10 (or So) Dog Games to Play - dummies

By Sarah Hodgson

Puppies love to play and, like children, can learn most of their life lessons by playing games and having fun. Think back to your childhood: What are some of your fondest memories? Most everyone learns their most important life lessons — like how to share, use patience, and speak respectfully — in preschool or by playing sports and games with friends and family. Your puppy can learn patience and self-control through play, starting as young as eight weeks old.

In this list, you’ll find ten-plus games that are as fun to play as they are educational. Watch as your puppy’s self-control and focus develop right in front of your eyes. Using directions like Wait, Sit, Down, and Come, you’ll play/train quick responses before your puppy has even lost their baby teeth.

Puppies love to play Chase, but you’ll notice a theme in the games described here: Always encourage your puppy to chase you, not the other way around. Teaching your puppy to follow you and to drop an item they’re holding for the toy or treat you’re holding is an important habit to instill in a young puppy. Consider the opposite: a puppy who runs when you need them to come or who races off with a forbidden treasure, like your cellphone or one of the kids’ toys. Embedded in the description of the games in this list is the term “Can’t catch me,” which is a fun way to alert your puppy when you need to get their attention.

See also “Playing Frisbee with Your Puppy.”

Find It

The Find It game is my dogs’ favorite activity. Anyone can play it (even strangers) to help your puppy’s mood, no matter what’s going on around them.

Overall goal: To teach your puppy to look down to find a reward (treat, toy, bone)

Use it: Use Find It to give your puppy some mental foraging fun with mealtimes, to distract an overstimulated puppy during greetings, play, or introductions to new people or dogs on a leash, or when spotting a squirrel, car, or bike. If you have an anxious puppy, Find It can infuse stressful situations with a fistful of fun!

Directions: Pair Find It with Come, Follow, or Give to teach a quick, happy response and to reward quick responses to other directions, like Sit and On Your Mat.

To play: Begin by tossing one treat or kibble on the floor by your puppy’s toes as you say “Find it!” After your puppy catches on, toss the kibble by your own toes. Got that? Now take gradually bigger steps away from your puppy as you say “Find it — Follow.” Eventually, Follow will help your puppy keep up with you and stay close by your feet. When your puppy has the gist of it, you can expand the game, by tossing kibbles on the ground for them to forage or by using this game to distract your puppy during greetings and other distractions. For more ideas, flip to the index: You’ll find Find It there, for sure.

Foraging mats are now marketed for dogs, designed to hide away a puppy’s entire meal in the cracks and crevices of a durable rug that your puppy can root about in yet cannot destroy. The mat is a great diversion for an active puppy, and you can build in the direction Find It, too. My kids and I love the mats: We spread out a good portion of our dogs’ meals and say “Find it” when we put down their individualized meal. Be sure to check them out.

Tug

Overall goal: Tug-of-war is a favorite puppy game that is simple to play, and it just happens to be the best way to teach your puppy to “Give” up an object on cue. Notice as you read how the principles of tug-of-war are used to reward puppies for playing a game they love and how treats can be used to teach your puppy the meaning of the word “Give.”

Use it: Since your puppy will love to tug on anything, with anyone, teach them to Tug only on their toys and only on cue. Through this simple and fun activity, you will build up your puppy’s self-esteem (I guarantee they’ll get this one right) and you’ll have a handy new way to redirect their excitement and frustration. Remember this one rule however, especially when just starting out: Pocket and position treats strategically around your home so that each time you play “Tug” you can also teach your puppy to let go on cue.

Directions: This game has two parts—the Tug and the Give. (See the next section.) Teach them the words independently of one another for 2 days, then pair them together!

To play: It’s easy to pair the word “Tug” with the action. Take any of your puppy’s fabric or rope toys, wiggle it until your puppy grabs hold, then say “Tug” as you apply resistance. That’s it. Over time, put a little more umpf into your Tug. Initially, just use a second toy or high value food treat to encourage your puppy’s release. After two days of practicing the Tug and Give separately (as described below) pair them together as instructed.

Give (or drop)

Overall goal: You want to get an automatic “spit out” reaction whenever you say the word “Give.” The goal is to spit out whatever they’re mouthing, though not necessarily putting it in your hand.

Direction: Give

Use it: Aside from being a handy playing skill, “Give” has safety features that can’t be argued against. If your puppy has something you value in their mouths or an object that may endanger them, “Give” covers all bases. After you make “Give” less of a demand and more of a direction, your puppy will be eager to share their treasures.

