Dog Behavior and Training: Play and Exercise

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Why are play and exercise important?

Play is important to the well-being of all species, including dogs. Play naturally provides opportunities for physical exercise, mental stimulation, and social interactions.

Play should be fun. Play sessions should be tailored to your dog’s preferences and skills. Some dogs prefer playing with people rather than playing with other dogs. Some dogs like to play with toys, while others prefer games like hide and seek. For safety, it is important to avoid play interactions which lead to excessive arousal. It could become difficult for your dog to wind down or leave a game when asked.

Choosing safe and appropriate exercise and play activities can be a complex topic. Here are some tips to get you started.

What are good ways to play with and exercise my puppy or dog?

Walking is a good way to exercise a puppy or dog. Leash walks and off-leash adventures each have their own purpose and place. Dogs should always be leashed in locations where it is required and appropriate, or when there are roads nearby. Avoid off-leash walks if your dog is not sufficiently trained to respond promptly to your call (even in the presence of distractions such as wildlife, strangers, or other dogs). Until your dog can respond as needed, try using an extra long leash that allows you to keep your dog safe while he is exploring up to 50 feet away.

Choose a well-fitted collar or harness, and an easy to clean leash that feels good in your hands. A shorter leash is appropriate for urban environments, a long leash may be used for trails and more rural areas (see handout “Collar and Harness Options for Dogs”). Use positive reinforcement training to teach your dog to walk without excessive pulling on the leash. A puppy class or manners class is an excellent place to learn and practice leash walking.

"Walking is a good way to exercise a puppy or dog."

While some walks are for elimination purposes and may be brief, during an on-leash enrichment walk, your dog should be allowed to safely explore and sniff at his own pace. Having the opportunity to sniff enriches the lives of all dogs.

Long walks that are done without ‘micromanagement’ allow dogs to relax as they are subjected to fewer rules and advanced training is not involved. These “decompression” walks provide physical and mental exercise and are best done in locations that are quiet but filled with scents that are interesting to dogs. SniffSpots is a company that specializes in finding venues where dogs can have private sniffing experiences.

Long brisk walks or jogs can also be beneficial as they provide cardiovascular exercise. Rigorous exercise should be introduced gradually. Keep in mind that higher level exercise requires structural soundness as well as a healthy heart and lungs, It is advisable to check with your veterinarian before you introduce rigorous activity sessions. As a general rule, puppies who are not yet full grown (younger than 12 months in tiny breeds, 18-24 months in larger breeds) should not routinely jog or run on hard surfaces

There are many games available to provide your dog with exercise and fun. Examples include dog sports such as agility, toys such as the flirt pole, and games that involve retrieving.

Watch for signs of fatigue during exercise and immediately stop and offer rest if your dog appears out of breath, or repeatedly tries to sit or lie down. Signs of overexertion after exercise can include a slower than usual response to known cues or when invited to interact, irritability, excitability, difficulty lying down or getting back up, or a change in posture such as a ‘sloppy’ sit. Hold off on exercise and have your veterinarian examine your dog if you notice any of these signs.

How much exercise is appropriate?

The length and type of play and exercise for your dog will depend on their age, development stage, behavior, and physical health and structure. While some dogs may still be ready for more after a 5-mile jog and a game of fetch, others may be tired and satisfied after a short walk around the block. The idea is to enrich the quality of life for your dog and yourself.

"When exercising puppies, avoid games that can be harmful to growing bones and joints."

When exercising puppies, avoid games that can be harmful to growing bones and joints. Puppies are not yet well-coordinated, each time their bodies grow they must adjust their movement to accommodate. Avoid games that require your puppy to jump down from heights (above elbow height particularly), leap high into the air, run fast and then stop suddenly, or change direction rapidly and repeatedly.

Different dogs have different physical structure and capabilities. A short snouted or short muzzled dog such as a French bulldog or Dachshund will have different physical abilities than a longer legged, longer muzzled breed such as a Border collie or Labrador retriever. Ask your veterinary health care team or a canine fitness trainer to help create a safe exercise plan tailored to your dog’s individual strengths and abilities.

Monitor for signs of fatigue regardless of your dog’s age. Take breaks and rest anytime you notice your dog is fatigued.

What type of games can I play with my dog?

