Games to improve dog behavior

Games are a good way to teach behaviors or practice them in a fun way.

There are many reasons to play games with your dog. It will strengthen your relationship. It will keep the dog from getting bored, which will keep him from things you don’t want him doing and make him healthier. Many of the games described here will actually help train your dog. It’s important that you can establish control of your dog even when he’s very excited. And finally, most people get a dog for companionship — isn’t playing with your dog the whole point? One thing to keep in mind is your attitude while playing. Most dogs will have fun if it’s clear you’re having fun, too.

Games are also a good way to teach behaviors or practice them in a fun way.  Here are some you can use in group classes.

Treasure Hunt

Put your dog in a down-stay and place a treat (food or toy) within sight. Return to your dog and release her, and encourage her to go to the treat — she can eat it or play with it. Repeat this, varying where you put the treat. Next time, “hide” the treat where the dog can’t see it, but she can see you putting it there (behind a piece of furniture, for example). Release her, and let her get the treat (show her if necessary). Next, hide the treat further away, then in another room, out of sight, and if she stays in her “stay,” let her find it. You can increase the distance, difficulty, and even number of treats (several small food bits) as your dog gets better at “stay.” This is especially good for dogs that have begun to learn “stay” but are nervous about having their people go out of sight.

Musical Chairs

Start with one less chair than you have players—set boundaries 3 feet outside the row of chairs.  If the chairs are in a circle or a square, draw another circle or square 3 feet outside the circle of chairs.  If the chairs are straight, alternating facing opposite directions, draw the line 3 feet out in front of each side.  When the music plays, everyone tells their dog to heel and starts walking in a clockwise direction, with the dogs outside.  When the music stops, the handlers must have their dogs lie down and find an available chair to sit in.  If a dog pops up, the handler has to immediately give up his chair, go to the dog, and have him down again.  No butts are allowed in chairs unless the dogs which belong with them have their elbows on the ground!  This might make a chair available for someone who was slightly slower but finally got their dog to lie down and stay.

When everyone has a chair, but one person and no dogs are breaking the down-stay, do one of three things:

Sub-novice version

The person without a chair is “OUT,” and one chair is removed, and the music and heeling begin again.

Regular version

The person without a chair tries to GET a chair by distracting the other dogs from seeing if they are not trained well enough to remain staying as their owners told them to do.  If a dog falls for the act and breaks the stay, the person can jump in that dog person’s vacant chair.  This goes on for a few minutes when the game leader starts the music again, and the standing person is out, and one chair is removed.  In the regular version, handlers are not allowed to use specific command words, like “come” or “sit” or “Okay!”  They are also not allowed to use the dog’s name to distract, they can not touch the dog, and they must not pull on the dog’s leash or collar to get him to get up.

Advanced version

The person without a chair tries to get a chair by distracting the other dogs from seeing if they are not trained well enough to remain staying as their owners told them to do.  If a dog falls for the act and breaks the stay, the person can jump in that dog person’s vacant chair.  This goes on for a few minutes when the game leader starts the music again, and the standing person is out, and one chair is removed.  In the advanced version, handlers ARE allowed to use specific command words, like “come” or “sit” or “Okay!”  They are also allowed to use the dog’s name to distract, and they can pull gently on the dog’s leash or collar to trick him into getting up.  Treats, balls, and toys are also allowed.  They are still not allowed to touch the dogs (no bumping, pushing, pulling, tickling, belly rubs, or other contact allowed).

This goes on until there is only one chair left and two sets of handlers and dogs.  The last ones out are usually pretty hard to get to break a stay, so it becomes more of a test of good reflexes, lightning-fast downs, and a “battle of the butts.”

Lonnie Olson of Dog Scouts of America likes this game “because the dogs get to work on heeling, quick responses to the down command, and they get used to staying under all kinds of extreme new contexts (like people crawling on their bellies like a reptile, squawking like a chicken, acting hysterical, and generally making fools out of themselves).  I also like it because it is as much fun to watch as it is to play!”

Hide and Go Seek

Teach tracking skills by showing your dog a toy and hiding it in an easy-to-find location. Once he gets the hang of the game, ask friends to walk away from your dog to a hiding place in the yard. Ready or not, here he comes. As your dog’s skills improve, have your dog sit with his back turned while everyone else hides.

When you are out of sight of your dog, call her to you. You can either use your normal “recall” command or just her name. Be very excited when she arrives. Start making it more difficult by “hiding” behind doors, couches, etc. If she doesn’t find you at first, call her again. If your dog is very good at “stay,” you can use this to keep her in place while you hide. Some dogs will use their noses for this task. Others will just look. Most of them will learn a faster recall. This is a great game for kids to play with dogs, as long as the kids don’t encourage the dog to chase them.

