Make park time play time for you and your dog

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16 March 2015
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Make park time play time for you and your dog

Fun at the park can mean a happy and healthy dog. Trainer Tony Cruse shows you how to harness the power of play.

Did you know, if your dog receives daily physical exercise and regular brain stimulation, the more likely you are of having a well-behaved dog? You can improve both your and your dog's life by spending a good hour at your local park. You'll both benefit from the exercise and fresh air, and you can work his brain with some fun training.

A dog who spends most of the day in the house without exercise and stimulation will have a dull life. Very few dogs will just sleep all day - why would they? A bored dog often finds his own entertainment, such as barking at the window, chewing inappropriate items, jumping up, and digging the garden. There's also little chance of controlled lead walks because he's so full of excess energy. Find your local park and make good use of it.

Last month, we looked at arriving at the park and starting the walk calmly. This month we're looking at how to make the most of your time while you're there.

Scents rule a dog's life. They're invisible yet everywhere. Part of your dog's fun at the park is to sniff and discover what has been before. Other dogs, foxes, and rabbits have all left scents which your dog can learn from. A dog can gain a wealth of information from another dog's scent - the sex, the health, and how recently the dog was there. To allow your dog to sniff is to work your dog's nose and his brain. Scenting can tire a dog out, often more than physical exercise alone.

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The power of play

Play exercises the muscles and the brain. If your dog enjoys playing with his toys at home, why not bring his favourite to the park with you? Every so often you can recall your dog and excitedly pull out the toy for a quick game. Play frequently but for short periods (five times per 30 minutes with each game lasting 20 seconds). Always put the toy away when he still wants to play. This keeps him interested for next time and can mean a more reliable recall.

Manage, train, and play

If you are worried that your dog will run off during the early training stages, consider using a long line. These long training leads will prevent your dog running off but also allow him to romp, sniff, and play. All the exercises we have covered can be carried out with your dog wearing a long line. You can then relax a little and keep him out of trouble.

So during your park walk, allow your dog to do doggy things like sniffing, running, weeing, and pooing but integrate the walk with some fun games. Your dog will be physically exercised with the walking and running and mentally stimulated by the games. As a result you should have a dog who wants to be with you at the park and who is relaxed and calm at home.

Training exercise - Chuck the cheese 

The following exercise allows you to engage with your dog and be part of that natural scenting activity. If your dog really enjoys this game, he will focus on you more readily in the park.

For many dogs, the scenting becomes the big reward - not necessarily the food - as they find the chase is better than the catch. You'll be working your dog's innate, hard-wired behaviour, which produces endorphins. All dogs are capable of locating food so can do this exercise.

‘Chuck the Cheese' is a game where searching is the reward. You can also teach a little bit of impulse control and perhaps other exercises, such as a ‘Down'. An impulsive dog dashes out for what he wants. This game helps build patience and control. Your dog can learn to hold back and to check in with you first, as if he is asking ‘Please'.

  1. Find a grassy area. The longer the grass, the more testing it will be for your dog. On-lead or off-lead, start by showing your dog a piece of food. Use a small, fingernail-sized piece of cheese, chicken, or a piece of your dog's dinner kibble.

  2. Toss it out but not too far and allow him to chase, locate, and eat it - no control required. Repeat this five times, each time increasing the distance at which the food lands (keep it within the length of the lead if he is wearing one).

  3. Now for the impulse control. With your dog in a sit (optional), gently hold his collar.

  4. As you hold his collar, show him the food and toss it out a short distance (within 12 inches of your dog). He may pull slightly for the food but gently keep a hold of his collar to prevent him from getting it. You are waiting for him to relax slightly.

  5. When your dog stops pulling towards the treat and you feel the tension relax, say ‘OK' and send him out with a straight arm, as if you are tossing the food again.

  6. Allow him to search for the treat. Keep quiet and he should find the food.

  7. You can now build further good behaviour. Again, hold the collar and chuck the treat. This time you are waiting for your dog to check in with you and give you eye contact. When you have eye contact, send him out to search, as you did in step 5.

  8. After practising this exercise, you can gradually loosen the grip until eventually you will not need to hold your dog's collar. Your dog will wait for your release cue, ‘OK' and arm action.

  9. To progress this exercise, you can request other behaviours you are working on (for example a ‘Down' or ‘Paw'). Try to gain eye contact first.

  10. You can also increase the difficulty by tossing the treat further away and into longer grass, which means a more challenging ‘nose-only' search.

Training exercise - Hide and seek

For many people, much of the park walk is spent looking for their dog. You need to change the balance slightly and ensure your dog is checking in with you. A fun way to encourage this is to play hide and seek. When your dog finds you, his relief will be huge and often as rewarding as a treat. This exercise can also strengthen your recall.

Depending on where you hide, your dog will have to use all his senses to locate you which is stimulation he needs. Eventually, during walks, if you occasionally duck behind a tree or hedge and stop walking, within a minute your dog should be looking for you. Do this enough and he won't let you out of his sight during an off-lead walk.

  1. Identify somewhere suitable to hide, like behind a tree, a wall, or a hedge and get your dog's attention using his name.

  2. Let him see and smell a treat and toss it into the grass away from your hiding place.

  3. As he runs to search for the treat, quickly get into your hiding place.

  4. Either recall your dog (using your dog's name and recall command, ‘Come' or ‘Here') or keep quiet and allow him to find you.

  5. Once he locates you, give him a big fuss and repeat. Tossing the treat away allows you to hide again and also rewards him for locating you. You can have even more fun if there are a number of trees or hedgerows to hide behind.

Top tips

  • Ensure the area is safe - not too close to a road for example.

  • Be aware of distractions such as other dogs, joggers, and squirrels.

  • If your dog runs past you, you can always help him by calling his name.

  • Let your dog come to you; don't go to him.

  • When he finds you, keep it random; fuss him and occasionally give him a treat.