Alexandria, VA – Your dog has neither a laptop nor a cell phone. While the whole world is coming at you through those screens, your dog just has you. And if the only thing you can think of to pass the time together is a walk, well, that’s a lot of hours in the day that your dog needs to dream up some other activities. Let’s see, maybe chewing the chair leg? Barking at bikers? Going crazy during your Zoom call?
Having an expanded repertoire of interesting things to do with your dog is the secret to a much more rewarding relationship, and a surprisingly better-behaved dog.
Bonding through play
Think about the last time you played a game with your family. Whether it was Pictionary, Scrabble, or Cards Against Humanity, I bet there was laughter, and you felt closer afterward.
Now ponder that same dynamic with your dog. Consider approaching “bored games” with your dog just the way you do board games with your family.
A decade ago, it didn’t occur to me to do much beyond the “normal” things with my dogs: big walks, obedience training, cuddling, and maybe a little game of tug. I didn’t teach tricks – spin, roll over, through the legs – because I didn’t see the point.
In contrast, back then it was obvious to me that all the time we spent playing games with our daughters was well spent, because:
● it gave us something to do together;
● it built their brains and increased their confidence; and
● it was fun, so it added another positive layer to our relationship.
I wish my old self had realized that every one of those upsides applies to playing interesting games with your dog.
So, what kind of games are we talking about? Of course, it’s great to have the classics like fetch and tug in the mix. But what about some activities that are heavier on mental stimulation?
Too often, people don’t think of “training” as a fun thing for their dog to do. Quite likely, that’s because it’s not fun for the human in question. Why? Because they’re inside their own head, where dog training is linked to stress. “I need to get him to heel right now because my neighbors see how out of control Rufus is, and I’m embarrassed.” (First of all, can we all just give each other a break on the dog judginess? Ugh, NextDoor, I’m talking to you.)
Done right – with positive reinforcement – training is fun. It’s the doggy equivalent of a board game.
A tricks mindset
To get an owner into that playful headspace, I start with Spin instead of something “useful” like Sit or Down or Stay. Immediately, the vibe in the room is better for learning. The human is no longer obsessed with the result – who cares if the dog can spin? – but is now curious and amused and eager to try.
Here’s what happens next: The dog learns Spin in about three minutes. The dog’s enthusiastic response cracks the owner up, so she starts asking for spins all week at home. There’s a spin before food, a spin before getting up on the couch, and a spin to show off in front of the neighbors. The kids think it’s awesome and have started to do it too. The dog is all in, and suddenly seems smarter to everyone.
They are laughing. They feel closer.
Look at that. The magic of games happens with dogs too.
All training is tricks!
Here’s the next big leap to make: To your dog, it’s all Spin! Your dog has no idea that some behaviors are “useful” and some are not. To your dog, they’re all just words that can mean a chance to earn chicken: “YAY! Fun. Love to play this with my people.”
Training this way is an engaging, enriching game to weave throughout your work-from-home day with your very bored dog. If you need to teach yourself that training can be lighthearted, start with spin, and crack yourself up. Then move on to touch, and going through your legs. Now that you have the hang of a more relaxed mindset, you can throw in down and stay.
Be ready, because after two weeks of throwing this into every day, your dog is going to change. She’s going to look at you differently. There is going to be a brightness and a focus you never saw before. She’s going to gaze at you, ready to listen. Just FYI.
Once you get a handful of little behaviors on cue, you can link them together for a sort of obstacle course: Start with a sit, then a weave through the legs, followed by a nice down-stay, then an exuberant “come” and a big double-spin finish! Have a race to see which family member can complete the course with the dog faster!
So, after reading this, how’s your mindset? If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, I encourage you to go back to Spin. Just Spin. Give it a try, and see where it leads. No pressure. It’s just a game.
Editor’s Note: Kathy Callahan’s book 101 Rescue Puppies: One Family’s Story of Fostering Dogs, Love, and Trust was just published and is available wherever books are sold. She’s a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) who specializes in puppyhood coaching in Alexandria, Virginia. More at www.puppypicks.com.