On our Small Dog Bond page, we wrote about how the simple act of play with your small dog builds a powerful human/canine bond. Although play is key to creating such deep connections, our original article ignored the most important aspect of play: it is crucial to your small dog’s mental health. Heck, it’s probably crucial to yours too.
How do we know that? Well, from personal experience. This Fall, finding time for fun has been challenging around here. I won’t bore you with the details, but between work and family caregiving, the only “play” the pups and I were enjoying together was limited to morning yoga and a daily walk. Rather than spending time enjoying games or learning together, Phoebe and Scout would be piled next to me on the sofa while I “did work.” And then, I started noticing them sighing a lot and kind of throwing themselves down on the furniture or their beds in the same way my kids did when they were younger and bored out of their minds.
More alarming was the fact that when I picked up a favorite toy, or tossed the dryer balls they love to steal, they often didn’t really seem interested. So, I do what I always do when my family seems “off.”
I asked Google. She had a lot to say to me. Her bad news? It turns out that boredom is, at best, pretty torturous for dogs and, at worst, damaging to their brains. The good news is that you can reverse the damage: play with your small dog and pay attention to the enrichment activities below.
Dog Boredom and Brain Health
“Chronic boredom is distressing and damaging in humans yet barely studied in animals” Charlotte Burn, Animal Behaviour Journal, August, 2017.
In her essay in Animal Behaviour, Ms. Burn (of The Royal Veterinary College of the University of London) reports on the devastating effects boredom has on all animals. It’s not just humans, and in fact, because our dogs have so little control over their own environments, their boredom is more intense and more damaging than ours. In an interview with NPR, Burn urges pet owners to realize “this is all a reminder that even if animals are healthy and loved, they can still suffer — and perhaps REALLY suffer — from sameness and lack of stimulation.”
No matter how much we love and care for our small dogs, are we including mental stimulation and play in our essential wellness checklist? If we’re not, we need to change.
Here, we’ve put together a menu of videos, articles, and podcasts (pick your favorite mode of learning) discussing why playing with your dog is one of the easiest and most important ways to shape a strong and joyful relationship with your pup.
If you like to read
|Article||Summary||Quote That Makes You Think|
|”Teaching Without Conflict: Possession Games”||In this relatively short article, Dr. Mark Plonsky discusses the clear benefit play plays (see what we did there) in training your dog.||”The ability to train dogs is an art that depends on the trainer’s ability to play and the dog’s ability to play in turn. Where there is no play, there is no relationship or meaning.”|
|”Tricks and Tips to Keep Dog Training Fun and Interesting for Both the Handler and The Dog – Part I”||Roxanne Turner of Michigan State University Extension provides some great ideas for entertaining training games in this quick read.||”By changing things up you keep your dog’s interest and really develop their focusing skills….”|
|”8 Fun Games To Play With Your Dog”||In this great article on Release The Hounds website, trainer Niki Perry, of The Beloved Beast, charts out 8 training exercises that use play (and fun!) as their method of delivering great lessons.||”Recent research has shown us that dominance or alpha theory of old is not applicable to dog training exercises….”|
If you prefer video
|Video||Summary||Quote That Makes You Think|
|”3 Ways To Get Your Dog Playing!”||Okay – true confession. I don’t love Zak George’s heavy infomercial style. Here’s a guy with great tips who clearly loves dogs, but he makes you slog through multiple sales pushes to reach the good stuff. But anyway…in this video George coaxes a reluctant small dog to play with a frisbee. It’s a useful lesson worth watching (with your finger on fast forward) .||”if you can get your dog playing on cue and bring some structure to that play, you might be surprised at the rapid progress you can achieve.”|
|”A Game That Teaches Your Dog Self-Control”||My favorite McCann Dog Training videos out of Canada include this one about good choices—we all struggle with making those, don’t we? (My struggle involves ruffled potato chips….but I digress.) Be sure you watch toward the end, which features little Hippy Shake and her favorite: cheese!!||A game called “rule out” can teach your dog to make better choices. “We know that a solid foundation of skills is built on success, so it’s no help [to our dogs] if they continue to not be rewarded…find a point where they can be successful, then I can yes and reward them.”|
|”Teach Your Puppy To Relax After Playing”||And, if you’re going to teach your dog to play, or be “on,” it’s imperative to have an “off” switch, isn’t it!! In this McCann video, a trainer teaches us how to use “settle, sit” command—a useful one not just for ending play, but for any time your little dog is overly exuberant.||”What we want to do with our play time exercise is have an opportunity to teach [our dogs] the rules of play….it’s important that you have rules that you’re consistent with. When you end the game, that’s it, the game is over.”|
If you prefer podcasts
|Podcast||Summary||Quote That Makes You Think|
|”Dog Play for Adolescent & Adult Dogs with Dayton Michaels, CTC”||Wow. Who knew dogs needed play dates? But in this half-hour podcast, trainers talk about the importance of encouraging play and making time for play. Michaels gets into important discussions about size (it matters), talking with owners about dog safety, and how to shape the play to keep your pup safe.||”One of the most challenging aspects of having a dog is getting appropriate playmates….I am anti-dog park. Dog fights are going to break out and if that doesn’t happen, there is a lot of disease in dog parks.”|
|”Dog Play!! More Than Just A Game”||WARNING: In our opinion, IF THIS PODCAST WERE A SONG, IT WOULD BE RATED “E” FOR “EXPLICIT.” Such language!! Having said that, some amazing information in this hour-long piece. We love their discussion on how breed matters in HOW you play with your dog and in understanding play as a language. This is a long podcast, but listen in sections. It’s worth it. At about 36 minutes, you’ll find a really interesting section about how overplay can create obsessive behaviors. Season 1, Episode 23 of The Healthy Dog Pod out of Australia.||”Play is a resource. Use it to your advantage.” “Tug of war is a means of building a communication pattern with your dog. It’s not about winning and losing, but you can absolutely create the communication patterns you set out for.” 45:15.|
|”10 Ways to Play With Your Dog”||An easy, 12-minute listen. Don’t be put off by the focus on puppies. These games are great for all ages. We don’t love the emphasis on “tiring out” your dog, but just ignore that and focus on the clever twists on traditional play…like obedience relay races or scavenger hunts.||”Get incredibly creative because anything you can teach your dog, anything new you can do with your dog is going to up the ante.”|
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