One-On-One Activities With Your Dog
Activities need not be organized or competitive to be fun for you and your pet. Getting out together—just the two of you—is another great way of giving your dog exercise and a change of scenery, as well as creating important bonding time with you. Involving your dog in some of the pastimes you already find rewarding can make these pursuits even more meaningful and enjoyable for you as well.
If your family is heading for an outdoor event or day trip, take your dog along. Where I live near the coast of Maine, a ferry takes passengers out to the various islands around Casco Bay and back to the mainland several times each day. As long as they are leashed, dogs are welcome to board the ferry to tag along with their seafaring owners. You don’t have to leave land, though, to include your dog in your plans. Picnic at a local park, or have lunch at a restaurant with outdoor tables. State parks are often great places to bring pets, provided that dogs are allowed. Some wonderful books have been written to detail the best dog-friendly places in various locations around the United States. Check your local library or online for such locations where you live.
Hiking and Running
Walking and running are two of the healthiest forms of exercise for both people and dogs. What’s more, taking part requires no fancy equipment or major expense. You can enjoy either activity virtually anywhere, anytime. When your dog walks or runs, his body utilizes and strengthens various muscles, and he experiences an increase in heart rate, a basic requirement of any cardiovascular activity. Sensible precautions must be taken with either pastime, though, to help prevent the dangers of physical injury, overexertion, and dehydration. Walking can serve as a sensible introduction to a more intense exercise program, such as running, or it can be a worthwhile activity in its own right. Ideal for dogs of virtually all fitness levels, walking strikes many people as the quintessential human–canine pastime. It requires no instruction, it provides both dogs and owners with a regular dose of fresh air and sunshine, and it can be adjusted to fit into almost any routine.
Running (or jogging) with your dog, on the other hand, is an activity that demands a bit more preparation and a lot more vigilance. A dog who has never before run for any length of time, for example, needs to be introduced to the pursuit gradually, starting with only very short distances in the beginning and progressively increasing them. Just because your dog can run around with you in the backyard for what seems like hours on end does not mean he can keep up with you on a genuine 5- mile (8-km) run with no practical experience.
Always be on the lookout for signs that your dog needs a break. These can range from subtle (panting excessively and slowing down) to more obvious (increased salivation and outright stopping to sit down) indicators. If your dog tells you he needs to rest, honor his request by finding the nearest patch of shade for a respite period. Never run without taking along water for both you and your dog.
If your dog is overweight, you should discuss the prospect of running together with your veterinarian, who may likely suggest postponing vigorous exercise until his weight is down to a more reasonable level. In the meantime, grab your dog’s leash, don your walking shoes, and get on the road to better health by putting one foot in front of the other.
Some owners prefer to train and exercise their dogs in less structured settings, perhaps at home in their backyards. This more relaxed approach can serve as a basis for more conventional training down the road or be used for nothing more than pure fun. By observing your dog during this kind of play, you can also gain much insight into his learning style and potential for different activities. A dog who likes to run and jump may be well suited for agility, whereas a dog who seems to look to you for direction during play may be an excellent candidate for obedience.
The best thing about all these activities is that you are not required to continue up a ladder of success. A friend of mine has a very intelligent dog who especially enjoys the tunnels in agility, but shows no interest in any of the other obstacles. Agility competitions are not for this animal, but she still has a load of fun streaming through the vivid nylon passageways in her own backyard nonetheless. Listening to the cues your dog gives you about what he most likes and dislikes is one of the best things you can do to meet his needs and create rewarding pastimes for you both.
Many dogs enjoy playing ball. Make sure your dog’s ball is the right size for his mouth. A smaller dog will have trouble picking up a large ball, and a bigger pet can choke on a tiny ball. The best way to play ball with a smaller pet is by bouncing the ball gently away from the dog and allowing him to run after it, or by rolling the ball slowly toward him. If your dog is larger and athletic, you may consider investing in a ball with a throwing wand. This long, spoon-like item helps owners throw the ball greater distances.
Fetch is a game that can be played with any toy your dog fancies. Keep in mind, however, that your dog might not be especially keen on giving up a particularly treasured item once he has taken possession of it. This can be part of the fun for your dog, but discontinue play if his possessiveness escalates to aggressive behavior.
Follow the Leader
Many dogs are naturals at playing follow the leader. Using various kinds of impromptu obstacles, this game can easily be played in a backyard or inside the home using furniture, hallways, and other items within your home as props. Placing a reward, such as a favorite toy or other treat, at the end of the course can be a fun addition.
Hide and Seek
Playing hide and seek is a great way to practice the sit, stay,and come commands with your dog. After giving the first two commands, find a place to hide and then call your dog. Remember to reward him for finding you. You can also hide a treat for your dog to find. As your dog becomes more and more adept at locating the treat, try hiding additional treats, which will lay the groundwork for a treasure hunt.
One of the biggest mistakes an owner can make is chasing his or her dog during play. By doing so you are essentially teaching your dog to run away from you. This does not mean you must decline if your dog initiates a thrilling game of chase. Just make sure that you are always the one being chased and that the game remains playful and fun. Through well-planned playtime, you will be training your dog to always follow you.
Playing With Toys
Finally, don’t forget toys! Toys can be a great motivator to get your dog moving. Saving one or two special items for more active playtimes can help ensure that your dog will be willing to participate in a good old-fashioned game of fetch when the time comes. Toys are also great non-edible rewards to use at the end of an informal training session. Find a non-edible Nylabone toy that’s perfect for your dog!
Believe it or not, some dogs can be taught to pick up and put away their own toys. A variation of playing fetch, this game of sorts can be a fun and useful way to cap off each play session. Like many other games, it can alo be a great foundation for further training activities.
Establish a Playtime Routine
Seize the opportunity for play whenever your schedule allows. You don’t need big chunks of time! Your dog will actually get more out of several shorter periods of play throughout the day than he will from one longer, exhausting session.
As with more organized activities, it is best to end games on a positive note. If you quit playing while your dog is still having fun, he will be more interested in joining in the fun the next time. This will help maintain his attention if you do wish to incorporate training into future play times.
Playtime, whether organized or spontaneous, can be a great stress reliever for both you and your new pet. When dogs are given an adequate amount of recreation time, they are healthier, happier, and better behaved. I can’t think of a better habit to adopt than regular playtime with your beloved pet.
Material adapted from The Happy Adopted Dog (Terra Nova) (T.F.H. Publications, 2009), used by permission.