrieve it. Do this a few times, repeating the name of the toy as you toss it. Then do the same with the other toy.
Now put both toys on the ground and say the name of the first toy. Each time he goes to it, reward him with praise and treats. If you want to make it more challenging, have him bring the toy to you for his reward. Repeat this with the other toy. When you’re sure your dog is consistently identifying the right toy by name, you can try expanding his vocabulary even further using additional toys or other objects.
3. Create a simple at-home agility course — Setting up an agility course for your dog and teaching her how to navigate it can be very mentally stimulating for her, and fun for you. Items to consider include a sturdy crate or stool, a chair to jump on or run under, a box with open ends to crawl through, a pole attached to two stools or boxes to jump over, a hula hoop to jump through and a disc or ball to catch.
Tailor the course to your dog’s physical ability, focus and attention span. Teach her to handle one obstacle at a time, and make sure to offer lots of praise, treats and other high-value rewards each time she conquers an obstacle. This should be all about fun, not work!
4. Play indoor hide-and-seek — Hide and seek challenges your dog’s obedience skills (so obedience training is a prerequisite for this activity) and provides both mental and scent stimulation. Here’s how to do it. Grab a few treats and give your dog a sit-stay command. Go into another room to hide, and once you’re out of sight, call him. When he finds you, reward him with praise and treats.
If you’ve taught your dog a find-it command that sends him in search of something, you can also play hide and seek with objects or food treats. To play, show your dog what you’re about to hide, and then do a sit-stay or put him behind a closed door so he can’t see you. Hide the object or treat, then go to your dog and tell him to find it.
Unless he’s a canine Einstein or has played the game awhile, you’ll probably need to give him verbal cues as he gets close to, or farther away from the object. You can also give physical hints by pointing or moving toward the hiding place until he catches on to the game. When he finds the hidden object or treat, be sure to make a huge deal out of it with lots of praise and a few additional treats.
5. Lead your dog in a stair aerobics session — If your dog is fully-grown (his joints are fully developed) and you have stairs in your home, this game is a good way to get his heart pumping.
Go to the bottom of the stairs and put him in a sit-stay. Throw a toy up to the landing, then give him the nod to go after it, bounding up the steps as fast as he can. Allow him to come back down the stairs at a slower pace, to reduce the risk of injury. Ten or so repetitions of this will get his heart rate up and tire him out. Stair exercise in conjunction with a device like Dr. Sophia Yin’s brilliant Treat&Train system can provide the foundation for an excellent winter workout program for dogs.
6. Turn on the water hose — If your dog isn’t afraid of spraying water or getting wet, on warm days you can turn your backyard hose into a fun chasing toy. It’s best to have a nozzle on the hose that shoots out a jet of water. Make sure the force of the jet isn’t too much for her and take care not to spray her in the face. This can be accomplished by standing a good distance away as you move the jet around for her to chase.
A word of caution: be sure to monitor your dog’s activity closely, since water from a hose (or sprinkler) is under pressure and she can ingest a great deal of it in a short amount of time, potentially causing water intoxication.
7. Bring out your dog’s prey drive with a flirt stick — Also called a flirt pole, it’s a simple pole or handle with a length of rope tied to one end, and a toy attached to the far end of the rope. You can buy one or create your own homemade version, just be sure to use regular rope and not flexible or bungee cord.
Flirt sticks appeal to the prey drive in dogs and they’re a fun way to exercise your pet in your backyard (or in the house if you have the space or your dog is small) without overly exerting yourself. The game is simple — just drag the toy on the ground in a circle, and your dog will chase and tug at it.
The flirt stick can be a fun way to help your dog with basic commands like sit, down, look, wait, take it, leave it and drop it. It’s also useful for helping him practice listening while in a state of high arousal and cooling down immediately on command.
8. Liven up your walks by playing find-it — On your daily walks with your dog, after she’s done her business and checked her pee-mail and the two of you are just strolling along, you can use the time to stimulate her mind. Give her a sit-stay, show her a treat and then place it on the ground out of her reach.
Return to her and give her a treat for holding her sit-stay, then give her the find-it command to get the other treat. Repeat this a few times, and then make the challenge a bit more difficult.
Place the treat under some leaves, behind a tree or on a rock. Stop at several spots as though you’re hiding the treat there but hide only one treat. If you’re playing the game off-leash, make sure you’re in a safe area, and don’t hide treats beyond your line of vision. Keep your dog in sight at all times.