The Power of Fun

The Power of Fun

By Angelica Steinker, M.Ed., PDBC, CAP2
A version of this article was published in Bella DOG Magazine

Being a fun detective pays off huge in dog training.

It’s six a.m., and while sleeping in your bed feeling cozy and content, your puppy has pounced on you! If your dog is mentally or physically under-stimulated, this could happen to you! Is this an annoying situation or a fun detective opportunity? The truth is: it can be both. Prevent early morning pouncing by spending more time with your dog. Below are some fun ideas for pounce preventing activities. 

In general all your interactions with your dog are opportunities to be a fun detective. It’s ten p.m. now, so do you know what your dog thinks is fun? When investigated, the bed pounce scenario yields an interesting finding: your dog likes movement under sheets. This information can be turned into a wonderful game of “get the mouse” which consists of you moving your hand under a sheet while your dog pounces on your hand.

But it gets better. With every fun game you invent, you are able to use that play to reward your dog for behaviors that you want. Ask for a sit, and then play a round of chase. To help you find the games that your dog enjoys, consider the following.

With every game you invent you are able to use that to reward your dog.

Games That Involve Body Parts

Does your dog think it is fun when you attempt to grab her foot? If you playfully reach for her tail, does she flash you a big smile? Evaluate your dog’s body language, and become a fun detective. If your dog appears stressed (e.g. tongue flicking, head turning away from you, curling her tail) then whatever you just did stressed your dog out. Avoid doing things that stress your dog, since stress can lead to dog bites. Instead become a scientist: observe and collect data on what makes your dog happy!

Do you remember playing tag as a kid? How about becoming a kid again by playing tag with your dog? Gently touching your dog in a specific spot can become a signal for her to chase you. Likewise when your dog gently touches a specific part of your body with her nose or paw, this can become her way of tagging you. It is easy to teach your dog to touch a specific body part: just rub some food on it, and when the dog goes to investigate, say “yes” and give her a treat. Repeat three times, then fade the food and name the trick! “Nose” or “target” are common cues. Be consistent about the body part you touch on your dog to start the game as well as what part of your body the dog touches to tag you!

Games That Involve Food

Most of us are good at experimenting with what kind of food our dog likes, so take it to the next level by doing stuff with the food. Hide the food, and see if your dog can find it. A cheese stick can make for a great toy, so see if your dog will chase a cheese stick you drag around on the ground. What about hiding the food under one of three paper cups then shuffling the cups? Will your dog use her nose to find the treat? 

Games That Involve Toys

Most of us get our dogs toys then make a huge mistake: we leave the toys laying around. The first problem with this is that these potentially super fun toys are now BORING. They are just lying there, and they are always the same. Instead make three piles of all your dog’s toys, and rotate them. One week your dog has access to pile A, then the following week pile B, and the third week the final pile. This way the toys are always fresh and FUN. 

Plus, there are endless fun games you can play with toys. Obviously fetch is a classic, and even if your dog does not play fetch, there is hope that you can teach her! Most certified dog trainers are fun experts and are skilled at helping you teach almost all dogs to play fetch. 

Another source of joy can be playing tug, which is a safe game for adults to play with dogs. If you’re concerned about tug causing aggression, then don’t worry: modern studies have found that playing tug does not cause aggression. If your dog growls while playing, it is probably a play growl. Play growls are soft and in a higher pitch than real growls, which are usually low and guttural. 

Just like with food, you can also hide toys and play hide and seek. Start out with easy hiding places and build up to more challenging ones. Be a truth detective and try to figure out if your dog is using her eyes or her nose to find the toy.

Games That Involve Solving a Problem

Many dogs are mentally under stimulated, and dogs are very intelligent beings. Recent studies have found that dogs fast map. Fast mapping is a cognitive psychology term describing the ability to learn a new word with very little exposure to it, even as low as a single exposure. In other words, dogs are mentally capable of the first stage of verbal language learning, soif you use the same words your dog can learn a very large vocabulary.

Many dogs are mentally under stimulated.

Many dog parents are using larger vocabularies to communicate complicated behaviors like, “take the blue toy and place it in the laundry basket then drag the basket to me.” With a little bit of time, you can teach many dogs to help with your laundry or making your bed. Many folks have even taught their dogs to clean, probably a highly desirable behavior. 

And of course, made famous by the Border Collie Rico, you can teach your dog the names of their toys. Rico was able to learn the names of about 300 toys, and recently another Border Collie named Chaser has been able to learn the names of1022 objects, as well as to show that she distinguishes between verbs and nouns. 

Of course this may not be challenging enough for your super smart dog, so you may want to teach her concepts. Dog trainer Pam Hogle taught her Golden Retriever “large” and “small.” As a result, when she asked her dog to find the small toy, her dog would be able to determine which one she meant. Likewise when Pam asked for the large toy, her dog would bring her the larger toy. Pam was delighted with this and played the game so much that her dog eventually took her toy and placed it in the trash can, giving her a clear signal that she was done playing for now!

Alternately to large and small, dogs are also capable of discriminating by other concepts as well. For example dogs can learn that flat round toys are Frisbees, or that balls come in all different shapes and sizes. You could also teach color discrimination, but be aware that dogs are red/green color blind so the two primary colors they can see well are yellow and blue. Green and red would both look brown to them and be hard or even impossible to discriminate between. 

To train any of these mental challenges, simply reward your dog with play for picking up the correct item, and ignore errors. If you are consistent, your dog will learn the pattern. 


Now for the good stuff! Once you have found the different types of games that really make your dog crazy happy, you can use them to train your dog. One idea for crazy happy is to combine games! How about if you play “I’m gonna get your foot”, followed by chase, followed by a high intensity game of fetch. Again, use your experiments and detective work to find what creates mind blowing fun for your dog. Now you have the power to teach your dog anything she is mentally or physically capable of, so use it wisely!