By Susan Hoffman for Exceptional Canine Playing with your puppy is a no-brainer, right? Your irresistible bundle of furry energy is willing to frolic with you at a moment’s notice. Puppy play is instinctive. It harkens back to the time when wild canines learned valuable survival and social skills through playtime with other pups and adults in the pack. So it’s easy to use this ingrained behavior to your advantage to help train your puppy and teach him commands -- and to nip nipping (and other bad habits) in the bud. Life’s a Game Shows such as “Sesame Street” make learning fun for kids. You can provide the same learning experience for your puppy with the games and activities you do at home. To start, hide-and-seek is a good game for teaching the command “Come.” Start by hiding just feet away from your puppy in a very easy place to be found, advises Yaiza Magdalena, owner and director of California K9 Academy in Los Angeles. Call your puppy’s name, say “Come,” and make a lot of happy, fun noises. Then reward him with lots of affection and a delicious treat. “He’ll soon make the connection between ‘Come’ and being rewarded,” she says. As he gets better at the game, make it harder by hiding in a different room so he learns to come even when you’re well out of sight, suggests Magdalena. You can eventually decrease the treats and just shower him with affection for obeying you. Like kids, puppies also need to learn boundaries. Structured play is a great way to encourage desired behaviors. “Fetch is a good game for teaching your puppy listening skills and obedience,” says Dr. Tiffany Margolin, a veterinarian and pet-health author/speaker in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area. “First teach your puppy the ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ commands. Then toss a toy and ask him to ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ before you verbally release him to run and ‘Fetch’ it.” Your puppy’s play/learn sessions should begin as soon as you adopt him. Keep the sessions short when he’s 7 or 8 weeks old -- five minutes at a time, and not more than a few time times daily. As your puppy grows older, you can increase the session length and train as frequently as your patience -- and his concentration -- allows. Here, a few other essential playtime training do’s and don’ts:
- DO be creative. Use different rewards to keep your puppy interested and engaged. Save special treats or belly rubs for new and/or difficult commands.
- DO offer rewards. When your puppy obeys commands, reward him with kind words, loving touches and treats. Positive reinforcement is an excellent teacher and builds a stronger bond between you and your puppy.
- DO pay attention. Keep your puppy interested in learning by choosing the right times to engage in play. Observe your puppy to see when he usually has the most energy and is most attentive.
- DON’T engage in rough play. Don’t play-fight, wrestle or play tug-of-war with a puppy, because it encourages him to be aggressive with you and others.
- DON’T be the toy! Don’t use your hand or other body part as a toy, because it encourages mouthiness and teaches disrespect for you. As your puppy gets older and stronger (and gets bigger teeth!), he could accidentally hurt you.
- DON’T lose your cool. Don’t be frustrated if your puppy makes mistakes or disobeys your commands. At his young age, he tires easily and gets confused. Taking some “chill out” time will help both of you.
Incorporating training into playtime is the most natural way to teach your impressionable puppy good life-lessons. He’ll have so much fun that he won’t even know he’s learning. And best of all, canines never lose their love for play -- so you can continue to combine training with play as your puppy becomes an adult dog. Susan Hoffman is a freelance journalist who writes about canine, feline and equine topics. Her feature articles regularly appear in consumer and veterinary media. Susan is a regular contributor to Exceptional Canine.