To Lower Stress, Play’s The Thing

We’ve all heard that exercise lowers stress, but working as a dog trainer I also observed that the combination of physical and mental exercise does the job even better.  Play is the answer, engaging your dog’s mind along with his muscles.

Try to avoid over the top play. Getting a dog overly excited is hardly ever a good idea.  The dog on the verge of hysterics doesn’t know how to stop, doesn’t feel satisfied, is not ready for a nap, may even bite.  Instead, play games that involve both mind and body, games that engage your dog in a challenging, fun activity that you are very much a part of, games that satisfy but don’t rev up your stressed-out best buddy.

Use And Reinforce Training

Dogs live in their noses, and that makes Smell It, Find It the perfect game. Ask your dog to sit and stay, place a small tidbit of food a few feet in front of him, count one chimpanzee, and tell him Find It! For this game, avoid high-value treats because you want your dog to be able to control himself.  A tiny piece of a dog biscuit will work well.

What if your dog won’t stay? What if he goes for the food as you are putting it down? Easy. Keep your hand in his collar when you give the cue. After you say Stay, wait half a chimpanzee and tell him Find It as you slip your hand out and set him free. Praise him for finding the treat so that you reinforce the principals of the game: wait and then hunt. If you are having trouble with the stay, you will need to practice that cue. But the game is so much fun for dogs, in no time they will be motivated to hold the stay and play by the rules.

As your dog gets it and plays properly, start to move the treat farther away so that by the end of the week he can stay two chimpanzees. Do not rush, because the next step means the treat will be out of sight.

Place the treat in the next room so he will see it the moment he is in the doorway. Then each week, make the find a little harder. This makes the dog think, hold his position, anticipate the find, and love this game. By week three or four, hide the treat on a low shelf, on the coffee table, or partly obscured by the leg of a chair.

Once your dog is hooked, he will play the game with a ball or favorite toy. In that case, increase his vocabulary by telling what to find.  Smell It Find It gives your dog the opportunity to use his fabulous sense of smell, to hone his training skills, to play with you in an exciting but not over-the-top way.

The Seek Back

Suppose the sun is shining and you have time for a walk, but your dog seems stressed. The walk alone will help, but why not punch it up? If your dog’s recall is bulletproof and there’s a safe place to play, play this game with your dog off leash. If you are still working on come when called, play using a leash.

The idea is to surreptitiously drop something as you are walking and then send the dog back to find it. You can drop a treat, a small toy that will not roll away, almost anything you can name so that your dog knows what he is looking for. Years ago I was out for a walk with my dog, Flash, dying to play with him and I had nothing with me.  So I decided to tent a dollar, drop it and send him back for it.  As it turned out, the smallest bill I had was a five. Dropping the folded five, I hoped no one would find it before Flash did! It made that day’s play incredibly more exciting.

Find It

Suppose you’re down with the flu and your dog is stressed because you are sick and bored because he’s not getting out for walks with you. Ask him to bring his favorite ball. Hide it under the blanket and tell him Find the ball! Now drop your hand off the bed and roll the ball a bit. In no time, your happy dog will have you laughing. Even when you’re sick in bed, you can find a way to play that will lower stress for both of you.

When bad feelings come, as they sometimes do, play’s the thing. Play can be jolly, educational, and calming. Investing both mind and body in a game will augment the relationship between you and your dog while chasing the blues away for both of you.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.