It’s all fun and games … and your dog will learn something

_DSC0207 - Version 3Training is a lifelong journey for you and your dog. As a professional trainer, I’m constantly thinking of ways to make training fun and rewarding not only for the dog, but for the dog’s family. While drills of sit, down, stand and stay are important, games are a great way to not only have fun interacting with your dog, but strengthen various obedience behaviors along the way.

There’s no question dog training can be confusing and stressful. Keeping the atmosphere positive and light, and allowing yourself to have a few laughs along the way, is critical to a rewarding training experience – for you and your dog!

Try the following games, experiment with games of your own, and, most importantly, have fun training.

(Remember to keep sessions short and fun. As renowned trainer Kathy Sdao says, “You wouldn’t do curls continuously until your biceps grew visibly! No, you do a set until your muscles are just beginning to be fatigued, then you take a break and drink some water. Then you do another set, and then do something else. You slowly build strength over time. Dog training should be just the same: frequent, short, fun sessions. Over time, you’ll see great improvement.”)

“Go find it!”

Helps with: Impulse control, mental enrichment, “stay,” increasing dog’s comfort in new environment

How to train:

1) Show your dog a morsel of a high-value treat. Prompt a sit-stay or down-stay, and place the treat several feet away where your dog can see it. Walk back to your dog and release, saying “go find it!”

2) Whenever your dog breaks the stay before you release her, say “too bad!” and cancel the reward.

3) Once your dog is reliably finding the hidden treat, start making the game a bit more difficult. Place the treat further away from your dog, around a corner, or underneath an obstacle. If at any time your dog appears frustrated or confused, drop back down to an easier step. Remember: Keep it fun!

4) If your dog has become a “go find it” master, up the ante by hiding the treat in a different area of the house. Increase the difficulty gradually, encouraging your dog to use her nose to find the reward.

Target Stick

Helps with: Focus work, confidence building, burns mental and physical energy

How to train:

1) Choose a wooden dowel with a blunt end. (Wooden spoons do well in a pinch!) You can also purchase target sticks online.  If your dog is clicker savvy, have one on hand. Otherwise, you can use a high-pitched “yesss!” as a marker word.

2) Place the target near your dog’s nose. Once she touches her nose on the blunt end, click or use your marker word and give her a treat. Repeat, only rewarding if her nose hits the blunt end. If your dog is hesitant to touch the target, you can place a little peanut butter on the end to encourage her.

3) Start placing the target further away from your dog’s nose so she has to move a couple steps forward, to the side, or move her head upward to touch it with her nose. Keep it simple and slow at first to build the behavior.

4) Think of small obstacles you can target your dog over or across. For example, place the target stick above a low ottoman so your dog has to put her front paws up to reach the stick. Place the stick slightly higher than her head so she has to jump up to hit the target. You can also target your dog into locations like the car or her crate, or bring it with you on walks to keep her focused.

Recall races

Helps with: Proofing recalls for distractions, “stay,” recall speed, physical exercise

How to train:

1) Set up a date with one of your dog’s trusted canine friends (and owner).

2) Prompt your dogs into a sit-stay. (If your dog has a shaky “stay,” you can also have someone hold the leashes of both dogs.) Both owners walk to the other end of the room or yard.

3) Call your dogs enthusiastically at the same time. (If someone is holding the dogs’ leashes, that person drops the leashes when you say the recall cue.) Clap your hands, crouch down, make high-pitched noises, run backward slightly, anything to get your dog’s attention. Your dog only gets the reward once she comes to you (and give her a big one once she does)!

4) Strive for your dog to dash directly to you despite the surrounding distractions.

Musical “sit”

Helps with: Jumping up, “sit,” recall

How to train:

1) Get your family or a group of friends together and stand in a circle.

2) One-by-one, in random order, have your friends call your dog’s name.

3) Once your dog approaches, take a treat and lure your dog into a sit. Once your dog sits, mark with a “yesss!” and give her the treat.

4) Once your dog has ample practice being lured into a sit, fade out the lure and use a hand signal for “sit.” Drop back down to the treat lure if she has difficulty.

5) Watch for your dog sitting automatically on approach. Once she does this over half the time, start waiting for her to sit on her own before helping her with a hand signal. The goal is for her to sit upon approach without a prompt.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at

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  1. Pingback: Safety and enrichment are not mutually exclusive | The Muzzle Up! Project

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