Sunday, September 18, 2011

Playtime to Prevent Bad Behavior

One of my favorite sights in the world is that of a dog running and playing joyfully. I honestly don't know if human beings are even capable of the type of mental and emotional freedom that must be required to enjoy life the way our pets do. I only wish that the squeak of a tennis ball would light me up the way that it does Cricket and Obi!

Fortunately, we can (and should!) take part in all of the happy nonsense that makes up dog play. Better yet, playtime can be as educational as it is fun. Playing with your dog could very well prevent or even eliminate common behavioral issues and it's definitely a great bonding experience.

Too many dogs are expected to do little more than lounge around the house or languish in the back yard. This lack of mental stimulation often leads to issues such as excessive barking, digging, or even boundary-related aggression. Dogs form these types of habits very quickly if they are not redirected and given something better to do. Training is happening all the time so when a dog's desire is simply for "something to do" then almost anything can become a reinforcer. By this, I mean that acts such as digging in the yard or barking up a storm can become very rewarding if there is little else for your pup to engage in. You don't have to be around offering treats for your dog to learn a new trick. However, the new tricks he learns when you're away are usually not very pleasant for you to come home to. A dog who spent the day digging up the yard is a dog who was left there too long with too little to do (as far as acceptable activities go at least.)

 Spend more time helping your dog expend his energy in acceptable ways. Find some time to throw a ball or a frisbee. Pick up the old rope toy for a game of tug! Any of these things are also a fantastic opportunity for you to practice teaching your dog to release possessions. Arm yourself with at least a couple of tennis balls so that when he's holding one, you can ask him to "Drop it!" and show him that he can then have the other one as a reward. (Don't offer the second ball until he willingly drops the first.) What dog on this planet doesn't think that the ball someone else has is better than the one he's got in his mouth?

Forget the old wives' tale that a game of tug will make your dog aggressive. An already-possessive dog might really show his colors during a game like this, but the game itself is not the cause. In fact, playing tug and teaching your dog to relinquish the toy (as described above with the tennis ball example) is a great way to prevent him from becoming too possessive over such items. Just be sure to keep the game fun and upbeat. If he's not dropping one toy to go after another then you obviously have two toys of different value. Pick two that he loves equally and you should have no problem.

Interactive toys are a great idea to have around for those times when you aren't home or are too busy to entertain the dog. A frozen Kong stuffed with canned food or other treats can keep some dogs busy for hours. Other toys are designed to be rolled or even thrown around in order for treats to come out. If you have an especially active dog, these can be very helpful for keeping him busy when you're away. Keep in mind that your dog doesn't need to be doing something the entire time you're gone (most dogs do nap for a good portion of the work day) but it is a good idea to give him options that are better than what he might come up with himself.

For literally thousands of years dogs have walked beside us and somehow managed to not be dragged down by our anger, depression, greed, or spitefulness. The least that we can do is attempt to acknowledge the favor and brighten their lives as well. The throw of a ball to say thank you for the enthusiastic tail wags and greetings every day after work. A playful wrestling match to show appreciation for all the tears licked away. Communicating with your dog doesn't always have to be stiff, stern, and serious. Take a cue from a canine and lighten up with it as often as you can. :)

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