Dogs need exercise- the most sedentary domestic canine needs to expend some energy daily. Even with dogs conveniently sleeping two-thirds of their lives, it can be difficult for busy human pack leaders to find time to get their furry people the exercise they need. And when furry person energy doesn't get expressed constructively, in an approved manner, it will likely get released in some other form- chewing, digging, conflict, escape, or general destruction. Dogs are wired to work- they mimic their closely related wild relatives in that all pack members expect and need to expend energy toward a goal, daily. In the wild, this mostly involves the high-energy output of the hunt, where the trump card that canines play most often for success is to simply out-endure whatever they are trying to make a meal. This approach works very well- wild dogs are much more successful than most other predators (including those silly stinky felines!). Their evolutionary design as long distance runners makes for easier meals in the wild, but it also makes them hard to wear out when it comes to their domesticated forms.
The expression 'A tired dog is a happy dog' is very true- a dog that has been worn out expending energy in a structured activity will have little interest in acting up or being destructive; instead, they will likely head off for a long and fulfilling nap. Here are three proven techniques that can chip away at your pup's energy store while reinforcing healthy pack relationships.
Tug of War
How to do it: Tug of war is easily taught, as it mimics natural dog behavior. Wild puppies will often play this game among themselves, not only for fun, but to establish pack social order. To get your dog to engage in the game, simply encourage them to hold and pull on a toy that works well for the purpose- anything that is long and strong enough to allow for a set of teeth and a hand, with some distance between the two, will work. Avoid anything that will catch in teeth, fray easily, or obviously, anything toxic or liable to cause a blockage if swallowed. Most dogs will readily get the point, although they may 'cheat' by moving their mouth closer and closer to your hand, eventually pushing you off the end and taking the toy for themselves. This can be corrected by simply not letting them 'choke up'- keeping consistent pulling pressure will not allow them to shift their teeth toward your hand. Or make the point that getting too close to your hand is not allowed, by simply dropping the toy and stopping play when they do so. If your dog has a good grasp of 'off' or 'drop it' type commands, you can also use those to make the point that play will stop when the unwanted behavior occurs.
Reward them when they play the game properly through verbal reinforcement, as well as the reward of the fun of continuing the game. Some dog behaviorists believe when playing tug of war either you or the dog should always 'win' and get the toy in the end; I am not convinced either way, although you should always be able to end the game, and take the toy, whenever you want. This game is a good way to teach 'off' or 'give'- when you want the toy, bribe them to drop it, while giving the command you wish to use, with a food item. They must drop the toy to get the treat.
This game is especially useful when you can teach multiple furry family members to play with each other. It is easy to transfer the knowledge of how the game is played from one dog to another, the 'monkey see, monkey do' nature of dogs means that the doggie party watching you play with the other doggie party will usually quickly get that 'hey, I can do that, and it looks fun!'. Simply start the game yourself, then hand off your end to the second dog, then lavish praise all around if they get the picture and start playing tug of war with each other. Until the behavior is well established, you may have to 'cheerlead' for a while to get the point across that they are doing good work for you by playing the game- otherwise they will likely be more interested in what you are doing, and may quickly lose interest. However, once the idea that 'my wonderful incredible oh so smart human leader wants me to do this with my furry sibling, I am following orders, and it's fun!' is established, it should take little encouragement to initiate long periods of exhausting tug of war play
How not to do it: There are reasons to not teach or encourage tug of war. Most of these are physical concerns- dogs with bad or loose teeth, leg or back issues like arthritis or dysplasia, or breeds sadly inbred so they have highly restricted airways- should find different forms of exercise.
Also, dogs with sketchy pack relationships, where they display genuine aggression toward each other (and please realize, much constructive doggie play sounds and looks like aggression to the untrained eye- vicious growling is often just part of the fun), are not good candidates to engage in unsupervised tug of war, although the game can be an excellent bonding tool if you can get dogs with poor relationships to play the game properly, and not have things escalate. Watch for both signs of aggression (raised hackles) and indications that one party is feeling unsure and intimidated (tail dropped or between legs, dropping the toy and snapping), and stop play if they occur. Stop 'choking up' moves as described above- break up the play and make the point that such dirty pool will result in no one having tug of war fun; that if the parties don't play right, no play will be allowed.
Dogs with real aggression issues are also not great candidates, as they will likely struggle to not translate the fun into a trigger for aggression. Dogs that have fear or excessive submission issues are also not good choices, as they it will likely be very hard to get them to participate, and when they do, they may misinterpret the other dog's actions playing the game as a threat.
How to do it: Ball games, like fetch, are great tools to wear a dog out. Some dogs are also ready-wired to retrieve through their breed ancestry, and will engage in fetch with almost no guidance. However, most dogs don't get the concept of the ball, and especially the idea of getting it and bringing it back, without being trained to do so. However, any dog, once they get the point that you want them to both chase the ball and bring it back, will happily do what they see as doing work for their human leader.
