What are the best games for puppies that will keep your furball entertained around the clock? It’s true, the best puppy toys can help keep your pup amused even when you’re not around but sometimes, it’s nice to mix things up a bit and tick off some hands-on playtime with your pooch.
Along with keeping your dog happy, healthy, and physically and mentally stimulated, learning how to play with a puppy is also vital for helping you grow your bond with your canine companion. Puppy play times will help your pup burn calories, sharpen their growing mind and improve their strength and stamina. Playing games with your ball of fur will also prevent boredom and stop them from causing mayhem when your back is turned.
But, what games should you play with your puppy? And how can you help them grow? To find out, we spoke to Dr. Elizabeth Racine, who is a small animal general practice veterinarian. From nose work and recall tasks to old classics like fetch and tug-of-war, keep reading to discover the best games for puppies.
Dr Racine graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2012 with a degree in animal science. She went on to study at the Atlantic Veterinary College where she became a doctor of veterinary medicine. Dr Racine has a keen interest in veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine. In her free time, she enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.
1. Play Fetch with your puppy
It may be an oldie but it's also still a goodie and on top of being one of the best forms of physical exercise you can give your puppy, Fetch is also a great way to sneak in some training by teaching basic commands such as drop, sit, down, and stay.
Using the ball as your reward also means you won’t need to use as many puppy treats during training, which is a big plus for your puppy’s waistline. Just a word of warning though - you want to make sure you're not pushing your little one too hard. Too much running is actually bad for your puppy's growing bones and joints, so stick to short sessions of around 5-10 minutes for the first 12 months of your fur baby's life.
2. Get your friends involved with the recall game
For a really enjoyable and engaging way to teach your dog to come on command, the recall game is not to be missed! You'll need a bunch of friends and a big open space for this one, so it's ideal for a sunny day when you're looking for an activity to do after enjoying a picnic in the park.
First up, give everyone in your group a few of your puppy's favorite treats and then have them all form a circle with your puppy in the middle. Then, one by one, have each person call your puppy and reward him with a treat when he comes on command.
We recommend you keep this game upbeat and energetic, so as soon as your puppy has eaten their treat, have the next person call them until soon your fur ball will be dashing excitedly all around the circle to score their next tasty tidbit.
Alongside dishing out the treat, have each person praise your puppy lavishly - the goal is to teach your puppy that it’s fun and rewarding to come when he’s called, so he’ll return to you reliably when he’s off the leash.
3. Try some basic nose work
Nose work is a fun and mentally stimulating activity that many dogs will love. Scent hounds and other breeds with a highly developed sense of smell particularly enjoy these games, but any dog can learn to play.
For pet owners with a competitive spirit, finding a nose work training class or attending trials through the National Association of Canine Scent Work are great ways to get started. But even those looking for a more casual atmosphere can practice some basic nose work games at home.
Start by creating a nose work obstacle course for your dog by hiding some extra smelly treats underneath an overturned cardboard box. You may need to guide your puppy at first until he gets the idea. As your puppy learns, you can start to make the obstacles more complicated and hide fewer treats so your puppy has to work harder to find the reward. You’ll be keeping his brain and his nose busy at the same time.
4. Revamp an old classic with tug of war
It’s a myth that tug of war causes puppy behavior problems – this old classic is still a great game to play with your pup. Just be sure to set some basic ground rules for safe and appropriate play. First, make sure your puppy is already reliably trained with a “drop” command. You don’t want to take away an object only for it to turn into an unintentional game of tug.
Second, never let your puppy initiate the game by tugging on your body or clothing. Always start the game yourself, or let your puppy initiate it by bringing you an appropriate rope dog toy. Finally, if your puppy grabs you or your clothing during the game – even by accident – stop all play immediately. This will teach your puppy that tugging on you or nipping your hands is never acceptable play behavior.
5. Use puzzle toys for some peace and quiet
Need a game to keep your puppy occupied while you’re busy with other things? The best dog puzzle toys are just the ticket! Depending on which one you choose, you'll find puzzle toys will captivate your little one and become the sole focus of their attention as they attempt to free the treats hidden inside.
You'll find puzzle toys readily available at most pet stores and online too. There's always a good range of sizes and levels to choose from, so you can upgrade your pup's toys and make things more challenging as they master each stage.
You can also build your own puzzle toys at home – try using paper towel rolls, empty egg cartons, or an ice cube tray to hide small treats or pieces of your puppy’s kibble. Just make sure to supervise your puppy so that he doesn’t ingest any pieces that aren’t actually edible.
6. Play ‘Find the Treat’
You’re likely familiar with the “shell game”, a classic betting game in which a ball is hidden under one of three identical cups and then shuffled by the dealer. The player then has to guess which cup is hiding the ball. You can adapt this for your puppy by hiding a tasty treat under one of three identical cups.
It may be helpful to use something extra smelly at first, so your puppy has the best chance of finding the treat and winning the reward. Shuffle the cups slowly, then allow your puppy to “guess” which cup contains the treat. Keep guessing until he gets the right answer and receives his reward! This is a great way to teach your puppy to focus on you and a it’s a fun activity for the whole family, too!
7. Bring out the sprinkler for some summer fun
Sprinklers and paddling pools for dogs are a great way to get your puppy used to the water in a safe and controlled environment. Start out slowly and reward your puppy with positive reinforcement – such as treats, petting, praise, or a favorite toy – for exploring the water.
Never force your puppy to go into the water if she is frightened or stressed – this will only make her fear worse. Once your puppy has shown an interest in the water, you can create your own fun water games. Try playing the recall game around the sprinkler so that your puppy can run through the water on each lap. Or perhaps try tossing your puppy’s favorite ball into the kiddie pool during your next game of Fetch!
8. Hide and Seek
Another firm favorite amongst puppy pet parents is the never-fails-to-amuse classic, hide and seek. Not only is this game super fun, but just like playing fetch, it's a great way to teach your puppy basic commands.
You'll need two people to play this one effectively, so recruit a friend or family member to stand in one room holding your puppy while you go off and find a good hiding spot.
Once you're in position, have the other person put your puppy down and then call them by their name or use the command 'come'. Once your puppy finds you, shower them with lots of verbal praise and give them a small treat.
Eventually, you'll be able to play this game on your own with your puppy once they've mastered the 'sit and stay' commands. But for now, playing a two-person version is the perfect way to introduce them to the fun that is hide and seek!
Most importantly, have fun!
Playtime is all about positive experiences and socialization for your puppy. Keep your play sessions short, upbeat, and highly rewarding and your puppy will always be eager for more. For more fun games for your puppy, check out our guide to the best brain games for dogs or ask your trainer for ideas on incorporating your puppy’s training in a fun new way.
Have a hard time getting your dog to play and wondering ‘why my dog doesn’t like toys?’ Don’t panic. Thankfully there are steps to take to help you understand why your dog is avoiding its playthings.
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Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice veterinarian covering all things pet health and wellness. Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine. As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit. In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats. Dr. Racine can be found at www.theveterinarywriter.com and at https://www.linkedin.com/in/eracinedvm/