We all love playing games with our dogs. Domestic dogs and humans are highly unusual in the animal world for enjoying playtime into adulthood.
Why should you make time to play? Are there any games you should avoid? So what are the best games to play with your dog?
There are lots of benefits to playing games with your dog.
The bottom line is that games are highly beneficial for you and your dog. There’s really no better way to simultaneously bond with your dog, have fun, and teach him bite inhibition and impulse control!
& which to avoid with your dog
This headline is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not that there are certain games that you should avoid playing with your dog. However, there are certain dogs, handlers, and games who might not mix well.
Talla the boxer is very fearful and has a history of growling at her elderly owner when he takes her toys away.
Talla and her owner probably are not good candidates for playing tug safely because of her fear, her history of growling around her toys, and his age. Any one of these risk factors would be enough for me to think hard before encouraging tug with an owner-dog pair.
What Games Are Best? If Talla is comfortable with her owner around treats, Nosework might be a better game for them to play!
Slick the Australian shepherd will play fetch until he drops of heat stroke! He also barks constantly when he wants something, jumping up on his owner and scratching her down the back when he’s excited.
His owner is a busy professional who really only has time for fetch, so she just puts up with the barking and clawing. He won’t quit the game though, so it’s a daily fiasco to balance his exercise with his behavior concerns.
Slick and his owner should probably avoid fetch because of the problems that it causes.
What Games Are Best? Again, nosework would be a great option for teaching Slick to slow down and work independently. He would likely benefit from any of the “Learning Games” listed below. A flirt pole might be a safer way to play with him, since he’s less likely to jump on his owner for this than for the ball.
Turbo the French Bulldog has a really hard time breathing due to poor breeding. He’s got luxating patellas and his nails are too long because he growls when his owner tries to clip them.
Turbo’s 23 year old male owner would love to compete in French Ring or agility, but that’s just too dangerous for Turbo given his health concerns.
What Games Are Best? Rally Obedience would be a safer option for Turbo that would also allow his owner to work out his competitive streak.
Argos the German Shepherd hates other dogs. He barks, lunges, snarls, and would bite if he got the chance. He also gets overwhelmed easily and has snapped when people touch his hips or startle him.
His owner has always enjoyed going to the park to play fetch and rough housing inside with her past dogs, but this isn't really an option for Argos. Argos is probably not ready to play off-leash at the park in case other dogs show up. On top of that, rough housing with him is dangerous for his owner.
What Games Are Best? Playing any of the “Learning Games” would be a great way to bond with Argos safely. Argos might enjoy playing with a flirt pole in the backyard or exploring various sports that keep dogs separate from others during class and competition.
It’s not that the dog-owner pairs above are wrong for each other or even that they can never pursue the games that they love. However, each of these dogs likely should work with a professional trainer and/or veterinarian to help prepare them to play games safely and happily with their owners in the future.
Check out “Click for Calm” to read the amazing story of a dog much like Argos who eventually was able to compete at a very high level in agility around other dogs!
Think carefully about the physical and mental characteristics of your dog as you decide what games to play going forward. My border collie and I play almost all of the games below and dabble in many of the sports. I have many dog trainer friends whose training skills are even more honed than mine who do not do the same due to physical or behavioral constraints on their dogs.
It might be that your dog is easily stressed and finds tug-of-war scary. It could be that your dog just isn’t all that interested in fetch. Or perhaps you’ve got a nasty knee injury and really shouldn’t be running around the agility ring.
That’s ok. Work with the dog that you have and find a game that’s safe and fun for both of you. You’ll find one. I promise.
The Ultimate List Of
There are so many games out there to play with your dog, it’s hard to keep track. I’ve picked out a few of my favorites from several broad categories below.
I actually have tried each of these games, so feel free to reach out to me for more information on the games or how to get started!
These games were largely created by professional trainers and aim to teach your dog impulse control or other specific skills.
If you just play one or two games, try games from this category! Many are easy and just require food, so you can play them anywhere with any dog that eats.
No special physical abilities, equipment, or drive to play needed!
Popularized by renowned dog trainer Susan Garrett, this game is a spin-off of teaching your dog to “leave it” around desirable objects.
Start with food in your closed hand. Your dog will nibble at your hand, dig, whine, and all the rest. As soon as she backs off, open your hand. If she dives back in for more, close your hand again. Repeat until you’re able to get a 1-second break between opening your hand and her moving in - then pick up the food with your other hand and pop it in her mouth!
This game gets progressively harder as you teach your dog to sit and wait patiently for increasingly tempting things.
One of my all-time favorites, “Ready! Set! Down!” is a hard game to describe, but I’ll do my best.
The basic gist of it is easy: get your dog really excited about something (wrestling, fetch, happy talk, tug) and then start cueing different behaviors. The reward for complying with your cue is re-starting the game.
