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Using Games in Training


Games play a crucial part in your dog's behavior and development... dogs don't do things because we *want* them to do them -- they do things because there is a *reward* involved (or, because they escape a punishment) for doing them. Games can be used as a reward for appropriate behavior, or they can be used as tools to teach a dog bite inhibition, or they can be used to re-direct prey drive, or even to teach a dog service skills. To a dog, life is a game... and that's as it should be.


Re-directing Prey-Drive: In order to teach games to your dog, you have to first understand what prey drive is -- prey drive is an instinctual drive in your dog that would allow him to survive in the wild, and this is the "driving force" behind your dog's learning one skill over another, like certain games (dogs with higher prey drive tend to be better at games like frisbee and flyball). Every breed of dog possesses prey drive to some degree: some breeds display a higher degree than others. This drive keeps the teeth clean and sharp; it keeps the jaw bone and muscle in top condition, and it keeps reflexes at peak. Saints possess (as a breed) a much lower degree of prey drive than most other breeds: their survival has been much more closely linked to relying on man for sustenance than it has with other breeds.


These are the components of prey drive: chasing, cornering, capturing, killing, dissecting. For the most part, the Saints I've worked with engage in chasing and cornering behaviors... I've got one that will *catch*, but she appears to do it more as a means of *defending* the animal (she lays on our cat when the other dogs get TOO interested!) She's also done this with other small animals, in the same way: she killed a mouse by laying on it so that the cat couldn't get it. She pressed her chin into it's little wriggling body, and it suffocated. It wasn't even wet -- it had never been in her mouth.


And, I've got one Saint that is my "frisbee dog" -- the others show *no* interest... she's got a higher degree of prey drive than the others do. Prey drive can be the motive for your dog's desire to engage in training exercises... or, it can become the bane of your existence. If your dog is a higher-drive dog, and you're not "channeling" that instinct/energy, then you've got the potential to have big problems on your hands. However, if you re-direct (or channel) your dog's innate talents for chasing, cornering, capturing, and dissecting by providing *outlets* for them, these innate behaviors can actually become the driving force behind your dog's learning processes! In other words, using a base drive like prey drive can motivate your dog in situations where food just doesn't have appeal, or isn't an option -- like when another dog is involved.


Games are OUTLETS for your dog's prey drive. Games provide a way for your dog to engage in activities like dissection, without involving the neighbor's cat (or child!) These activities are crucial to your dog's overall emotional and physical health and well-being!


Reward Games: Games that are used as rewards have to meet two criteria:


1) Obviously, it must be a reward for your *dog*. Don't try to use retrieving as a reward with a dog that doesn't LIKE retrieving. My "frisbee girl" likes retrieving... the others just aren't interested. It's too much like *work* for them. {grin}


2) In order to be used as a reward for appropriate behavior (such as during a training session), the game must be short in duration -- hide-n-seek isn't a good choice as the reward for a straight "sit", in the middle of a training session. Tug-of-war is a very good choice for this, because the game is used to teach several aspects of appropriate behavior in itself! Fetch is also useful, if you're one of those lucky few whose dog will do it. {grin} I'm not going to discuss the actual logistics of teaching dogs to play tug-of-war... there is an entire article on OSR's website devoted to the use of that game, simply because it has SO many functions! Please visit OSR's Behavior section, and click on the article "Teaching Bite Inhibition" for more information on this *crucial* game. I recommend that EVERY dog be taught the rules to playing this game, and that they're engaged 2-3 times per week, for life. Teaching "fetch": learning to chase and retrieve an item requires a certain amount of prey drive, OR a very good reward for doing so. If your dog has a high prey drive, retrieving is a reward in itself -- it satisfies a base need.


