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Playing with a dog is fun for most people. It’s a natural behavior for dogs—especially young ones—and gives the owner a great opportunity to bond with them. Play is also important for a dog’s mental and emotional well-being. Depending on the intensity, playtime can give a dog great physical exercise as well. Play can range from unorganized, spontaneous play to organized, intense competitive games or sport. Aim to play with your dog twice a day for a minimum of fifteen minutes. Some rambunctious dogs will need longer play times to keep them happy. By learning the right types of toys and games, you can easily rotate a fun routine of play for you and your dog.
Part 1: Picking the Right Toys for Your Dog
1. Learn the importance of toys. In addition to simply curbing your dog’s boredom, playing with toys can help eliminate other unwanted behaviors and provide comfort for your dog when left alone. The right toys are also useful ways to help teach your dog new commands and games.
2. Purchase active toys for your dog. Active toys are the variety your dog is most likely to spend time with. These toys are typically made of very hard rubber or thick, knotted rope that your dog can carry around and chew on regularly without immediately destroying them.
Some people use rawhide chew toys instead, but these can easily create choking hazards as your dog chews off smaller bits of the rawhide, so hard rubber toys can offer a safer option.
Tennis balls are also a common active toy option. Keep your eye on your dog with tennis balls, though, and discard them as soon as your dog chews through it to prevent any choking hazards.
Nylabone and Kong are two common brands of durable, active toys for dogs.
If you buy rope or fabric toys, put them away as soon as playtime is done. If you leave them out, your dog may chew on them and swallow the pieces.
3. Buy your dog some distraction toys. Certain toys are especially meant to keep your dog engaged and enriched for hours when you can’t. These distraction-type toys are often puzzles with a treat inside that your dog can get to over time. Many of these options allow you to break up the treat and mix it with peanut butter (a dog’s favorite!) before inserting the mix into the toy. The dog then chews away on the toy, reaching small bits of treat and peanut butter over time.
"Busy-box" toys are another popular option in this category. These hard rubber spheres and cubes allow you to place treats inside, which your dog can only reach by moving the toy around to make the treats fall out.
4. Purchase soft toys for your dog. Dogs also love stuffed toys in addition to harder ones. Soft toys usually end up in one of two categories—a comfort toy that your dog carries around constantly or a "kill" toy that your dog rambunctiously picks up and shakes around vigorously.
Though not technically soft toys, bubbles also make great "kill" toys for dogs. Blow some bubbles, and if your dog likes them, it will pounce and bite at them playfully. Just make sure you purchase pet-safe bubble brands in case the dog manages to ingest some of the mix or if one of the bubbles bursts right next to your dog’s eyes.
Soft toys with squeakers in them are very common "kill" toys since your dog will often shake it around trying to get the squeaking portion out of the toy. Ensure that you keep a close on your dog around these toys and throw away the squeakers and loose stuffing to prevent choking hazards.
5. Try several options and rotate them. As with any toys, you may have to try several options of each before you find something your dog loves. Your dog may not react at all to tennis balls but will play for hours with a rope toy, for instance. Find four or five toys that your dog loves, and rotate them out, giving the dog one or two of them each week. This helps prevent your dog from getting bored with the toy selection.
Try to keep at least one toy to roll, one to comfort, one to "kill," and one to carry/chew in the rotation.
Dogs often have a very favorite in the "comfort" toy category—one that your dog babies. This is often a mainstay in the toy rotation that you can leave with your dog all the time.
6. Do not use your old household items. Household objects such as old shoes, bungee cords, or belts are not suitable toys. A dog can't tell the difference between your old shoe and the one you bought yesterday. Also, your dog can tear most household objects into small pieces and eat them. They will eat things you would never have thought possible.
7. Ensure any toy you buy is safe and size appropriate. Remove items such as string, ribbons, or any other potential choking hazards from any toys you give your dog. You should also pick options that are size appropriate for your dog. A large dog can potentially swallow a ball meant for a toy breed, and conversely, a toy meant for a sporting breed can be too big or heavy to engage a smaller dog. If a piece of toy or another foreign object is swallowed, it can lodge in your dog’s stomach or intestines, leading to expensive vet bills and even surgery.
