Whenever I play, I try to have guidelines that my dog needs to follow. It’s not as regimented as it may sound. How many games do we play that have rules that need to be followed that enhance the fun? Even the most basic of games have some guidelines: count to ten before chasing, then when you’re tagged, you’re it!
When I think about it, even spontaneous rough and tumble with my dog has certain guidelines such as “bite me very softly, not hard” or “dodge me, don’t slam into my legs” to keep it fun. The play spontaneously stops if these rules are broken because I’m no longer having fun!
Some of the guidelines I apply when playing fetch or tug with my dog are:
1. "Wait" patiently for the game to begin - don’t help yourself to the toy from my hand
2. "Sit” to ask to start the game – I like this to be automatic, not asked for by me every time
3. Game starts when you hear “OK” or “Tug”
4. “Give” the toy into my hand, don’t drop it at my feet or 2 metres away
5. “Find” a dropped object
6. “Leave” a toy, no matter how enticing. At a more advanced level, leave it even if you are chasing it
I have no problem with playing tug with a dog. If you teach a dog the rules, there is no problem with aggression or over-arousal. I don't understand the advice to never let the dog win either. It's a win-win game when you play with your dog. When you say "give", the dog gives and then the game starts again when you say the word. It's darn fun!
Teaching my dog to sit before a toy is thrown, even though excited, is not dissimilar to sitting even though excited when a visitor comes. If my dog can be called away (“leave”) from chasing a favourite toy, there is a much better chance that this will transfer more easily to coming away from playing with another dog. Play is an opportunity to sneak in practice of all the tasks my dog already knows to a certain level, using a reinforcer she is crazy about (the toy, activity or me!) and honing behaviours even when she is excited.
Another benefit of training during play is the “two for the price of one” effect: physical exercise and mental stimulation in the one activity. Talk about a bargain!
Just when you thought I’d milked the virtues of combining play and training for all it’s worth, there’s one more advantage. If non-aversive techniques are used (i.e. the dog is not trying to avoid or escape something annoying), the relationship with my dog is enhanced because we are engaging in a mutually enjoyable activity. We are building a history of positive associations and consequences. It all adds up. It carries over into everyday life. It’s wonderful.
Watch Scout and I in action, getting some really great behaviours, impulse control and having fun. Watch for the surprise visitor at the end. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8B9Bch8WK0