For example, Barley loves playing tug. I ask him to “sit,” then we start tugging. After a few seconds, I cue him to drop it. When he complies, I ask him for one of his tricks (paw, shake, up, down, roll over, etc). When he complies with that, we start tugging again.
This activity is a game changer for improving listening skills when your dog is excited. I’ve also found that Barley’s speed and accuracy of responding to cues has increased dramatically!
If you’re hoping to teach your dog to pay better attention to you, look no further than Look At That! This game is a fast-paced clicker training game where you actually mark and reward your dog for looking at other objects - like dogs, bikes, squirrels, or cars.
Take treats on a walk with you. When you see the object of focus, click or say “yes!” and feed your dog a treat when he looks back at you. If your dog doesn’t turn towards you because he’s too fixated on the object of focus, you’re too close or your treats aren’t good enough. Try again next time. Keep playing the game on walks and you’ll quickly see that your dog is automatically looking from you to the object and back again, looking for a treat. This “autowatch” behavior is the end goal!
Look At That! Is one of my favorite games for reactive dogs, fearful dogs, or dogs that have a hard time focusing on their handlers. If your dog barks, lunges, or growls at things on walks, you’ve got to try this game!
If you read my articles with any frequency, it’s obvious that I really love mat training. I talk about it all the time! Mat training teaches your dog one simple rule: if this mat is on the ground, your job is to lie down on it. Period.
Following Dr. Karen Overall’s 15-day protocol, you start teaching your dog to lie calmly on a mat or towel with increasing distractions. If the 15-day protocol sounds daunting, just try the first few. Once your dog starts to “get it” that his job is to lie on the mat while you do different things, you’re off to the races!
I fit mat training into my busy day by feeding Barley his dinner while he’s on his mat and I cook. This keeps him out of the kitchen, feeds him his dinner, and keeps his mat training skills sharp!
You don’t have to spend your playtime working on learning games if you don’t want to. I don’t judge - there’s nothing wrong with the old classics! Many of these games are popular because they’re so fun and easy. Definitely don’t miss out on these well-known favorites.
I love playing tug. There are some rules and guidelines to follow to ensure that the game stays fun and safe for everyone, but generally tug of war is a great way to bond with your dog!
Barley loves playing fetch more than almost anything in the world. He’s a bit too obsessed, which is one of the dangers of fetch.
Some dogs didn’t get the memo that tennis balls are supposed to be interesting, while others would leap off the edge of the Grand Canyon to chase a little green ball. Playing fetch with good boundaries in place can be oh-so-fun!
OK, this might not be a “classic” the same way fetch and tug are, but flirt poles are one of my all-time favorite ways to exercise a dog!
Think of a giant fishing pole with a squeaky toy on the end. Flirt poles are great for dogs who don’t love fetch or people who have a smaller space to play. They’re also a great tool to use in combination with Ready! Set! Down!
Some dogs (and their people) love rough housing.
Growing up, I spent hours rolling in the dirt with my old lab. We both learned a lot about how to control our strength and play safely. It was a blast!
Barley, my current dog, hates rough housing. He runs away and gives off all sorts of “calming signals” if we try. So we don’t do it. There are other dogs who might get over-aroused and become dangerous when rough housed with. This game isn’t for everyone!
Many dogs love chasing after their owners or being chased.
I love combining chasing games with hide-and-seek games, where the dog sniffs around to find me and then I take off running.
Chase and Searching games are great for dogs that don’t love the rough-and-tumble physicality but are more people-oriented than ball- or squeaky-oriented. Be careful with dogs that get over-excited around fast movement. Many herding breeds can get quite nippy if you run away from them.
Aside from plenty of games that are easy and fun to play at home, there are lots of amazing competitive sports to try with your dog!
Many of these sports are great to try, whether you’ve got a major competitive streak or just enjoy spending time with your dog. Most classes have no requirement to compete and the environment is as competitive or laid-back as you’d like!
Barley and I love sports, so we’ve tried quite a few:
These classes are great for both dogs that don’t do well with others and high energy dogs who need a mental workout!
How does it work? First, dogs learn to sniff out increasingly challenging hidden food. In the second round of classes, dogs learn to sniff out a non-food scent (usually an essential oil like birch or clove) in exchange for food or a toy.
It’s an absolute blast to watch your dog use his brain and nose to pinpoint hidden food that we can’t even smell. This class is a great way to get introduced to the skill of teaching your dog to sniff out all sorts of things - including truffles!
Fast paced and athletic, this sport is great for dogs and handlers who like a challenge!
Here, dogs negotiate an obstacle course while their handlers help cue them to do tunnels, jumps, weave poles, and see-saws in the correct order.
While you and your dog don’t have to be a sleek, elite pair to enjoy agility, this is a sport that will push your limits physically and mentally. It’s important to ensure that both you and your dog are ready. Most beginner courses will help you get on track.
Not for the indoor or sedentary, herding is really great for dogs that are bred for it.