Part 2: Playing Games with Your Dog
1. Play tug-of-war with your dog. Most dogs instinctually take to games of tug-of-war because it’s one of the ways puppies can play while both tugging on an object with their mouths. Choose a long, soft toy (such as a stuffed animal or a knotted rope) that you can grip away from your dog’s mouth and that your dog can’t wrench out of your hand with a head shake. Grip the toy with your hands at the ends, and associate a command such as "Get it!" with the game. Once the dog tug playfully without letting go for ten to twenty seconds before giving another commands such as "Drop it."
It will obviously take time to teach your dog the commands. Use positive reinforcement and treats to teach the commands. For instance, have a treat ready in one hand when you say, "Drop it." Repeat the command but don’t provide the treat until your dog releases the tug toy. After several times, your dog will begin associating the phrase and obeying even without the treat.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s okay to let your dog win at tug sometimes. It’s an especially good tactic to help your dog develop confidence when it comes to play time, and it does not automatically make your dog think of itself as the pack leader.
Keep the tug toy at waist height or below so as not to encourage your dog to jump up on your or others.
2. Teach your dog to fetch. While many sporting dogs were long bred for the purpose of fetching (think retrievers), almost all dogs still love to play fetch. You can use a standard active toy (such as a ball) or even something like a frisbee or disc that is made of a solid hard plastic or rubber. Get your dog’s attention with the object while it is still in your hand, ensure the dog’s eyes track it as you move it around, and then throw the toy. Call your dog back to you with the toy and use the same "Drop it" command you would for a game of tug-of-war before throwing it again.
If your dog initially has trouble understanding that you want it to chase the object, then start teaching your dog fetch by playing a game of tug where you toss the tug object a foot or two away. Your dog will still grab it at this distance, and you can slowly increase the distance until it turns into fetch.
While sticks are the stereotypical object with which to play fetch outside, they can actually cut your dog’s mouth or cause other injuries. Use dog-safe toys instead. You can even use soft, stuffed toys for indoor games of fetch.
This is also a great source of exercise for dogs that doesn’t have to wear you out at the same time, and by changing up the direction, distance, and height at which your throw the toy, you can keep your dog engaged in the play for a long time.
3. Play hide-and-seek with your dog. This game is great because it also encourages dogs to use their sense of smell. Take your dog’s favorite toy or a few treats and go hide in part of the house where the dog can’t see you. Then call your dog’s name once and wait for it to come find you. Excitedly give your dog praise when it finds you, and reward the dog with one of the treats or a brief game of tug with the toy you brought.
Use the "Stay" command to stop your dog from following you as you hide. If your dog doesn’t yet know the "Stay" command, this is a great game to help teach it, or you can simply have someone else hold the dog still while you hide and let go as soon as you call for the dog.
Choose very easy hiding spots as you teach your dog the game, and find progressively harder ones as the dog gets the hang of how to play. Once your dog is a pro, you will be able to hide completely out of sight, forcing the dog to use its sense of smell to locate you.
4. Look into dog agility groups. If you have a high-energy dog that is eager to obey, investigate joining a dog agility group. You can find information on these groups at veterinary clinics, local pet stores, or through an internet search. An agility course has various objects and walks that the dog is taught to navigate. These include weave poles, teeter boards, tire jumps, elevated walks, and tunnels.
These fun gatherings test both the owner and dog’s ability to work as a team to navigate these objects and walks in a competition against other owners and dogs.
5. Teach your dog vocabulary. One fun game is to teach your dog a vocabulary. As you hand over a toy, say the name. An example would be a ball. Say, "Ball," and give the ball to the dog. Then have the dog give you the ball and repeat the process of naming and handing the ball to your dog. Then when the ball is on the floor, point at it and say, "Get your ball." The dog will likely associate the word ‘ball’ with the actual ball and should go to it. This process can be repeated with almost any object as long as the word is one simple word.
6. Play with your dog often. Now that you have some fun games and toys in mind, make sure you play with your dog often. You should aim to play with your dog twice a day for around fifteen minutes each time. You can also combine playtime with other exercise for your dog, such as walking over to the neighborhood park before playing and walking home.