If your dog doesn't possess a high prey drive, teaching a retrieve can be a challenge: but it CAN be done! Once your dog has learned the game, it's a simple matter to teach the dog to retrieve *named* items -- he can help you to put socks into a drawer, or get his leash, or do lots of little jobs around the house (like pick up his OWN toys! lol) Retrieving is a foundation skill for service dogs. Redirection Games: Hide-n-Seek: this game is *great* for dogs who suffer anxiety during the daily "leaving rituals" (as in when you leave for work, etc.) You can teach your dog to find his toys (which you've hidden according to his skill level), stuffed kongs, and even people.


Start slowly, until your dog has the idea... then get ever more challenging -- both in hiding the items, and in their presentation. For example: start out hiding the items in easy-to-get-at locations, and HELP your dog "find" them... start with a stuffed Kong, then gradually increase the challenge to a stuffed Kong wrapped in a cloth diaper, inside a butter container, buried in the sand box. In teaching your dog to find people, you can actually teach him to find them *by NAME*. In using Hide-n-Seek to re-direct in anxiety-causing situations, you can actually teach a dog that your *leaving* the house is the BEST time, EVER! This is done through "build-up"... once your dog understands the game, you simply allow him to watch the preparation of the items (such as watching you stuff several Kongs).


These items are *only* offered on your leaving -- to offer them at any other time is to sacrifice their "specialness". Dissection: this is a base need for many dogs, and it might just be the reason you're coming home to garbage strewn about the house, or your underwear shredded in the back yard. Saints, on the whole, don't possess an incredibly high level of dissection activity need... but, some individuals vary in this. If your dog is engaging in heavy chewing, *re-direct* his behavior by allowing him to chew items of your *choice*, under supervision. **NOTE** Warning!! Please only allow this particular activity when closely supervised!!


Some dogs will ingest cloth, fabrics, tug ropes, rocks -- all sorts of weird things (to humans), and develop intestinal blockages!! Many will engage in these activities if they're not given an outlet for this behavior... by allowing him *supervised* opportunities for these types of behaviors, you're reducing the chances of this problem. Old bath towels are very good for this: cut in half length-wise, and dip in beef or chicken broth (NOT bouillion, which is MUCH too high in sodium content!!) Tie in knots, slip into a freezer bag, and freeze. Remove from bag and serve.


Challenging Toys: there are many of these available on the market... I've not found one yet, though, that my dogs prefer over the home-made stuff (unless you include the Kong toy in this group... I don't, because the Kong BY ITSELF holds absolutely NO interest for my dogs. They like the stuffing.) There are Buster Cubes, Wiggly-Giggly balls (they like the noise, but they prefer that *I* be the one to play with it {grin}), and even tug-toys that you anchor to the ground that "fight back" (I've not tried this one -- I anchor a tug rope to a door-knob).


Playing with toys *isn't* an instinctual behavior, and I've met lots of dogs who weren't given their own toys as puppies -- and beaten for touching the kids' toys. Zoe was "taught" this way, and it took me a long time to make her understand that she's ALLOWED to play with toys... there is a whole genre of thought out there that says that if you ALLOW a dog to chew on dog toys, you're teaching him that he's allowed to chew on whatever he wants. Not true, of course, but we often get dogs in rescue that were raised this way.


In any event, dogs must be taught to play with toys, in order to use those toys as outlets... and the easiest way I've found to do this, is to introduce the dog to a toy-savvy dog. Let them become buddies (arrange play-dates). This serves several purposes: it will give your dog some much-needed exercise, it helps with socialization, and it improves bite inhibition (dogs can play with other dogs in ways that just ARE NOT possible with humans -- allowing him these kinds of opportunities will not only improve his dog-dog communication, but it'll really chill him out for dog-human interaction!)


If you want to get him interested in a particular toy, there are 2 ways to go about it: 1) smear peanut butter on it, and let him smell it and get close to it... but let him touch it only for 1/2 second at a time. Get REALLY excited about it -- laugh, jump around, toss it in the air and catch it... do this for several days in a row, several times a day -- then, suddenly let him have it. When he finally gets ahold of it, IMMEDIATELY start playing the "trading game" with him -- offer him some sliced hotdog or liverwurst in return for the toy. This promotes his ANTI-toy-guarding tendencies (this is instinctual behavior, and since you're working at heightening his interest in toys, I also recommend working to LESSEN the chances of guarding behavior at the same time!) 2) Let another dog play with the toy. Presto -- a toy-motivated dog!


