There’s no shortage of information on the importance of training and nutrition, but how important is playing with your dog for their mental and physical health? Mel Hearse investigates.
Anyone familiar with child development (or a consumer of parenting publications) knows that while children are at play, they are learning valuable life skills. This is the same for dogs, according to veterinarian Dr Joanne Righetti. And, of course, animal behaviourist and author of Things Your Dog Wants You to Know, Laura Vissaritis, says play is a crucial ingredient in developing a bond with your dog and having fun together is mutually beneficial.
“When we play, our brain releases happy chemicals and it encourages us to cooperate with our best furry mates. The same goes for dogs!” Laura explains. The behaviourist says play encourages the brain to think, problem-solve and engage, and there is new research indicating dogs learn and remember more from their training session if we play with them immediately afterwards.
Play is key to keeping our dogs’ minds and bodies healthy. As they bound around, chasing and fetching balls, sticks and other toys, they are using up energy and protecting themselves from obesity – a growing problem in dogs. Play also plays a part in preventing behavioural problems, Dr Jo explains. “Giving your dog the opportunity to chase balls and chew toys can stop him barking or annoying you, or even escaping and roaming the neighbourhood.”
How much should you play?
Laura says this will vary between dogs. “Older dogs tire more quickly and enjoy gentler games, whereas puppies can play with no end in sight,” she says. Laura recommends getting to know your dog and noticing what she does and doesn’t like – for example, playing a game of fetch with a dog that is more interested in tug can actually negate the positive experience.
It is important that you end the play before your dog does if you can, although Laura says it is just as important that your dog has had a chance to expel all the mental and physical energy he has built up over the day. The reason why you should call it quits is so you remain a key motivator to your dog in cooperative play and fun.
If your dog is not interested in play all of a sudden, Laura cautions it may be a sign of physical or mental illness and recommends seeking professional help.
While many dogs will need little encouragement (if anything, they’d like to unlock the key to getting their owners to play 24/7), you can encourage play in several ways. The first is to respond to their play request as often as reasonably possible. These requests could come in the form of you dog shaking a toy in your face, running back and forth in circles, wagging his tail excitedly as you sit in front of the TV and so forth. “Play with the toys yourself. Toss balls in the air and if there is more than one human in the room, throw it back and forth between you; your dog will want to join you in no time,” Dr Jo says. She also recommends rewarding your dog when they bring a toy to you by giving plenty of praise and or a pat.
Food-obsessed dogs can be bribed into action with toys that dispense treats – these are particularly great for when you’re at work and need to keep your dog entertained. And the ultimate play toy for a pooch, which will keep him active and happy while you’re out at work? A well-chosen playmate – a doggie play mate with a similar energy level, style of play and size (a super-large dog and tiny delicate dog is an injury risk in many cases, though you’ll know your dogs best).
Choosing good toys for your pal
One similarity between dogs and children is how your dog chooses a favourite toy – it isn’t necessarily going to be expensive – and it may even be the box it came in! But in all seriousness, Dr Jo says the best toy for your pooch is one that your pet enjoys playing with. It does not need to be expensive but it does need to be safe.
“Check for loose cords and stitching – pets can be strangled by the ropes and cords of toys, while they can choke on the stuffing of soft toys. Thin plastic can also splinter, harming your pet’s mouth,” Dr Jo explains.
As dogs have strong jaws, also be aware they can easily rip toys apart and render them unsafe, so supervise their play until you know they are safe, Dr Jo suggests. She says investing in a well-designed and -made toy can actually cost less in the long run, as you’ll likely be replacing cheaper toys regularly.
Make sure all games or toys you engage your pup with encourage positive play. Laura says this means rewarding goo play habits and discouraging bad habits such as mouthing, biting, barking and jumping.
As for her final tip, Laura suggests mixing it up. “Keep playtime varied and interesting. Additionally, playing with their own kind is very important for dogs, so find friends who have well-socialised pups and allow dogs to be dogs. As much as we may try, we are nowhere near as good at being a dog as they are!”
Top-10 doggie activities
Animal behaviourist Laura Vissaritis shares her favourite activities to engage your pooch with.
- Hide-and-seek – This can be played in the park or in your house.
- Tug of war – Teach your dog a release word by exchanging the tug for food. “You don’t always have to win but if you have a big, strong dog, gauge their intensity and end the game by walking away before it gets too rough,” she says.
- Treasure hunts – Hide some food and allow your dog to search for it.
- Walking or running – A great way to work together and have fun.
- Agility tricks in the backyard – Find a couple of bricks with a stick to sit on top of them and teach your dog to jump over an agility course. Hula Hoops are also gun to use.
- Sit, wait, come – Teach your dog to sit for progressively longer periods of time and to stay in position as you walk away. Then call him to you for a huge reward.
- Target training – Using your hand or a target stick, teach your dog to target her nose or paw to it. Dogs love this game and it is a great confidence builder. It can also be used as a great motivator for a recall under distraction.
- Where is the treat? – Put a treat under a cup and teach your dog to indicate with his paw or nose. Gradually increase the number of cups with the treat under just one of them and test how good your dog’s memory is.
- House clean-up – Teach your dog to fetch and retrieve your washing or his toys and put them in a laundry basket.
- The beach – Find a location your dog loves visiting. Many dogs enjoy finding and retrieving shells in the water.