Playtime is an essential part of any dog's daily routine; these great games for puppies not only burn calories and improve strength and stamina, they can also be an important part of your puppy’s mental and social development.
But playing with a puppy is about more than just buying the best puppy toys. To keep your puppy mentally stimulated, knowing how to play with a puppy is a must. It’s also a perfect time to bond, improve your puppy’s behavior, and even teach them a few new tricks. To help you get started, try incorporating these fun activities into your daily playtime routine.
1. Play Fetch with your puppy
This old classic is still one of the best games for you and your pup. A rousing game of fetch is not only a good form of exercise for your dog, but it’s also a great opportunity to get in some training. This is the perfect time to work on 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 be careful not to push your puppy too hard – some dogs love to fetch so much that they’ll run until they’re completely exhausted. Too much running can be detrimental to your puppy’s growing bones and joints, so keep the Fetch sessions short until he’s fully grown.
A good rule of thumb is that a puppy should not be exercised more than what he would participate in with other puppies of his own age. So, short bursts of running after the ball are okay, but sustained exercise – such as playing Fetch for an hour straight – is too much for his growing body.
2. Get your friends involved with the recall game
The recall game is a fun way to teach your dog to come when he is called. It’s also an exciting way to socialize your puppy and teach him that new people are fun. To play the recall game, you’ll need a bunch of friends and a big open space.
Give each person some of your puppy’s favorite treats, then have them all stand in a large circle with your puppy in the middle. Have everyone take turns calling your puppy and rewarding him with the treats for coming to them. Pretty soon, he’ll be dashing across the circle to get his treats.
Keep the game upbeat and energetic. Encourage everyone to praise and reward your puppy as soon as he reaches the person that called him. If possible, incorporate people of different ages and in different outfits so that your puppy becomes accustomed to new experiences. 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 a great tool to keep your puppy mentally stimulated. These toys are typically filled with treats or your puppy’s kibble, and your puppy will have to work to get the reward.
Puzzle toys are readily available at most pet stores and they come in varying sizes and difficulties. As your puppy learns about puzzle toys, you may need to upgrade to a more difficult toy to keep him busy. 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!
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.
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/
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