Play is Training and We Shall Conquer the World, One Trained Puppy at a Time!
Playing games and teaching your puppy words early on in his or her relationship is crucial to the development of healthy neuropathways in the brain and good social relationships with those around him or her.
Word Games and Grouping Games
One of my favorite games I like to play with puppies is a cognitive development game that I call Which One? You start with one toy. You give this toy a name, i.e., “This is Froggy.” You play with Froggy for a bit, emphasizing Froggy. Then you get out a different toy and give it a different name, i.e., Sharky. Then you play with Sharky, emphasizing this new name. Then you start to mix the two. One toy in one hand and one in the other, ask “Which one is [insert toy name here]?” Let him play with the toy if he gets it right, gently tell him no if he gets it wrong. Eventually he will understand the game is to choose the right toy for the right name. You can start adding new toys to his list of toy names he knows. The Which One? Game can turn into the Go Find game, where you teach you puppy to go find and bring you the toy by name. This word association game is great for puppies but adult dogs enjoy it too. You will be surprised how many different words your dog can learn. Just make sure each toy name is distinctly different. Sheep and Ship, for instance, would not be a wise choice for a toy name. Sheep and Boat would be better.
Another game that I love to teach herding breeds is Make a Group. The object of the game is for the dog to gather her toys and put them in a pile altogether. You can start with the Go Find game, and then teach them to drop the toy, reward, then ask for a new toy. Get really excited when the toys are dropped next to each other. Also, be really excited about the group of toys piling up. Switch positions, and make a group again by calling for each toy one by one. Eventually start phasing in the phrase “Make a group!” Border Collies and Australian Shepherds go nuts for this game- it satisfies their inner obsessive compulsive and gives them some work to do.
Tug of War
Back in the days when we still practiced dominance training (See article The Death of Dominance Based Training) some people had some weird notions about playing with your dog...like your dog could NEVER win! How boring and defeatist is that for your dog? Let me put your fears to rest - you can let your dog win tug of war. Especially if he has a good grip on the toy and is giving a good effort, let him win. He'll be so pleased with himself that it will make the game all the much more fun (and easier on your hands). It builds his confidence.
Tug of war also does another very important thing for your puppy- it helps develop healthy hind-end muscles. These hind end muscles in turn help his joint develop properly back there. If you watch dogs play you will notice a lot of the older dogs will engage in tug of war play with the puppies in their packs. It is just as much about nurturing and building a bond as it is about building muscle. Dogs play tug of war with each other because they care about each other’s healthy development. How cool is that?
"My puppy does not want to bring back the ball" is what I hear all the time when I suggest fetch as a way to exercise your puppy. Fetch is important, especially for working dogs, because it teaches them early in life that play is a reward. Like anything in training in your dog, you must start small. Don't launch the ball across a field and expect your dog to go after it and bring it back. That's too challenging to start off with. Try tossing the toy within arm's reach. When your puppy pounces on it, guide her back to you and tug with the toy for a bit. Then get her to release and repeat, slowly working up the distance. Another tactic you can try is to have several toys. Once she retrieves the first toy, the second toy becomes the most interesting toy in the whole world. When she spits out the first toy, be really excited that she did that and then toss her the second toy as a reward. Again this only works at first in small distances, but you will work your way up quickly. Once you do, this was my dog's most favorite Christmas gift of all time.
There are a couple things you can do with scent work with your puppy. The first is the classic introduction to tracking. If you're interested in sport Schutzhund, getting your puppy started tracking early is a plus. A scent pad is the first step in teaching tracking. A whole book could be dedicated to the subject but the basic idea is this: You stomp and kick up a square of grass (one that you don't care about because the goal is to smoosh the heck out of that grass...and not your neighbor's grass unless you don't like that neighbor, then game on). The square should be at least two feet by two feet. Then sprinkle it liberally (at least 30 crumbles) with stinky, easy to gulp down treats. Lead your puppy to the square, point at it and give whatever command you want to use for track (LOOK, ZUCH, BADGUY etc.). Repeat as he's snarfing the treats and stroke him on his side telling him good LOOK. Pull him off before he's finished the treats to create a desire to come back for more. This builds or activates his tracking drive. Eventually you will start making short little tracks and build up to longer ones (subject for another blog).
You can also play scent games with your dogs. I suppose you can invest in high-end scent boxes. Some of them come with levers that launch a ball like a flyball box. But I find for your everyday pet dog, plastic solo cups or Tupperware work just as well. Take one cup and put what you want your dog to find in it, place another cup over top with holes poked in it. Have a couple duds with no scent thingy in them as well. There are a few things you could pick. One is yourself- take a cotton ball and swab your forehead or the inside of your mouth (probably not the same cotton ball for both because gross). Reward your puppy when he noses the cup with your smell in it. He'll get the idea pretty fast. Another fun one is your cellphone. Yes, dogs can detect cellphones. And heck, who doesn't want their dog to find their phone when they lost it? Well, unless your dog has a propensity to shred things...then this may not be the best idea. Hunting types might use a certain bird feather or other piece of animal hide that you want your dog to track eventually. Macho guys might use spent shotgun shells so they can tell the ladies at the bar that they have an explosives dog...to each their own I guess.
There are a ton of toys out there marketed as interactive toys to keep your puppy busy. Some dogs like them and some dogs pee on them (which may mean they actually still like them.). The point is, it may be your dog's thing and it may not. Some of them are easier or more difficult that others. I suggest reading the reviews before investing in a super fancy one. My dog loves his purple squirrel.
Clean up your toys
I saved the best for last: Clean Up Your Toys. Dog Moms rejoice! This is the best game ever. It takes a bit to teach your dog all the steps to the game, but once you do, it's game on. I included an old video I had shot of Whuffo while he was still learning how to do it to give you an idea of how to coach it.
Basically, you teach your dog to go find a toy. Then you teach him drop it. Then you teach him drop it in the basket. Then you start to only treat him when the toy falls in the basket. Then you smoosh it all together. This isn't a comprehensive guide on the command, but it should get you started. BTW you can always hire Camp Sammy and Sammy the Dog Trainer to come to your house to teach this fun game to you (shameless promotion, I know). Or take our online course or listen to our podcast!
Here's the link: Whuffo Practicing Clean Up Your Toys
These are only a few suggestions- the world is your oyster (do dogs eat oysters?). The world is your stinky liver treat (that's probably better). I've had clients who taught their dogs anything from hide and seek to dancing to a certain song. The most important thing to take away from all of this is PLAY WITH YOUR DOG!
Samantha Schinder is a PhD candidate, almost (she hopes) finished with her program. Her dissertation is on working canines and police K-9 units. She is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and a Canine Good Citizen certified evaluator for the American Kennel Club. She has trained hundreds of dogs in the Tampa area with her tailored, educated methods. In her free time she enjoys writing (hoping to publish her debut novel), skydiving, and of course adventuring with her best friend, her dog Whuffo.