Photo credit: Dianne Roland
I confess that I’ve never been a playful person. Instead of interminable (to me) games of Candyland or Trouble with my son when he was young, I preferred to read to him or take him on shared adventures to the park, the toy store, or a museum. And rather than throw a ball for my dog or initiate a game of “where’s the bone?”, I choose to cuddle or go for a walk with her.
Fortunately, my husband has always made up for my deficiencies in the fun & games department. He is very playful. In fact, one of the things that first endeared him to me was when, on a date at the Bronx Zoo, we paused before the enclosure that housed four rare snow leopard cubs. We watched them for a while and they looked back at us indifferently from their perches on branches and rocks, their only movements twitches of their beautiful, long, thick tails.
Then, with no other human around to witness his silliness, Doug got down on his knees in front of their fence, propped himself on his arms and dropped into a play bow, moving his head from side to side. That got a rise out of the supersized kittens; they hopped down, stalked to the front of their enclosure and watched him, their eyes bright and their heads moving along with his, some of them even reciprocating his bow.
When our son and various dogs came into our lives, Doug was always the fun guy, while I was more the nurturer or the quiet companion.
But play is important; I know that. For growing children and animals it aids in both neurological development and socialization, as this report from NPR describes. Play also teaches young animals the skills they need for survival in the wild.
Another report from the website www.psychCentral.com emphasizes the necessity of play for adult humans. I was relieved to read that some of the things I enjoy doing — knitting, walking with my dog, noodling around on my guitar, even writing — count as play, reassuring me that I’m not a complete drudge. Nevertheless, it doesn’t escape my notice that these pastimes are all solitary.
For shelter dogs, play is invaluable as a stress reliever, a change of pace, a break from confinement and a way of keeping their minds sharp and engaged. I have already written about the benefits of group play; individual games are also rewarding. There are some small yards at our shelter where we can let a dog off leash and throw the ball for him. We can also hook a dog to a long leash (to ensure that we can get her back!) and let her chase a frisbee in the big yard.
A couple of creative shelter volunteers bring in puzzles which reward the dogs with treats. Some dogs, however, say “to heck with lifting each of the little compartment covers; I’ll just tip the whole thing over and scarf up all the hotdogs.” That’s OK, too; high-level strategic planning, doggie style.
Here’s Brian, proud of himself for acing the puzzle but also clearly signaling at the end, “So? What else ya got?”
In an effort to find out how to be a more playful dog mom and shelter volunteer, I spoke with Anna Craig, who runs a trick training class at the boarding and training facility we use. She’s an effusive cheerleader on the subject.
“Most owners love their dogs,” she said, “but many don’t play with them. And that’s a loss. Play creates a bond between you and your dog. It’s a fun way to build skills for obedience, make learning interesting. And the more you train them the more they’ll come up with things on their own.”
Shared play with people is also a way for shelter dogs to gain more positive experiences with humans than they may have had in the past.
Here are some of Anna’s ideas for fun human/canine activities that can be adapted to the shelter environment.
– Find it. Have someone hold the dog while you hide treats around a room or outdoor area. Let the dog see you hide the treat, or put it in an obvious place. Then say, “Find it,” and, keeping the dog on a long leash if the area is not fenced, let him find all the treats. Once the dog is familiar with the “Find it” game, you can make it more of a challenge by hiding the treats out of his sight and letting him sniff them out.
– Toss treats in the air. Or side to side. Let the dog catch them.
– Throw a treat between you and the dog, call her and give her 2 or 3 more tidbits when she comes to you. Get her excited about coming to you. This builds the basis for a good recall.
– Tug of war. For this game, you need to know the dog; “there are some I wouldn’t play tug with because they become possessive over it or the arousal level is just way too high,” Anna says. And she points out that you need to be the one to decide when it’s over. Teach “give” to get the tug toy back in exchange for a high value treat, but don’t use “give” every time; it’s OK if sometimes the dog wins.
– Teach “high four,” shake. Mark with a clicker when she raises or gives her paw. Then rub the dog’s paws and give treats. It’s important to teach dogs to allow their feet to be handled. Do this also with her collar; touch it, put your fingers under it, and give a tasty treat.
The treats can be small, or you can use the dog’s kibble if he likes that, and, if weight is an issue, subtract the training treats from his daily ration. Also, some dogs respond more strongly to non-food rewards: playing with a toy, pats and love and verbal praise. Anna says that she lets her vizsla, Strider (with her in the photo above), jump up on her when he has successfully completed a trick; normally he’s not allowed to do that so it becomes a powerful reward.
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Seeing how happy it makes dogs to master behaviors, to run and romp together, to solve puzzles and get treats, inspires me to add a little more fun to my interactions with the shelter dogs and my own dog. After all, play shared is more fun than play alone. It’s just another of the many important life lessons I’m learning from my canine pals.