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For dogs, work can be fun. We, humans, may ask "how is that possible?" and the answer is quite simple: there are several games you can play with your dog that they can also learn from! These games not only provide enrichment, mental stimulation and physical exercise, but they can also help teach your dog practical behaviors and social etiquette. Here are five games to incorporate learning into:
Fetch is one fo the first games our minds go to when thinking about playtime with our dogs. Not only is this a fun game for your dog, but it provides opportunities to incorporate learning. For example, you can use it to teach your dog to drop an object upon request.
Fetch can also teach your dog to work on high-level obedience, if you take sporadic breaks to work on obedience training between throws. In addition, alternating between the exuberance of fetch and the discipline of obedience training can help your dog learn to adjust between being excited and calm. This teaches your dog to develop emotional control and train him or her to have an on/off switch.
Pro Tip: Use fetch for learning requires that it be a cooperative game - meaning you and your dog each have a role that must be fulfilled for the game to work. In other words, fetch will not work if your dog doesn't actually bring the ball back.
Most dogs love playing tug-of-war and it's a great way to get your dog some exercise, especially in small spaces. But it's not just a fun game, it can also be an opportunity for learning. Tug-of-war can teach your dog to pick up or carry something for you, in addition to reinforcing the "drop it" command. It's also a great way to teach your dog to control their mouth, as well as their emotions and excitement that may cause them to forget they have sharp teeth.
Pro Tip: This game may not be a good fit if your dog resource guards objects (such as toys) or becomes aggressive when overly excited.
Many dogs love to chase their humans and if that's the case, you can use it for learning. In particular, chase can be a great form of positive reinforcement for listening to and obeying your commands. In addition to that, chase teaches your dog to come toward you, rather than away from you, which can be helpful for recall training.
A few things to note: for chase to work as a learning game, your dog must always be chasing you, not vice versa. Also, you don't want the game of chase to involve your dog nipping at your ankles or legs, as that could encourage bad habits. But as long as you follow these guidelines, chase can teach your dog that you're worth paying attention to, especially because you're fun.
Pro Tip: To avoid your dog nipping at your heels, change directions frequently and stop running before your dog reaches you. Also, this game may not be suited for children as dogs often become rambunctious during chase.
If your dog loves food, then this is the perfect game. How it works is you essentially create a treasure hunt by hiding your dog's kibble or treats and then prompting him or her to find them. It keeps your dog entertained while also providing mental exercise and stimulation. But beyond that, it's a great way to teach your dog the command "find it" or "wait" before going for his or her food (if you make your dog sit or stay before asking him or her to find the treats).
Pro Tip: This game may not be a good fit for your dog if he or she resource guards food or likes to get into things (as it can reinforce that behavior).
This is another game that can teach your dog the "find it" command, but instead of food as the target, it's you. Because of this, it can teach your dog to come to you when called (or strengthen that command if he or she already knows it). And it enhances recall training because it teaches your dog to come to you on command, even when you're not in sight. You can also use this game to teach your dog the "stay" command by asking him or her to wait to find you.
It's best to start the game inside and making it easy by hiding where your dog can and will find you. You can work up to tougher hiding spots once your dog has mastered the game. Make sure to reward your dog when he or she finds you, so you reinforce the seeking behavior. It's also a good idea to start inside, but you can work up to playing outside in a fenced-in, off-leash area for extra learning benefits. Playing hide-and-seek outside can teach your dog to stay aware of your whereabouts and to look for you if you get separated out in the real world.
Pro Tip: If your dog is aloof or likes to wander off, this game may not be the best for you two. On the flip side, if your dog is clingy or has separation anxiety, this isn't great either as it can cause distress.