Play With Your Dog!

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Play is a key part of training and socializing your foster dogs. You want to teach them that people are fun, and that learning is fun, and that learning things with people is the most fun of all. More than that, play is a reminder of why we do what we do -- because the relationship between humans and canines is so magical, so joyous, that it's worth all the pee-mopping and puke-scrubbing and toothmarked furniture.

So play with your dog. It can help lay foundations for formal training, and it can make that training stronger, but even after you set all that aside, it's good to share in some happiness with your foster dogs. Fostering is a lot of work. Let it be a lot of fun, too.

Here are some games you can play with your dog, and some of the benefits of each:

  • Bobbing for Hotdogs Slice up hot dogs into coins about 1/4" thick and scatter them across a large Tupperware container, 9x13" baking dish, or child's wading pool (depending on the size of your foster dog). Let the dog splash around and fish them out. This is a great outdoor activity for warm days.
  • Fetch Some dogs practically seem to be born with balls in their mouths; others need a little more encouragement to retrieve. If your foster pup doesn't seem to know how to play Fetch, it may be worthwhile to teach it; it's a quick and easy way to exercise a dog in your backyard, and many adopters seem to expect dogs to know it instinctively. Start by click/treating any sign of interest in the designated fetch object (which should be set down on the ground near you, not tossed away -- unless it's easier to get the dog's attention with a moving object), then raising the criteria gradually to reward only mouthing the object, then lifting it, then lifting it and looking toward you, and so on until you've shaped a full retrieve. This is just one way of doing it; there are many variations, depending on which parts of the chain you choose to shape first.
  • Find It! Start by scattering small pieces of stinky dog treats or kibble in plain view and releasing your dog to hunt them down. As the dog grows more adept, start hiding the treats and kibble so that each piece has to be sniffed out. Hide treats on multiple levels: some at eye level, some raised just a few inches off the ground, some hidden behind the legs of furniture, etc. You can build obstacle courses with empty cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes, and stacks of old textbooks. If your dog has a decent Stay (or needs practice on Stay), put her in a Sit-Stay or Down-Stay while you hide the treats in another room, then release her to "Go Find!" This can build a lot of value into a Stay and release, and uses a reinforcer that isn't on you, so the dog learns that Stay can be worth doing even when you're not holding a bait bag.
  • Find It!, Part Two Instead of hiding food, hide one of your foster dog's favorite toys, and reward her by playing with that toy when she finds it and brings it back to you. Here's a clip of my dog Pongu finding his Kong on cue. (I didn't even hide it that time, I just didn't feel like going to get it, so I asked him to do it for me.)
  • Hide and Seek When your dog isn't looking, sneak away and hide, then call your dog and reward lavishly when he finds you. This is a foundational exercise that rewards attentiveness toward you and builds a strong recall, but it's also a game that many dogs enjoy for its own sake. Begin by playing indoors or in securely fenced areas, in case your dog gets tempted to wander off and do something else. Once you have a firmer relationship with the dog, however, you can also ask him to play Hide and Seek outside. Here, Pongu and Crookytail are playing at the edge of the woods, a new and highly stimulating environment for them -- yet because they know and enjoy this game, they come to find me instead of chasing squirrels or rolling around in deer poop.
  • Kibble Toss This is an incredibly simple game that many dogs nevertheless really enjoy. It can be a good introductory game for a dog who doesn't really know how to play with toys and/or is a little on the shy side. All it involves is you throwing four to six pieces of kibble down the hallway or along a smooth floor so that the dog can chase them down and eat them. Then throw another small handful. And another. That's it -- that's the whole game -- but you can do this with a dog's entire meal and most of them never get tired of it.
  • Touch Tag If your dog has a Touch cue (usually taught with hand or object targeting), you can play Touch Tag: toss an object and ask him to hit it, or hold your hand up in different positions and run around so he has to chase you and tag your hand. This is a controlled form of chase that most dogs find highly rewarding, and hitting the target quickly teaches them to retain a certain amount of self-control and direct their activity precisely even when aroused. You can also use this game to distract and quickly redirect reactive dogs away from a potentially triggering situation, or to give confidence to a shy dog on the verge of being overwhelmed.
  • Tug I could write a whole post on Tug, but suffice to say that, used wisely, I think it's a great game for encouraging confidence in a shy dog, teaching a mouthy dog to be more mindful of his teeth, and helping an impulsive dog learn better self-control. The basic game is simple: you hold one end of a toy, the dog grabs the other, and you both pull and wiggle around. Some ground rules can make it safer for all concerned and can help strengthen the benefits of the game, though. You should always control the game -- you decide when to initiate it, impose time-outs if the dog gets too rowdy or his teeth graze your hand even slightly, and teach a release cue ("Give!" or "Drop It!") that ends the game. Because dogs can get really riled up playing Tug, small children should not be permitted to play the game and older children should do so only under adult supervision.