When I got my first dog as a child no one in the family knew much about dogs, puppy preschool classes were unheard of and the average dog just somehow became part of the family. My father mainly got the dog because I probably pestered him for too long. He was a Dalmatian called Lord, he was not very well trained but loved to run and he ran a lot. He spent a lot of time with us children, he went on holidays, barked at people coming to the house and because my father ran a post office, everyone thought that was great. He ate a no brand dry food and the leftovers from the kitchen. And I think he was a pretty happy dog.
I am not saying I want to go back to the 70s (for more than one reason – Switzerland introduced voting rights for women in 1972) and I am also not saying ‘ignorance is bliss’.
I do think we have come a long way with how we care for our pets and how we train them. Times have changed and like everything else there are pros and cons to this. While dogs have become valuable members of our families they are also more restricted than ever. Long gone are the days when they roamed the streets, catching up with their canine friends, emptying the rubbish bins and ‘self-socialize’. They cannot leave the house without us and have to be ‘under effective control’ at all times. This has benefits and they are kept safe and sound. However, it also limits the choices of where they can go and what they can do.
And maybe, just maybe, we may sometimes become too controlling with our dogs and risk losing the ability to just enjoy them. Maybe we are becoming helicopter dog owners?
A friend of mine got a puppy the other week and everyone has been telling her what to do. If the pup is outgoing, he is too bold, if he is a bit reluctant, he is too shy. If he watches the world go by he is not bright enough…….
I firmly believe owning a dog should not all be work but a lot of play and fun. How we define and ‘use’ play with our dogs is, in my opinion, one of the signs that we may have sometimes lost the ability to just have fun and let them be dogs.
There are countless courses teaching owners how to play with their dogs. While I couldn’t agree more that we should play with our dogs this form of play has more of a purpose than being fun.
This play should increase drive and focus. Again nothing wrong with drive and focus but what about play for the sake of play? When I watch these owners and dogs play to me it sometimes looks more like a training session then just friends having some fun.
If we have a look at the definition of play:
- ‘Play is self-chosen and self-directed:
- Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends;
- Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players;
- Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and
- Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.’
And even more to the point: ‘Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom.’ In play we satisfy our own needs and at the same time meet the needs of others.
In a lot of games we call ‘play’ with our dogs none of these criteria are met. We humans ‘dictate’ the game, we aim for a result, we set the rules and change them and often the dogs are stressed. A few examples are playing tug which is done to increase drive, throwing treats to create engagement, throwing the ball to teach a retrieve, hide and seek to improve the recall. If you play for a specific reason than it is not play, it is training.
I play a lot with my dogs for no other reason than having fun and letting them have fun. Training is great, too but I strive for a balance especially with puppies but also with my older dog. He still loves to play at almost 14 years of age and is very creative at inventing his own games. He loves to push a ball towards you with his nose or tries to put pressure on a ball with his paw so it flies unpredictably and he can chase it. Along the way he ‘discovered’ gravity and rolls balls downhill for him to fetch.
When I got my last dog everyone told me you have to bring her to agility competitions at a very young age so she gets used to it. You need to crate train her from a very early age. I chose to let her be a puppy and enjoy puppy hood, yes we did a lot of socialisation, we trained age appropriate behaviours, but most of all we played. We played fetch (balls, toys, Frisbee), hide and seek, go find (toys, treats), tug, chase me (there are no kids in our household). Of course these games will improve the relationship, build trust and make training easier which is great, but the main reason I play is to have fun. I also made sure she played with a lot of other suitable puppies and dogs.
She did not go to a single agility competition before she started competing, she never ran out of the ring and she is relaxed and confident. For her this is just another environment where she pays attention to me and has fun with me.
I am the first to admit that she lacks in extended crate training but I am also not a fan of extensive crating at trials so that suites us just fine.
I love seeing my dogs jump for joy when I come home, I love seeing them digging holes, rolling on the grass and just being dogs.
Maybe and just maybe letting them be dogs occasionally and just play for the sake of play, could make life easier and more fun for all of us.