Players: “Give” can be taught to puppies early on, so puppies of all ages can play this game.

To play: When your puppy is chewing something, whether appropriate or not, approach them with a treat cup or a handheld treat. Hold the treat near their nose, saying “Give” the moment they release the object. If the object is their toy, however, do not take it — let them keep it. If it’s something they (in your opinion) shouldn’t have, reward them with a jackpot of treats as you remove the object calmly.

If your puppy runs off with excitement when you approach them, you can practice in a small bathroom to keep them confined. Or, leave a leash on them around the house to enable a calm catch.

Rules: If your puppy is growling or clamping the object too tightly, call a professional. Aggression is no joke.

Tug Tug Give

Overall goal: When playing tug-of-war with your puppy remember this: it’s important to let your puppy win at least 2/3rds of the rounds to start. Some people would insist that you’re being weak, but let’s be real. Your puppy is a lot like a 2-year-old child, science says so, and kids feel happier living in a world where play is interactive not domineering.

Directions: Tug and Give.

Use it: Use Tug Tug Give for general play and to redirect your pup’s excitement or frustration, especially during greetings or when aggravated by passersby or out of reach animals during walks.

To Play: Go into a quiet room with your puppy’s favorite toy. Initially play in the morning or evening when your puppy’s energy level is high. Tell your puppy to Tug as you offer their toy, then pull on it for 3-5 seconds. Place a high value treat or another toy by their nose and say “Give” as they release the toy. Reward them with the treat or instruct them to tug the toy. As your puppy becomes familiar with the game, begin to say “Give” moments before offering the treats, gradually increasing the time until your puppy no longer needs treats to give.

Wiggle Giggle Freeze

Overall goal: To teach your puppy not to nip or jump when excited and how to stop quickly and look at you when you say “Wait.”

Use it: This game is a great energy release and a way to involve kids in teaching a puppy self-control. Supervision is a must.

Directions: Wait.

To Play: Start with two adult persons and one puppy, adding more players as your puppy learns the rules. Eventually, up to five people can play — but assign only one person the role of Leader — the one who gives the puppy and the rest of the players directions.

Go into an open area with your puppy and have the leader tell the players when they can start to wiggle and dance! If your puppy begins to get excited, instruct “Wait.” Repeat “Wait” in a strong voice as you stop abruptly. Toss a toy for your puppy to reward their self-control!

Two-Toy Toss

Overall goal: To teach early fetching skills and remind your puppy that people are the ones to watch.

Use it: Play this game anywhere, anytime, indoors or out.

Directions: Fetch, Go Get It, Bring and Give

To play: Gather two or more toys or balls. Toss one toy, saying “Fetch” or “Go Get It!” and cheering your puppy on as they race towards their toy. If they turn to you with the ball, say “Good puppy,” but then produce and play with another similar or identical toy as you race away in the opposite direction, saying “Can’t catch me.” If your puppy chases you with the toy, say “Bring,” but don’t demand that they drop the toy at your feet. Puppies, like kids, have to learn to share. If your puppy ends up at your feet with the toy in their mouth, just ignore them as you play with your object. When and if they spit out their toy, say “Give,” requiring that your puppy hold still on all four paws before you toss the toy you’re holding. Now pick up the first toy and start the game over from the top. Play three to five times, and then quit before your puppy loses interest.

Avoid chasing your puppy for the toy (or any object, for that matter), because they will see your insistence as confrontational play and prize envy. If you don’t have two toys, use a treat to encourage them to share, but the same rules apply: Four on the floor and calm before you reward your puppy or toss a toy.

Your puppy’s ability to track motion and focus doesn’t kick in until about 16 weeks of age, so use short tosses to build their success rate — and don’t lose hope if your puppy loses interest. The chasing impulse develops later.

Fishing for Fido

Overall goal: Here’s another great predatory and impulse-control game! The goal here is to redirect predatory impulses and encourage following fun!

Use it: This game is a great way to teach your puppy important leash skills while having fun and burning off some energy.

Directions: Go Get Your Toy, Give. Follow

To play: Buy a commercial puppy play pole or make one yourself by tying your puppy’s favorite toy to a pole or stick. Bounce the toy along as you say to your puppy, “Go get your toy!” If your puppy loves to tug, teach them to release on the word Give by periodically waving a smelly treat in front of their nose and rewarding them as they release the toy.