Tic-Tac-Dog

Draw or tape out a large tic-tac-toe board on the floor or pavement.  You can use rope or spray paint if you are playing on the grass.  Divide people up into two teams.  One team is X’s, and one is the O’s.  X’s go first, so they have an advantage.  They are the SITS.  O’s will be doing DOWNS.  The first team’s captain decides where to put the X and sends one of his players (one that can hold a sit for a long time) out to that spot first.  Then the O team captain decides where to put his team member, and they go out and place their dog in a down.  If you have dogs of varying degrees of training, then the sub-novice people can stay on leash, the novice people can stay close to the dog (but NOT on the playing area), and the advanced people have to go back to their team area and sit or stand to watch the rest of the play.  Players continue to fill the squares with Xs and O’s until one team gets three in a row or a draw.

Different versions

In one version, any dog who moves out of the position he was placed in (goes from a sit to a down, for example) is removed from the board, and that team has one less X (or O) out there.
In another version, if a dog changes positions, he STAYS in that position and becomes the other letter (from an X to an O), whereby he would be helping the other team.  In a third version, handlers can cue their dogs to remain sitting or pop back up into a seat.  They are not allowed to “correct” just to “cue.”  If they try to fix the dog, they have to do it before the other team puts another dog out or loses the opportunity.

Simon Says

In Rally obedience, you instruct your dog to perform skills printed on directional signs. Make your own obedience signs, such as “right turn,” and place them around the yard to create a mini-course for you and your dog.  If you have the right attitude, you can make obedience training a game. Let your dog prove how clever she or he is by sitting when you say “sit,” lying down when you say “down,” etc. Try it when your eyes are closed, your back is to the dog, or you are in a different position like lying down or even standing on your head! Mix up “drop it”, “take it/get it”, “hold it”, and “leave it”.

Copy C-A-T

Split up the players into two equal teams (put the same amount of brilliant dogs and beginners on each team).  The first team to go chooses one of the players to demonstrate a trick or behavior.  The second team must try to find someone on their team who can make their dog perform that same behavior.  If the second team can’t meet the challenge, they get the letter “C” (like in the basketball game of HORSE).  Each time a team fails to meet the challenge, they get another letter in the word, CAT.  The teams take turns demonstrating behaviors and challenging the opposing team until one team fails to meet the challenge three times (they would have spelled the word CAT).

You can make the game more difficult for advanced players by allowing more complex behaviors or a series of behaviors.

Fashion Race

Split up into two equal teams (put the same amount of big dogs and small dogs on each team).  In the center of the floor, place a pile of clothing consisting of about 20 different matching pairs of socks, 20 different shirts of various sizes, and 20 different hats.  At the starting cue, a player from each team races out and tries to find clothes that will fit his dog.  The shirt has to go on like you would wear a shirt, the socks have to go on the front feet, and the hat must go on the head.  Then, the player rushes back to his side’s starting line so that the next dog can go.  If anything falls off while the dog is walking back to the home team, the player must stop and put it on again before crossing the line.  The first team to get all of its players dressed wins the game.  Don’t forget to leave them dressed up–everyone’s going to want a picture!

You can pick up the clothing at church sales and places with those “everything you can stuff in your bag for a dollar” days (usually the last day of the rummage sale).  Try to get baby hats, t-shirts, and socks, to fit the toy-sized dogs.  Look for loose, v-neck, short-sleeved t-shirts or tank tops for the larger dogs so that they are easy to get onto the dog without stressing him.  Find hats with ties, but since that is the hardest thing to find, consider items scarves and earmuffs to make it interesting.  When looking for socks, consider those with distinctive patterns, like holiday socks or ones with cartoon characters on them.  They’re easier to match up.

Thanks to Terry Ryan, author of “Games People Play to train their Dogs,” for this one.

The Tail Wagging Game

Thanks to NADOI member Peg Prudden for this one.  Two teams line up opposite sides of the room with the people facing toward the middle and their dogs facing them, with their tails toward the middle.  Teams are asked to pick “Fruits” or “Vegetables.”  Whatever they pick, they must not utter any sounds, except the names of fruits or vegetables.  The game’s object is to get your dog the happiest with just the use of your voice.  No REAL words are allowed, like “Cookie” or “Bye-bye” or “Daddy” or “Good Puppy” or anything like that.  You have to strictly get your dog excited by using names of vegetables and fruits.  Whichever team has the best waggers wins?  Then, you can have a “wag-off” to see which dog is the overall wagging champion.  Be sure there is an equal number of “tailless” dogs on each team.  Dogs without tails wag their whole butts, so they can still play.

This game gets people in your obedience class to get over the embarrassment of talking “happy talk” or “ooh-dee-doos” to the dogs.  It also helps them see how important tone of voice is in creating a good attitude in the dog.

Let’s talk dogs, or even better, let’s learn about dogs.  Set aside some time to receive Spike’s dog blogs by Acme Canine.
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