A few people have mentioned to me recently that their dog seems depressed since the COVID-19 lockdown. It may sound anthropomorphic but dogs can suffer from low moods just as we can. My own dog, Dora, even showed signs, being less active than normal and over excited when we did get out.
Now that long walks are a lot harder (depending on where you live) and multiple walks not possible unless you own land, it is a perfect time to practise some training games with your dog. Training sessions need not be long but can help you to bond with your dog as well as being fun for everyone involved and, most importantly, will help keep your dog amused and happy!
Firstly, it is important to pick the right game for you and your dog. Consider what your dog enjoys and what limitations they have. For example, some games suit more active dogs and some are better for dogs who like to play with toys. If your dog has any underlying medical problems please first consult your vet. If your dog’s behaviour has changed dramatically in a short space of time there may be an underlying medical cause; in this case please also consult your vet before assuming it is just boredom. Also don’t forget that any increase in treats needs to be balanced by less dinner (better yet use part of their normal food ration as treats!)
You will need:
· A willing dog
· A treat pouch or bumbag (a pocket will do if not)
· A little bit of patience and a lot of enthusiasm!
So to the games!
The Leg Weave
The aim of this game is to get your dog to weave in and out of your legs in a figure of eight shape. This is achieved by luring. Make sure you stand widely enough to allow your dog to easily pass between your legs and use a treat they value when first teaching the behaviour. If you have already trained a ‘luring hand’ this is fine as well. To start with hold a treat in both hands so you can lure your dog from the starting position (either to your left or right) round the front of your leg, between your legs and back round behind the other leg so that they end up on your other side. Don’t worry about how perfect it looks at this stage. Mark and reward (say something like “yes” very clearly then give a small high value treat) so your dog gets a treat as they move around and between your legs (i.e. when you switch luring hands). This may take a bit of repetition to get right so make it fun! Once you and your dog feel confident you can extend the weave to a second person and beyond (if you have enough family members!). Remember to go back a step or two if your dog doesn’t seem to ‘get it’. Thank-you to Claire Arrowsmith for this game.
Puzzle feeding games
These are great ways to feed your dog in a more fun way. There are lots of products on the market and you may need to experiment to see which suits your dog. Some I recommend are the Kong® Classic or Wobbler (available from most large pet stores and Amazon), Lickimats (e.g. the Soother here), snuffle mats (available online and also easy to make!) and the Nina Ottoson Dog Brick Treat Puzzle Dog Toy (available from Amazon here). Some dogs need help working them out and some get it straight away. You can use their normal food most of the time or you can use custom made Kong® fillers or make your own healthy tasty fillings! If using peanut butter make sure it is free from xylitol.
Sniffing games are the ultimate way to have fun for many dogs. The benefit of this game is that you can use objects you have lying around the house, such as old plant pots, empty yogurt pots or light plastic cups. Show your dog a treat and put it under a cup. Provided it is a desirable treat they will reach down to smell the cup and in time knock it over to get the treat. Do this a few times so they get the idea then add a second cup in with no treat. You can slowly increase the complexity and also add different items, such as a favourite toy or higher value treat. This game also works with cardboard boxes. Start by placing the treat in the box and leaving it open. Then gradually make the game harder by adding stuffing, closing the box lid (in such a way that they can easily open it) and eventually placing boxes within boxes.
Playing with toys
If, like me, you have a dog who isn’t naturally interested in playing games with toys you can teach them the benefits and get them enthused, which will open up a new world of potential games you can play together. The solution is different for different dogs but here are some ideas. Firstly if you demonstrate that a particular toy is fun and interesting, your dog may well get the idea. Try to pick something they already have some interest in, such as a chew toy or teddy they have previously mouthed. You can even get on the floor on all fours and pretend to ‘rag’ the toy. Your dog will want to join in all this fun and this can be enough for some dogs to start showing an interest in the object – mark and reward (say something like “yes” very clearly then give a small high value treat) when they show any interest in the object, including a step towards it or a direct look. If this doesn’t work (it didn’t for Dora) you may need to use food to encourage your dog to show interest in the item. You can do this with a sock, with some smelly desirable treats in and the top knotted shut, or you can buy tailor made toys with a Velcro pocket and a line with which to dangle the pouch. Let your dog smell the pouch so they know there are treats inside then pull the pouch along the ground away from your dog. As soon as they touch it with their mouth mark and reward. Practise like this and reward with a jackpot (higher value or more treats) if they pick up the toy in their mouth. Several short sessions a day over a week or so should produce results.
There are a plethora of books out there explaining how to play these games; here is a selection of my favourites:
· Brain Games for Dogs by Claire Arrowsmith
· No Walks? No Worries! by Sian Ryan and Helen Zulch
· Boredom Busters by Happy Hounds Dog Training & Behaviour (free if you sign up to their newsletter)
I hope you can have some fun with this; please feel free to comment with questions or suggestions for future blog topics!