I think one of the most underutilised tools in changing an unwanted behaviour is play! So often the focus is only on improving an owner’s control over their dog and developing consistency. However what mustn’t be lost is the fun and quality of the pet-owner relationship, after all, that is why most of us choose to have a pet in the first place!
Dogs are one of the few species who will continue to play into adulthood, and it can be an invaluable bonding opportunity for dog and owner. Play engenders trust and positive emotions within the relationship, and this then has positive knock-on effects on training. If a dog trusts and enjoys spending time with its owner then they will be far more likely to want to follow direction from them.
So what game to play?! Above all be guided by your dog. Different dogs enjoy different games; some love chasing toys, retrieving toys, tug games, sniffing games or problem solving games. Variety is the spice of life so don’t play the same game every day, and keep animated. With tug games, contrary to popular belief, you as the owner don’t always have to “win” – let your dog have the toy sometimes and other times you get it (that said, seek professional advice before playing tug games with dogs that can appear possessive over items). Play is usually punctuated with pauses, and eye contact between dog and owner, and when playing it is the game that is important to the dog, rather than “ownership” of the toy.
When it comes to dogs playing with other dogs, again not all of them play in the same way. Some are more physical players with shoulder barging and tumbling eg Labradors, others like chasing and darting in and out with very little physical contact eg Collies, other go for full body contact play with pinning and mouthing eg great danes & staffies, you get the pure chasers eg lurchers, and the more cautious players who are often smaller breeds eg shih tzus.
If your dog has had some bad experiences playing with other dogs, try to rebuild their confidence by initially only letting them off lead to play with dogs with a similar style. A cautious player or a chaser may find playing with a physical Labrador for example very difficult and overwhelming. As an owner you need to be prepared to act as referee during games and if you think that one party is no longer enjoying the game, both dogs ought to be called back to their owners for a treat before letting them go and play again.
So go and have fun with your dog! Build play into your routine in the same way as you do their walk. You don’t need to devote a lot of time to it, just 5 minutes here and there could make the world of difference to your relationship!