Canine Behaviour: Teach your dog to play safely with toys

Karen Wild with her class
Karen Wild with her class

One of the earliest lessons a dog needs to be taught is not to snatch or grab. I'm not just referring to your piece of toast, ice cream or biscuit. When we play with our dogs with their toys, are we teaching them some accidental lessons as well as 'fetch'?

We are commonly told that tug of war games with dogs are a bad idea. And yet, so many dogs love a bit of a contest with each other, and with us, where a toy is involved.

Is your dog just wanting a brief game, and is it harmless, gentle play? Does your dog let go, the second you ask him to? Could anyone do the same thing, asking him to 'give' and he spits it straight out? If so, this is a game with a toy that is fine to play.

If not, however, then beware! You are teaching your dog to grab and hold, tightly. To take whatever he wants off people of any age, and learn that smaller or weaker people are the simplest targets, which means children might be the easiest option. Your dog is becoming a skilled grab and pull player, and play is rehearsal for the real thing. I once watched open-mouthed from the window as a parent rushed to extract her child's hair from their dogs mouth as he dragged the toddler along their garden path; 'He's only playing', said the parent.

Teach your dog to swap any items in his mouth for a piece of food, or another toy. Use the word 'give' at the moment he spits the item out, and praise him, giving him his reward straightaway. Make this part of the tug game, so that a brief tug is fun, followed by a 'give', then another tug, and so on.

If the game becomes rough, or uncontrolled - stop. It's not a good lesson, and you are the teacher.

Ask your dog to 'give', then 'sit'. He must stay sitting whilst you stand up with the toy in your hand. If he goes to grab it again, he has broken the rule of 'sit'! Until he is sitting, you do not have control over the toy, since your dog can jump and grab it again.

If the toy is below your knee height, and if you have invited your dog to play, then he can enjoy a game. Once the toy has gone above your knee height, game over. This includes anyone's knee height, so children will have a much lower range for the toy to travel.

Practice asking him to sit, then standing up with toy in hand, then if he remains sitting you can invite him to play again. This becomes a reward for sitting. Happy - and safe - fun and games with your dog!