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Does Your Dog Play By the Rules?

Tips and videos for making playtime with your dog safe and productive

Teaching Your Dog to Play By the Rules

There’s something entertaining about watching a dog run at top speed to catch the ball you just threw, wrestle a squeaky toy, or prance around the yard with a cherished stick in his mouth. Playtime is not only fun for your dog, it is an important part of your dog’s health and development. It provides exercise, mental stimulation, bonding with you, an activity to help you and your dog bond, and a chance to de-stress.

Puppies begin playing as early as three weeks old and they learn from their mother and littermates the rules about playing nicely: how to take turns being the underdog, biting softly, when to end a game. All of these skills help prevent carefree playtime from escalating into full-on fights. Just as dogs need to learn boundaries when playing with other dogs, they also need to learn boundaries for playing with people.

Below is a list of games you can play with your dog and how to make sure they are safe and fun for both dogs and humans.


You may have heard that tug-of-war is a bad game to play with your dog and there is some truth to this. Dogs that don’t know the rules of the game can become possessive of the toy or aggressive when they get frustrated with the game. But tug-of-war can also be a great game to tire out your dog, teach impulse control, and it can be used as a reinforcer when practicing obedience cues.

One of the best ways to keep tug-of-war safe is to train the dog to let go of the toy when asked and only bite the toy when you give permission. Although you can use whatever commands you would like, in this article I will use “drop it” to ask the dog to let go of the toy and “okay” to signal the dog to bite the toy and start the game of tug.

Before you start training your dog, make sure you are prepared with the right equipment. Choose a toy (durable rope is best) that is long enough for both of your hands to grip the toy while it’s in your dog’s mouth.

2 Ways to teach your dog “drop it” and “okay”:

  1. Treat method: Engage your dog in a game of tug with a bunch of treats hidden in your pocket. When you are ready, hold a small treat in front of your dog’s nose and say “drop it”. When he lets go of the toy to take the treat, praise him. Then say “okay!” and present the toy for the dog to bite onto again.

  2. Hand-Grip method: Engage your dog in a game of tug. When you have steady footing, grip the toy with one hand on each side of the dog’s mouth. Press the toy against your leg and scoot your hands closer towards the dog’s mouth. This will prompt the dog to drop the toy. Say “drop it” as the dog lets go of the toy then immediately say “okay” and hold the toy out for the dog to bite again.

Training Tips

First, no one likes being the loser, so let your dog win the game at least every other round of tug-of-war.

Second, stop playing while it’s still fun. Dogs remember best what they felt at the end of an experience. Keep your dog motivated to play tug by ending the game while they are still excited about playing.

Third, do not attempt these methods if your dog has shown aggression around toys. Some growling is normal while the dog is tugging on the rope, but if the growling or tugging becomes very intense, end the training session immediately and seek professional help.


Retrieving a ball comes naturally for some dogs, but most need to be taught how to bring the ball back and give it to you consistently. The first step in training a dog to fetch is to choose a ball that your dog enjoys playing with that is appropriate for his or her size. Rubber balls made for dogs are a great choice if you need something durable and easy to clean.

2 Ways To Train Fetch

  1. 2 Ball method: Throw the first ball a short distance away. When your dog grabs the first ball, show him the second ball and encourage him to come to you (make it exciting by waving the ball around, tossing it in the air, talking in a high pitched voice, etc.). When your dog comes to you, keep teasing him with the second ball until he drops the first ball. As soon as the first ball is dropped, throw the second ball. While the dog is distracted, chasing the ball you just threw, pick up the dropped ball. Repeat this process and gradually increase the distance that you throw the ball. After your dog is bringing the ball back to you and dropping it consistently, you can play with just one ball.

  2. Long line method: Attach a 30+ ft long line (training leash, rope, etc.) to your dog’s collar and hold onto the opposite end. Throw the ball a short distance away and after the dog grabs it, encourage him to bring it to you. If he does not come, continue encouraging him while you use the long line to pull him to you. Praise your dog when he gets to you, praise him and hold his collar until he lets go of the ball so you can throw it again. Repeat this process until your dog is bringing the ball back consistently without you having to pull on the rope.

Training Tips

Begin training your dog to fetch in an open area where the dog is not easily distracted. Always end the game while your dog is still wanting to play. If your dog loses interest after four rounds of fetch, next time end on the third round.

If you have a dog who loves to play ‘keep-away’ with all toys, choose a special ball that is only used to play fetch. After your dog learns to love playing fetch, you can reinforce obedience by asking him to respond to an obedience cues such as “sit” or “down” before you throw the ball.


Hide-and-seek is an excellent game for everyone in the family to play with the dog. Plus it gives your dog exercise, challenges his brain, and teaches him to come when called.

How to train your dog to play hide-and-seek

  1. Training your dog to come: You will need a bunch of tasty treats broken into pea-sized pieces. Ask a helper to hold the dog back. Say your dog’s name excitedly until he looks at you. When you have your dog’s full attention say “come!” and your helper lets go of the dog. When your dog comes to you, give 3-5 treats one at a time with lots of enthusiastic praise. Repeat this exercise gradually increasing the distance between you and your dog.

  2. Training your dog to find you: After your dog consistently comes when you call while you are in sight, you can now hide from the dog. Start with hiding places that are easy (around a corner, behind a chair, etc.) and gradually make them harder as your dog gets better at finding you (a different level in the house, out in the yard, etc.). You can also call your dog randomly throughout the day when he’s not paying attention.

Training Tips

Coming when called is hard work for your dog, especially when there are other distractions. Make sure to keep him motivated by rewarding him every time he comes. After he consistently comes to you every time you call, you can reward him with a favorite toy, a walk, pets and cuddles or anything he likes in addition to treats.

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