Fetch is best taught in steps: encourage them to pick up and hold the ball, then move on to chasing and grabbing the ball, and finally to bring the ball back to you and give it up willingly. The first two can be easily gotten across. Ball interest, including holding the ball in the mouth, can be accomplished by simply sticking it in their mouth and then praising them lavishly when they hold it for a while. Food rewards may not be a great choice at this point, as they obviously can't hold a ball and eat a treat at the same time- petting and verbal rewards are better. Once ball holding is established, move on to teaching your furry student that chasing and picking up the ball is a wonderful thing to do. As any dog should have at least mild interest in small, rapidly moving objects, getting them to pay attention should be easy, although getting them to follow through and pick up the thrown object is less easy. Again, lavish praise when they do the right thing- picking up the ball after you throw it, even briefly- is the best way to get your point across. The trickiest part of teaching fetch is the retrieve, getting the furry person to return to you with the ball. Here, if your dog has a solid 'recall', and will come when called, helps greatly, although many dogs will drop the ball and come instead of bringing the ball. Again, lavish praise and repetition, especially once the dog completes the process (or comes close- but stop the praise when they go off the rails and drop the ball, or wander away) will work toward making the behavior stick.
How not to do it: Again, there are some health reasons to not engage in fetch. Once trained that you want them to engage in fetch activities, many dogs will work hard to do your bidding, and those not capable of sustained, energetic play, either due to skeletal, airway, or bad teeth issues, should not be encouraged to do things that may result in injury.
Some care should also be taken in your choice of fetching objects. Obviously, anything that can easily disintegrate into hazardous pieces should not be used, nor should any object that can be caught in their teeth. One of the most common fetching toys, the tennis ball, is in fact not a good choice, for several reasons. 'Fresh' tennis balls reek of chemicals and are not something a dog should be mouthing. Additionally, the fuzz on tennis balls is in fact highly abrasive, and can seriously wear down teeth, especially if dogs get in the habit of holding them in their mouths for long periods of time. This fuzz is also easily torn off and ingested.
Lastly, fetch can be a bit of a trap for dogs with obsessive-compulsive tendencies- they can become fixated on balls, and be either pests or become possessive toward them. If this appears to be occurring, don't leave balls laying around, only introduce them when it's time to play, and be sure they have a rock solid 'off'/'drop it' command, and interrupt the game regularly to have them give you the ball, making the point that the ball is in fact yours.
How to do it: Treasure hunting is a wonderful play activity, although not one which will do much to expend physical energy. It will, however, strongly engage your furry person mentally, by combining dogs' strongest sense, smell, with one of their strongest interests- food! It is also a great distraction device for dogs with issues like separation anxiety, especially if there is more than one dog in the house, so that competition between furry parties leads to even greater interest.
Treasure hunt is basically what it sounds like, where you place treats in various locations, either inside your home or outside (in a fenced yard), and then release your dog (or better, dogs) to search out the tasty items. First, you must isolate your dogs from the field of treasure hunting play, either by blocking them from entering the search area with a closed door, or if they have a remarkably strong 'sit-stay', by making them stick to a spot until you release them to start the search.
When deciding where to play, choose an area that will never have food-type items you don't want them to consume where they can get to said food item. So, if you have a large fenced yard that may occasionally have a dead animal or some other nastiness that you would prefer they not eat, don't use it as a treasure hunt area, or if you do, first make sure there aren't prohibited items lying about. If you have trained your dog to never eat food items, even those dropped on the floor, in a certain area, like a kitchen, don't play treasure hunt in that area.
Where you place the 'treasure' should also be considered. If you have trained your dogs to not eat your food when left in certain areas, even when accessible, like a coffee or dinner table, never place treats in those areas. In general, it is a good idea to only place treasure in spots where your dog's nose is always allowed, like under dog beds, tables, and chairs, or on low spots like on top of floor level molding. If your pups are allowed on couches and chairs, they make great spots to conceal treasure, between or under cushions. Never place treats where they are difficult to get to, especially if the dog may see the way to get to the treat is to tear up something that is getting in the way. Loaded Kong type treat dispensers make a great 'bonus item' in the treasure hunt, adding an additional level of mental and physical exercise to the hunt.
After placing the treasure, it is important to control the release of the dogs into the treasure hunt 'arena'. If they have sat and stayed throughout the treasure hiding process, simply release them- they have done more than enough to show they understand that this is a structured activity with rules. If you have closed them away from the hunt area, be sure to place them in a sit-stay before they are released by your command to enter and start hunting. Some dogs may not initially get what exactly is going on, and may need to have it pointed out that there are food treats scattered around the area. An easy way to make this point is to leave a few treats in visually obvious spots, like the middle of the floor, just as they enter the treasure hunt area. You can also point out several treats. Once they get the picture, and engage their superior sense of smell, the treasure will be quickly and enthusiastically discovered!
How not to do it: As stated above, you need to be careful to only play treasure hunt in areas where dogs are generally allowed to eat anything on or close to the floor, and in even in those areas to not place treasure in spots where you want them to ignore human food in non-treasure hunt situations. Before doing a hunt, you also want to do a quick double check to confirm that there aren't items within the 'arena' that will be in doggie reach, but are not something you want them to misinterpret as eligible treasure. For instance, if you have loaded mousetraps around that your dogs have always ignored, but are either accessible or even close to accessible, you may find that once you teach them to treasure hunt in that area, they painfully discover them, thinking they must be part of the game.
Also, if you have dogs that get in disputes over food, treasure hunt may create problems when both parties try to secure the same treasure item. And, of course, if you have pups with weight issues, you may want to either limit how many treats are included, or give a smaller meal that day to account for the extra calories consumed during the treasure hunt.
Fetch, Treasure Hunt, and Tug of War are three great ways to wear out your canine friend without leaving home. And they are not only convenient, but make for great dog and human fun!
(© Paul Randall, 2017)