7 Games Your Dog Can Learn From

By Karen B. London PhD, May 2019
Illustrations by Jennifer Mae Spooner

Illustrations by Jennifer Mae Spooner

When it comes to dogs, it’s time to reject the idea that work is work and fun is fun. School is in session every time we interact with our dogs— even during lighthearted play, they are always learning. Here are seven fun games that teach dogs practical lessons that will help them be upstanding members of society. (These descriptions highlight the benefits rather than provide step-by-step instructions for each game.)

1. Chase.

Consider this game if you’re convinced that your dog doesn’t like to play; once she’s been enticed into a game of chase, you may see her fun side come alive. Another plus: when you want to reinforce your dog but have no treats or toys handy, chase can be a go-to way to make your dog glad she listened to you. And, because it teaches your dog to move toward rather than away from you, it can help with recall training.

For it to work, your dog must always chase you, not the other way around.

While “chase” can easily turn into the not-so-wise-or-fun game of “let’s nip the human’s ankles, legs or behind,” for the right dog played the right way, it can be a fantastic way to teach your dog to pay attention to you because you’re fun, and lays excellent groundwork for a reliable recall. Change directions often, and to avoid trouble with an aroused dog becoming mouthy, stop running before your dog gets to you.

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Caveat: I advise against children playing this game unless the dog has a proven record of being able to handle it without becoming overstimulated, and even then, only with adult supervision.

2. Fetch.

When we think about playing with dogs, this is the game that most often comes to mind. Fetch is a cooperative activity, and each player has a role that must be fulfilled for it to work. (Many people tell me that their dog loves to play fetch and then go on to say that the dog chases the ball but won’t bring it back, or won’t drop it. That’s not fetch—that’s running after a ball and hoarding it.)

Fetch has a lot to offer, including the skill of dropping an item upon request. It also provides opportunities to work on high-level obedience. After a few throws, during which the dog has retrieved an item, brought it back to you and dropped it at your feet, take a short break and ask her to do something specific: sit, down, high-five or any behavior she can do on cue. Then resume play. Adding this training into a game of fetch can be done sporadically so that most sessions are pure fun and games for your dog.

By switching between the excitement of running and the discipline of responding to a cue, the dog learns to transition between high arousal and being calm. Teaching dogs to have an on/off switch develops emotional control that will serve them well throughout life. (Another perk: Your dog gets exercise without much effort on your part, which is particularly appealing when you just want to enjoy your morning coffee while your dog burns up some energy.)

3. Find Your Treats.

Dogs have a lot of fun with this deceptively simple treasure hunt, but the “treasure” must be something your dog cares enough about to search for. It gives your dog mental exercise, keeps her occupied for a while and is a great party trick that allows your dog to show off.

Begin by putting some treats on the floor or furniture without your dog seeing you do it. Say the cue (“find it” or “find your treat” are frequently used) and tap or point to the treats. Repeat … a lot … over many days or weeks. When your dog starts to look for the treats upon hearing the cue, drop the tap or point. Once your dog is familiar with the game, have her stay, then release her to find the treats. At first, hide the treats before you ask her to stay; after your dog’s stay is solid, you can have her do so while you hide the treats, either within sight or even in another room.

Caveat: If your dog is a food-guarder, skip this game. Also, it may teach your dog to sniff around and get into stuff. My dog Bugsy never got into the garbage or the treats in my work bag until I started to play this game with him.

4. Hide-and-Seek.

Here’s another game that teaches your dog to go on a search, but with you as the focus of the quest. It’s a great way to practice and improve a dog’s ability to come when called. To play, she must already know what “come” means.

Begin indoors. Call your dog when you are partially out of sight, perhaps crouched down next to a piece of furniture or behind a plant that doesn’t entirely conceal you. When your dog finds you, reinforce her with top-quality stuff —treats, a toy, a bone, a chew, play time or a walk. Gradually work up to more obscure hiding spots, until you can be completely hidden from sight when you call her.