If Your Dog Won't Play With You: Different people and animals in a pack have different functions... some dogs just aren't comfortable with their owners when they suddenly try to initiate play. This is not necessarily a "bad thing", since it allows you some measure of control. As you work with your dogs, and they see that you have a "goofy side", they'll warm up... and it could be that you're sending them mixed signals. For example, I "rough-house" with my own dogs -- but I can also "turn it off" when I need to. It's important to be able to "turn it off" BEFORE you "turn it on".


If you've not taught your dogs a specific way to "turn off" their rough play, or if you haven't taught them *limitations* in what they're allowed to do with you -- in a way that they can *understand* -- then they may not trust you enough to play with you, this way.


Not Wanting to Play Outside: In order to teach your dogs to go outside on command, going outside has to be a Good Thing. My dogs don't want to be outside without me.... they'll go out to play for a little while by themselves in the mornings, but it's only for about 15-20 minutes, then they come back in til I go out. They're also not as active, when they're out by themselves... because I actively involve them in what I'm doing, and they know that when we go out, it's "game time". This breed is incredibly people-oriented... your dogs may *want* to be outside -- but they'd rather be with you... so *you* may need to go outside, too. When I tell my dogs it's time to "go outside", they'll rush for the door, then stop and look to me... "Are you coming, too?" Cis will come and "paw" me, when she wants me to come out and play with her... she does a "Lassie routine".


If your dogs are socialized to other dogs, I recommend having other dogs over for playdates... there is absolutely NOTHING that will get them moving like the opportunity to play with another dog that doesn't LIVE with them. If your dog *isn't* well-socialized, please read the article on the benefits of proper socialization skills! My dogs will normally play for 15 minutes, and sleep for 8 hours, when it's just them at home. With another dog, though, they'll play until that other dog leaves. Then sleep for 3 days. {grin}


Think about it: if someone visits you, you'll sit and make conversation with them... if it's "just" you and your husband, though, you're more likely to turn on the TV. You *live* with him, day-in and day-out, so it takes more work to keep things interesting. It's the same way for your dogs.


When I'm outside, they're outside... the kids blow bubbles for them to chase; I play fetch with Cis and Her Sticks or frisbee; the dogs "Go Walkin'" with me, looking for "stuff" to clean up; Zoe helps me weed by pulling the rose blooms off {grin}... there's lots of stuff for them to do, and this keeps them from becoming bored. And, if I leave the house to go to town, one of the dogs always accompanies me -- unless it's something like grocery shopping, where they're not allowed to accompany me inside.


This means that each of the 3 dogs gets to go somewhere three to four times per week, on average. Very good for fighting boredom. And, there are lots of things you can do to make the yard a really great place to be, even if you have to put in 8 hours a day somewhere else... I'm pretty lucky, in that I work out of my home -- when Cis comes and hits me, I can take a break to "play sticks". In addition to hide-n-seek (which HAS to be the all-around absolute BEST game for dogs!), you can put in a sandbox for the dogs (and then hide their toys and treats in there)... you can put in a sprinkler -- wading pools are nice, but *sprinklers* let them get actively involved! It's an even better effect, if the sprinkler is on a timer... but any $3 sprinkler will suffice. Mine prefer the Lazy Daisy... a flower head that whips around randomly, giving them an opportunity to "chase" the water. Anything can become a game for your dog... if you're experiencing a "behavior problem", it's likely that your dog's base needs aren't being met... he's simply "making his own games". This is what happens when dogs aren't provided with outlets for their mental and physical energy.


Boredom is the single biggest cause of behavioral problems... a Tired Dog is a Happy (well-behaved!) Dog.

Brenda Rushman CCBC


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