The goal is to move a group of stock (usually sheep, goats, or cattle) into pens or through gates. This sport is often based on a functional farm with occasional trials for those who enjoy competition. Unlike most other games and sports on this list, herding is a truly specific sport that’s very difficult, if not impossible, to do without the right dog.
Border collies, Australian shepherds, and cattledogs rule this sport, with each herding breed specializing in a different type of stock or style of herding.
Other herding breeds can excel at the sport, but I’ve never heard of a hound, toy, or sporting dog competing in herding. It’s simply too instinct-based with little room for using treats to teach your dog how to do it.
Since I don’t own a farm, my border collie and I just drive out to the country to take classes. He loves it, and it gives me chills to see my dog do what he’s bred for!
While French Ring and IPO aren’t the same sport, I’m lumping them together for brevity’s sake. Both French Ring and IPO (which stands for Internationale Prüfungs-Ordnung) are protection dog sports traditionally dominated by dogs like German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. Both sports involve competitive obedience and bite work.
For both these sports, the dogs go through a series of tasks including heeling and other obedience tasks, finding and alerting to a person behind a barrier, and then biting that person through a bite sleeve. IPO also includes a tracking portion, where the dogs must follow a scent trail to find a hidden object.
These sports aren’t for the faint of heart, since you’re teaching your dog to bite and hold onto a person wearing a bite sleeve or suit. It’s absolutely imperative that you find an excellent teacher if you’re interested in either of these sports. I recommend watching others compete and train for this sport before getting your dog involved - or at the very least, read about it, since a partway trained protection dog can be a very dangerous dog indeed.
That said, these sports are incredibly rewarding. I wouldn’t recommend doing these sports because you want a protection dog - do them because they’re a fun challenge.
Check out the French Ring 2010 champion below if you want to see some spectacular obedience skills (at the 2 minute mark you can witness the impossible - a dog getting meat thrown right in front of him, with the dog refusing to eat it)!
Interested in the basic concept of herding, but you lack either sheep or a truly instinctive herding dog? You’re in luck!
Treibball is often referred to as urban herding, and it involves teaching your dog to nose big exercise balls into goals. I’m brand new to the sport, but I love the teamwork and training that goes into it.
It’s much more broadly accessible than herding to different types of dogs and different geographic locations.
Think Parkour, for dogs! While there aren’t many formal classes out there, barkour is a great way to spice up your daily walks.
I’ve taught Barley a few basic cuea (like up, down, over, under, and through). Over the course of our walks, I’ll cue him to interact with different objects in different ways. It’s amazing how much more fun we both have on walks while he charges through culverts or leaps over park benches.
Be sure to have your dog checked out by a vet before getting too extreme with your jumps, and ensure that the obstacles you’re using are safe and legal.
Fast and furious, this team sport is made for the ball-obsessed. Dogs race over obstacles to retrieve a ball off of a platform. If you’ve never heard of it, you’ve got to see it!
Another fetch-based sport, dock diving judges dogs for their leaps into a pool of water to retrieve a toy. It’s commonly seen at fairgrounds and looks like a ton of fun.
Often called rally-o, this sport is a set of obedience tasks that dogs and handlers complete. Dogs and their handlers are scored on smooth and skillful execution of the different tasks at each station.
This sport is great for dog-handler teams who love working on obedience and might not have the physical fitness for some of the faster-paced sports.
The sighthounds (like whippets and greyhounds) rule lure coursing. Dogs chase a rapidly retreating white cloth, eventually catching it if they’re successful. This sport is great for dogs who love to chase squirrels and requires very little actual training on your end.
Based on the vermin hunting that many terriers are bred for, barn hunt allows dogs to sniff out a rat (kept safely in a dog-proof tube) in a barn full of hay. The sport originally was created to help test for hunting ability in terriers, but now is great fun for any dog - deaf, blind, three-legged, or old!
Often called doggie dancing, freestyle is a remarkable combination of art and dog training. Handlers and dogs create a complicated heeling circuit to music. The dogs weave, circle, lie down, walk on their hind legs, and leave their owners.
It’s remarkable to watch and realize that there are no verbal cues or easily seen visual cues for the dogs to follow. This sport is hard to beat as far as the bonding and training it provides.
Yet another fetch-based sport, disc dogs involves a series of frisbee throws for fancy catches from dogs. This choreographed sport involves amazing aerial acrobatics from the dogs as they leap, twist, or even launch off their owners to catch the frisbees!
In the end, it hardly matters what games or sports you play with your dog (within reason). They’re all great ways to bond with your dog and increase her mental and physical strength!
As long as you’re keeping everyone safe, I think most games and sports can be enjoyed by most dogs and owners. If you’re struggling to find a class in a given sport, you can always check out Fenzi Dog Academy and get started online!
Did we miss any games that you love playing with your dog? Help us grow our list!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.