Dog: Play and Exercise

dogs playing with a ballWhy are play and exercise important?

Play with owners and with other dogs, not only provides the dog with some of its exercise requirements but also helps to meet its social needs. Insufficient exercise can contribute to problem behaviours including destructiveness (chewing and digging), investigative behaviour (raiding bins), unruliness, excitability, attention-getting behaviours, and some forms of barking. It is especially important to ensure that a dog’s need for exercise has been met prior to leaving the dog alone at home and prior to lengthy periods of confinement.

What are good ways to play with and exercise my puppy?

Taking your dog for a walk is a good way to accomplish exercise and can be enjoyable and healthy for you as well. Obviously you will need to keep your puppy away from stray dogs and neighbourhood parks until all vaccinations are completed but you can practice your walking skills in your own garden first. From an early age you should accustom your puppy to a collar or headcollar and lead. A flat nylon or leather collar is fine, but if you would like a bit more control a head collar is recommended - a separate leaflet describes how to train your dog to enjoy wearing a head-collar. Put your puppy on a lead, and using either food or a toy as a prompt, encourage him to follow you. Reward the good behaviour with praise and delivery of the food or toy. Keep initial walks short to encourage compliance.

"Put your puppy on a lead, and using either food or a toy as a prompt, encourage him to follow you. Reward the good behaviour with praise and delivery of the food or toy."

Playing with your pet should be an enjoyable activity for both of you so it is important to play in a way that your dog can understand. Avoid high intensity rough play, such as bouts of wrestling, as these are likely to confuse your dog and may even be misinterpreted as a form of threat. Instead play with your dog using toys which clearly indicate that the interaction is a game. 

Training sessions can also be used as a source of exercise and they are an excellent way to establish positive communication with your dog.

How much exercise and play is appropriate?

Selecting an appropriate amount and type of play and exercise, will depend firstly on the type of dog. Puppies and even adult dogs from breeds that have been bred for their stamina or to do "work" often have higher exercise requirements. For purebred dogs, consider their traditional work when deciding on the type and amount of play to provide. For example, the retrieving breeds do best with lengthy games of fetch or frisbee, while the sledging breeds might prefer pulling carts, or running or jogging with an active owner.

The length and type of play and exercise for your dog will also depend on its behavioural requirements and health limitations. While some dogs may still be ready for more after a 5 mile jog and a game of fetch, others may be tired and satisfied after a short walk around the block. A separate handout discusses dog toys.

How can I keep my dog occupied when I am away?

When you are out, or you are busy at home with other activities and responsibilities, it would be ideal for your dog to be relaxed and sleeping, but this will not always be the case, especially when he is young. Exploring the environment, stealing food items, raiding the bin, chewing or digging, are just a few of the ways that dogs find to keep themselves occupied. Therefore when you are certain that you have provided your dog with sufficient play and interactive exercise, and you must leave your dog alone, provide sufficient toys and distractions to keep your dog occupied. Also confine your dog to a safe, dog-proofed area, such as an indoor pen or a specific room. Some dogs do best when housed with another dog for play and companionship but remember that the housing needs to be beneficial for both, or all, of the dogs. Housing a very young and playful individual with a much older and perhaps infirm dog may not be a good idea. Providing objects to chew, areas to dig and self feeding toys to keep dogs occupied and "busy" while you are unavailable should be considered. 

dogs tugging on a toyWhat type of play should be avoided?

Try to avoid games that pit your strength against your dog’s. Tug-of-war games seem to be an enjoyable diversion for many puppies and they do help to direct chewing and biting toward an acceptable play object, rather than an owner’s hands or clothing. On the other hand, some puppies get very excited, overly stimulated and become far too aggressive during tug-of-war games. 

A general rule of thumb when playing with your dog is to ensure that you can stop the game as soon as the need arises. Teaching your dog to "drop" on command can help to ensure that you remain in control of object play sessions such as fetch and tug-of-war.

Although games like chase are good exercise, they can often result in wild exuberant play that gets out of control. Also, if not properly controlled, a young dog may learn to chase people for fun rather than in a controlled way on command. Again, a good rule of thumb is to only play these games, if you are the one to initiate the game, and you are capable of stopping the game immediately should it get out of control. Many dogs can be taught to play "hide and seek" without becoming too excited. Other dogs like to "search" for their toys and bring them to you.

Rough wrestling style play is to be avoided between dogs and people since it is potentially confusing and for some dogs can even appear threatening. It is important that both the dog and the owner understand when an interaction is playful in its intent. The use of toys which are clearly indicative of a playful situation are therefore helpful.

dog playing with a toyHow can I teach my dog to play fetch?

Most dogs, even those that do not have an inherent instinct to retrieve, can be taught how to play fetch from an early age. You will need to train three things:

  • To go to get the toy.
  • To bring it back.
  • To relinquish it to you so that you can throw it again. 

First, make the toy enticing. Try a squeaky toy or a ball. Toss the toy a short distance, 1-2 feet, and encourage your puppy to go to it. When he gets there, praise him. If he picks it up in his mouth, tell him “good dog”. Then, move backwards a short way, clap your hands and entice your dog to come towards you. All the while you should be encouraging your dog with a happy tone of voice and lots of praise. When your dog returns to you, say "give" or "release" and show another toy or even a small food treat. Most dogs will gladly give the toy up in order to get the new toy or treat and at the same time will quickly learn the "give" or "release" command. Then, by repeating the entire sequence of events again, the game of fetch itself, should soon be enough of a reward that food and toys will no longer be necessary to entice your dog to give the toy. At the end of each fetch play session, your dog should return the toy and you should then give a toy or chew treat for him to play with as a final reward for releasing the toy.

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