1. Hide and seek. One person distracts the dog while another sneaks away to hide. The hider then calls out, makes exciting sounds, or otherwise draws the dog’s attention to encourage the dog to try to find the hider. 
2. Search and find. Set out small bags, boxes or bowls that contain a favorite treat or toy. Ask your dog to search and find the treat/toy.
3. Following Along. This is a great game for training young puppies and calm adult dogs. Toss a treat away from you so your puppy moves away. Watch for them to glance your direction. Praise and jog the other way encouraging them to follow. Reward with treats, attention, and/or play, then toss a treat away and start again. This game forms the beginning of a recall. 
4. Get It and Give. Start with two toys of equal value to your dog. Start by playing with one toy, moving it around on the ground to animate it. When the dog shows interest in the toy, encourage them to tug gently (gently side to side, no up-down and no sharp movements). Next, drop the toy and switch your attention to the second toy, animating that one instead. Most dogs will immediately begin to interact with the new active toy. Practice until you can predict when your dog is about to let go of one toy to switch to the other. When you predict your dog is about to release, cheerfully say “Give” and when you predict your dog is about to pick up the alternate toy, cheerfully say “Get It”. Soon, you will be able to ask your dog to pick up a toy or item on cue, and also ask them to let go of almost any item, because the skill was learned through fun play!

5. Go to Place. Teaching a dog to run to a mat, dog bed, or crate is a fun game with real life uses. Start by tossing a treat or toy onto the mat or bed and encourage the dog to investigate. Take a few steps away from the mat, invite the dog to follow, and toss the reward onto the mat again from a slightly greater distance. When the dog will go to the mat from 6 to 10 feet away, start ‘fading the lure’: wait until your dog has taken a step toward the mat on their own and then toss the treat. Continue to fade the lure by waiting for your dog to take one step, then two, then three, etc. before tossing the treat or toy as a reward. Now that your dog understands the concept of leaving you to go to the mat for a reward, you are ready to introduce a verbal cue. When you can predict that your dog is just about to take a step toward the mat, say ‘Place’, then once your dog reaches the mat, toss the treat. Go to Place is a very useful skill to help dogs settle and remain in a designated spot for short periods of time, such as when guests arrive. The same training method can be used to teach dogs to enter a crate when needed.

What other games can I play with my dog?

Playing with your dog can also be a fun way to incorporating training. Each time you give your dog a treat, or each time he fetches and retrieves, you can practice a training command such as “come,” “sit,” “fetch,” “get it,” “drop it,” or “stay.” Interactive toys, such as flying disks, balls, and rubber hockey pucks, are available for throwing, retrieving, and kicking. These toys are generally not designed to be chew toys, but they are used for games of fetch, teaching retrieval skills, and as training rewards.

What type of play should be avoided?

Play should not be a physical competition. Avoid games of strength. Tugging can be a fun training game but it needs to be gentle enough that the dog is not injured. Though many dogs growl playfully during tug games, if there is any concern that your dog is growling in an aggressive manner, do not continue tug games until you have consulted with a behavior professional. The “Get It and Give” game is a great introduction to safe tugging. Always monitor your dog’s excitement level to be sure your dog is not getting overstimulated. Take breaks by announcing ‘all done’ and switching to a new game such as fetch or ‘tricks for treats’.

Avoid games in which you chase your dog as these games teach dogs to avoid coming when called and can encourage them to “keep away”. This can be critical if a dog runs away from a person while being ‘caught’.  Avoid games in which dogs are encouraged to chase you. Dogs can become highly aroused when they catch up to you, which can be particularly dangerous when there are young children involved.

Avoid games that incorporate very fast stops, fast changes of direction at speed, and physical roughhousing/wrestling. Signs of overstimulation, any of which can indicate the game is not appropriate for your dog, include jumping up, barking excessively, and nipping or biting either your body or your clothing.

How can I teach my dog to play fetch?

Some dogs naturally retrieve. To teach your dog to fetch, start with the “Get It and Give” game. Once the dog understands the “Get It” cue to pick up the toy, start tossing the toy 1-2 feet away. The dog will most likely pick up the toy and return to you to play tug. Reward the dog with a few seconds of tugging and then use the cue “Give” and toss the toy again. For dogs who do not like to tug, offer a food treat when your dog brings you the toy.

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