Add in “stay” practice by putting your dog on a stay, hiding, then releasing her and calling her to come. For many dogs, the anticipation of being released makes them respond even more enthusiastically when called.

Expect your dog’s recall to improve dramatically if you play this game on a regular basis. You are teaching your dog that “come” means to do it even if you are not in plain view, and because it’s a game with reinforcements, dogs find it fun and worthwhile.

Playing this game when you are out in a (safe) off-leash area teaches your dog to keep an eye on you, and helps her understand that if the two of you become separated, she should look for you. And vice-versa—it’s not one-sided.

Caveat: Disappearing around an aloof dog outside may not prompt any concern at all, and disappearing from view around a clingy dog anywhere may be upsetting.

5. Family Circle.

This is a special kind of hide-and-seek in which dogs are told to find a specific person. To play, the dog needs to understand and respond to the “come” cue.

I’ll use my own and my husband’s name as examples. First, one of my sons says, “Where’s Karen?” and then I call the dog. If she comes to me, she gets reinforced, but if she goes to somebody else, she gets ignored. Once I have reinforced the dog, I say, “Where’s Rich?” and then my husband calls the dog to come.

Most dogs learn people’s names quickly and begin to head to the right person once they hear the name, even before the cue. At that point, you can mix it up— sometimes calling her to come (to maintain a strong recall), sometimes saying only “Where’s [name]?” Once the dog can succeed in that context, up the stakes by having people stay out of sight, perhaps in other rooms, so the dog needs to search.

Learning the names of everyone in the family is more than just a cool party trick or a practical way to locate someone. It’s also another way to give the dog exercise without a lot of work on our part.

6. Tug.

There are many reasons to play tug with dogs, and one of the most obvious is that so many of them love it. More reasons: it’s interactive, a way to provide a dog with exercise in a relatively small space, and to help her stretch before another activity or rev her up before a competition (if that leads to a better performance).

The game requires that a dog knows (or learns) how to respond to cues to take a toy and to drop it, which are related skills. Incorporated into the game itself, they are easier to teach. The game is the reward for taking an object, and dropping it can be reinforced with a treat and then resuming the tugging.

These skills can be useful in real life as well. Use “take it” when you want your dog to carry something small for you, or “drop it” when she’s gotten hold of, say, the title to your car, which actually happened to a client of mine.

With tug, many dogs also learn to control their mouths and the emotions that can cause their mouths (and the rest of them!) to spiral out of control. Contrary to once-popular opinion, it will not make a behaviorally stable dog “turn aggressive.”

Caveat: This game can be problematic for dogs who guard objects or those who become aggressive when highly aroused. It’s best for dogs who do not struggle with impulse control or bite inhibition.

7. Red Light, Green Light.

This one, borrowed from a game enjoyed by human children, teaches dogs to listen to cues even when excited. The impulse control involved in repeatedly stopping and starting is a great life skill that often spreads to other contexts. Sometimes, a dog who is having trouble with self-control will be able to pull it together after several of the transitions between the excited running and stopping that make up the core of this game. Other dogs calm down if you play it in a very tranquil, slow manner. Different styles of the game work best for different dogs.

It can be played one-on-one in the living room or during a walk, or in teams in a class setting, with multiple dogs competing to reach a finish line. In order to play, the dog needs to be able to watch the human member of the team and respond to a “sit” or “down” cue.

When they hear “green light,” dogs walk or run next to their human. When they hear “red light,” they must stop and lie down or sit (depending on the skill being worked on and which cue the dog is capable of responding to).

When the game is played in class, if dog is unable to lie down or sit on cue within three to five seconds, the team pays a penalty —taking three steps backward or returning to the start line, for example.

There is more to playing with our dogs than just having a good time, though that’s certainly enough to make it worthwhile. While you and your best friend are having fun, the game serves double duty as a practical way to teach important skills. Or think of it this way: in the name of training your dog, you’re totally justified in putting aside housework to play with her. Three cheers for being practical!

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.

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