We have a 2-year-old male cattle dog named Buster that we adopted from a shelter about 6 months ago. My husband and I disagree about how to play with him. He wants to play tug and wrestle and I think those games make Buster mouthy and wild. What do you think?
— Buster’s Mom
Dear Buster’s Mom,
I’m always happy to hear about rescued dogs who know how to play. Many dogs in shelters have either forgotten how to play or never learned. After they learn a few fun tricks or how to fetch a ball, their eyes light up. Playing with your dog can strengthen your relationship and as an added bonus you can train while you play!
Games can be a fun way to teach leadership and control, however there are good games and bad games. In most cases, it just takes a minor adjustment to change a bad game into a good one.
Bad game #1 — Catch me if you can: You reach to put a leash on your dog and he runs the other direction. When you chase him, the game is on!
The good alternative — Hide and seek: Hide behind a wall or tree and wait until he looks for you. You want him to succeed, so make it easy at first.
Bad game #2 — Tug of War for keeps: Your dog wrestles a toy from you and runs off with it. This often turns into Game #1.
The good alternative — Tug of War on your terms: You make the rules! Invite him to “take it,” “tug,” and “drop it.” When you are done playing, put the toy away.
Bad game #3 — Throw the ball: Your dog pushes his ball at you, staring and ordering you to “throw it!” Once you do, he gets the ball but then dances around and won’t give it back.
The good alternative — Fetch: You bring the ball and invite a controlled game of “fetch.” You ask him to “sit” and “wait,” then tell him to “get it” as you throw the ball. On his way back, you say “bring it” and have him “drop it” into your hand.
Bad game #4 — Wrestling and play fighting: This encourages jumping up, mouthing, biting, and chasing.
The good alternatives — Tricks and mind games: Exercise your dog’s mind by teaching him to shake, roll-over, play dead, or spin.
In addition to games you can play at home, new types of organized dog sports are constantly being created. Rally-O is a fun sport where dogs must perform certain tasks to score points. Fly-ball and agility are great for high energy dogs like terriers and herding breeds. Find something you both enjoy and have fun!
— Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.