If your puppy wants to keep playing even when you don’t, find a strong object or tree to attach the pole to so that they can play when the mood strikes.

When using this game on walks, pair the play with “Follow” to encourage your puppy’s cooperation.

Swing toss — Can’t Catch Me

Overall goal: To release energy and to teach your puppy to run with kids and people without physically jumping or grabbing at them

Directions: Can’t Catch Me, Follow, Wait

To play: Tie a favorite toy or an empty soda bottle (cap and label removed) or non-destructible plastic toy (something your puppy cannot easily clamp down on) to a 10-foot rope; if there is an opening, such as with a bottle, spice up the game by slathering some peanut butter around the mouth of the bottle. In a yard or field, say “Can’t catch me” and run off in an unpredictable direction. As you come to a stop, say “Wait” and let your puppy play or lick the opening. If the yard or field has tall grass, use it as cover to spice up the game.

Toy Along, Tag Along (also known as the squeak-toy shuffle)

Overall goal: To release energy and teach your puppy to follow along without jumping or nipping at anyone’s ankles.

Use it: Toy Along, Tag Along encourages following skills and can be played indoors or out. This game is a great diversion for ankle-happy nippers.

To play: Tie a squeak or rope toy to a 4-foot leash or line and attach the other end of the line to your shoelace or ankle. Walk around, doing whatever you do. Puppies love to wrestle moving objects: Better the toy than your ankle.

Don’t move too quickly or snap the object out of your puppy’s mouth. If they start to tug assertively, either ignore it or remove the toy from your ankle and clip it to an immovable piece of furniture.

Hide-and-seek

Overall goal: Hide-and-Seek can be played with people and objects. With people, it teaches your puppy to listen and find you even when they can’t see you; with toys, Hide-and-Seek works on impulse control and nose tracking skills.

Directions: Stay, Come, Find <a toy or person by name>

To play with toys: Until your puppy learns a strong Stay have one person hold the puppy as you wave and say, for example, “Here’s Piggy.” (The choice of toy is up to you.) At first, just hide Piggy behind your back for three to five seconds, and then bring Piggy back into view as you say, “Where’s Piggy?” and reward your puppy the moment they nose the toy. Soon your puppy will note Piggy’s whereabouts — now you’re ready to play the game.

Have someone hold your puppy, or leave them in a short Stay. Stand back ten feet, again hide Piggy behind your back, and say, “Where’s Piggy?” Reward your puppy the moment they find Piggy. Now hide Piggy somewhere else nearby, and when your puppy runs over, point to wherever Piggy is hiding out. Gradually hide Piggy in more challenging places and show your puppy how to sniff for the toy if they ever get confused by getting down to their level and pretending to sniff about.

To play with people: If you’re alone, you can hide from your puppy and call them by name. Make the hiding spots easy at first, around a nearby tree or piece of furniture so that your puppy wins every time. If your puppy is playing with multiple people, use treat cups to encourage a positive association with leaving one person and racing to another. The player whose name is spoken should kneel down and shake the treat cup as they call out the puppy’s name and say “Come”; other players should stand silently and ignore the puppy.

playing hide and seek with puppies
Illustration by Barbara Frake

Play hide-and-seek to encourage your dog’s coming skills.

As your puppy gets better at seeking, increase your distance, eventually hiding in increasingly more concealed spots. When they catch on, you can play outdoors on a long line or in a fenced enclosure. Avoid correcting your puppy if they lose interest—limiting game time ensures fun. Don’t forget to call to your puppy as you shake the cup; doing so helps them find you.

Superball soccer

Overall goal: To release energy and teach puppy to chase toys instead of people.

Use it: Play indoors or out, using similar balls or durable plastic bottles.

Directions: Go Get It

Players: Any number can play. Play with one more ball or plastic recyclable bottle than there are people playing so that no one challenges or accidentally kicks the puppy in the face.

To play: Go into an open room or field with your puppy, placing multiple balls or bottles on the ground. After your puppy sniffs the objects, nudge one with your toe. Once your puppy engages with that object, move on to another, gradually increasing the engagement until your puppy is fully into the game. Now’s the time to add other people to the play field. Just make sure everyone knows the rules — always kick a different ball than the one your puppy is playing with.

Soccer involves only your feet. Keep your hands out this game and remind your kids, too — lest the puppy think that jumping on them is more fun.