A Great Game for Dogs (and Their Masters)

Human beings and dogs have been playing games for a very long time. Besides being fun, games offer practice in the art of friendship by fostering the spirit of cooperation. Even the bitterest competition is underwritten by this spirit. When players protest—That’s a foul! Throw the yellow flag! Bad call! Rotten ref!—they’re attesting that the game depends on cooperating in accord with justice. Aristotle goes so far as to say that “the just is the friendly.” I could continue in this theoretical vein, as I do in my book, but that’s not what I want to offer here.

This post is devoted to practice, not theory. I want to share a game my dog Aktis and I have crafted. It’s a variation on the sort of games that intelligent, socially minded predators tend to come up with: games that emphasize the virtues of cooperating, whether in the hunt and chase, hide and seek, tracking, retrieving, or keep away. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, one of the reasons we love games is because playing them is beneficial and life enhancing. (See my earlier post Interested in a game of ball?) Even if you’re not a dog person, you may find this game of interest. If not, pass this along to a friend who is a dog person!

Aktis waiting while I hide stick

Aktis waiting while I hide the stick

The game is simple. All you need is plenty of space and an object of desire. (As a matter of principle, Aktis desires whatever I’ve got, in this case a stick, but your dog may be more choosy.) Put your dog on a stay, or leash him if he’s not under voice command.  With the dog watching, drop or throw the stick somewhere nearby. Then, with dog at heel, walk purposely away from the object. Once you’re far enough away that the object is well out of sight, turn to face in its general direction.

On the scent!

On the scent!

Then, in a friendly tone of play, tell the dog to “Go fetch!” or something like that. I suggest using a new word or phrase for this command, since the game is an amalgam of “Fetch!” and “Seek!” (a command I use to send my dog to scent-track a hidden object). Ideally, the dog races back, finds the object, and proudly returns to sit in front of you. As Aktis and I play it, the round is over when I say “Aus!” (German for “Out!”) and he drops the stick in my hand. Then I scratch his shoulder and tell him what a good dog he is while he spins madly around me, yearning for another round.

Here it is!

Here it is!

At first, don’t wait too long or move too far away before letting the dog go find the object; he needs a chance to grasp how the game works, and to savour his success! Once he understands the game, however, you can make things more interesting. Try burying the object under some dirt or brush or snow, or placing it in a bush or accessible tree branch—or whatever ingenious hiding spot your fancy can come up with. You can also start increasing the distance and the time that you put between yourselves and the object. Sometimes we’ll walk for a quarter or half-mile before I let Aktis “Go fetch!” At that distance, with five or ten minutes having passed, and with the stick hidden he knows not where exactly, Aktis gets a great physical and mental workout, for he has to remember roughly where the object was left, and once in the area he has to use his nose in order to find it. You can also step up the game by putting him on a stay farther off from where you hide the object, and you can hide objects he’s never seen or smelled. One tip, though. Be sure to cover the object with your scent by handling it, and, before you send him, let him smell the hand that held the object, so that he gets the scent and is reminded to use his nose to find it. (For him to get that clue may take some practice, unless you’ve done training in scent work and tracking.)

Some health-related advantages of this game. First, you don’t throw your arm out trying to put the object at a respectable distance. Second, since the dog doesn’t know precisely where it is, he gradually decelerates in the vicinity of the object, so that he gets the pleasure of runnning at full tilt without stomping on the brakes and doing a quick turn—which is hard on the spine, hips, and other joints—as is Aktis’s heedless habit when fetching objects in plain view.

When playing with dogs—and children, for that matter—it’s easy to forget that the game needs to be engaging for you. The dog will have more fun if you’re having fun. Which means playing games you find engaging—where you freely and happily “play attention”—or finding an engaging way to relate to the game. For example, tracking is often an absorbing pleasure for both parties, but fetch may be too simple and repetitive to hold much interest. Yet even fetch can be engaging if you focus on the pleasure of communication and camaraderie that even this simple cooperation involves. Oh, and if your dog doesn’t bring the ball all the way back to you and drop it on command, then you’ve got some ready-made and engaging topics for conversation with him!

This game will not appeal to all dogs or to all people. No games do. It will appeal primarily to working and sporting types who love to be outdoors, running, tracking, and retrieving.  The play is best if the dog can be trusted off leash in areas where there are likely to be people, dogs and other attractive nuisances. It’s a frustrating game if you can’t rely on your dog to stay focused and follow voice commands in such a setting.

For Aktis and me, it’s about as perfectly versatile a game as we’ve found. It can be played anywhere, it capitalizes on his natural drives to run and track and seek out and fetch, and it engages his spirited love of cooperation by joining us in a common cause. As for what’s in it for me—or for you—well, you’ll have to see for yourself. It’s up to each of us to find the pleasures a friend’s company affords. Just play attention!  Most of what we call boring owes to lack of attention.

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