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Backyard games can be a year-round source of activity for high-energy dogs, those who are watching their weight, and just about any pup who loves to play. They can also provide your pooch with a few behaviors that will impress your friends — especially the nosy neighbors who are always looking over your fence.
Here are five ways to play in your backyard with your favorite furry friend.
“Fetch” is standard backyard fare for dogs with a decent retrieval instinct. Running to retrieve a ball or toy is great exercise and reinforces the human-doggie bond.
Some dogs don’t need to be taught to retrieve toys. You know you have one of these pups if you’ve ever tripped over a Frisbee or have had a slobbery shoe set at your feet. These dogs are a delight when playing retrieval games and may exhaust themselves quickly, so offer enough water during playtime.
You can encourage dogs without an ingrained interest in retrieving to pick up a ball, too. How? By smearing peanut butter or cheese on it; you can also use your dog’s favorite toy. Some dogs aren’t “mouthy” and won’t pick up a thrown toy, but you can reinforce the “picking up” behavior by first rewarding any contact with the ball with a treat.
As you continue to teach this game over a series of days or weeks, raise the criteria so that you eventually only reward for picking up the ball, and then for bringing it back to you.
For the possessive dog, use a ball rather than a favorite toy, and once it’s in your dog’s mouth, show him that you have treats. Than, offer to trade the ball for a treat. Do this until your dog understands that if he chases and then relinquishes the ball, something good happens. Eventually, he’ll forget about the treat and relish the game for the game’s sake.
Agility is an athletic and competitive dog sport that requires a dog to navigate an obstacle course. You don’t have to enroll your dogs in classes or compete to have fun with it. Inexpensive backyard agility equipment is available online, or you can even make your own. Choose the agility equipment that would best suit your dog: jumps, tunnels, weave poles, tire jumps, chutes, or teeter-totters.
Jumps are a great place to start, since it’s easy to teach a dog to comply using treats and positive reinforcement. Start with the jump pole on the ground, and have your dog walk over it. Once he’s good at that, raise the jump just a few inches, and continue raising the jump as your dog becomes familiar with the game.
These are wonderful to use in the backyard because your dog will have ample space to play with them and you can leave all the resulting slobber and noise outside.
Once your dog understands how to use these toys, you can start hiding them in corners of the yard, or under bushes and behind trees to make the game even more challenging. For dogs who play rough, the Unbreakoball is a fun choice, as are Kong toys and the Tug-a-Jug from Petsafe. For puppies, use a soft toy that’s easy on young teeth and gums.
For dogs who like to dig, having a dedicated sandbox is like owning a little corner of heaven. Use a child’s sandbox with a cover so that neighborhood cats don’t make it a litter box and leave your dogs a few tasty snacks. Use only clean sand from your local hardware store. Bury your dog’s favorite chewies in the sandbox and show him how to dig them up. Soon he’ll understand that he will be rewarded for his efforts — and you’ll avoid having to fill in another hole along your fence.
A shallow plastic pool can mean hours of backyard fun during the summer months, when your dog may want to cool off with a dip. Toss apple slices, baby carrots, or your dog’s favorite treat into the pool for a kind of “bobbing for treats” game. This is a great way to persuade skeptical pups to get their feet wet. You can also fill the pool with floating toys and balls.
Do you play games in the backyard with your dogs? Tell us about them — and show us — in the comments!
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About the author: Nikki Moustaki is a dog trainer, dog rescuer, and pet expert. She splits her time between New York City and Miami Beach, Florida, and is the author of the memoir The Bird Market of Paris. Visit Nikki on Facebook, on Twitter, and at nikkimoustaki.com.