Have you ever looked at your dog and wondered if they were happy? I mean like really happy. So happy that they think you are the greatest dog parent of all time? Well, to answer this question we need to first determine what makes a dog happy.
The Basics For Making Your Dog Happy
Just like people, dogs have basic needs that need to be met before they can begin to feel happy. These include:
- A safe place to live
- Enough good food and water to keep them from worrying
- A comfortable place to sleep
- Their health care needs taken care of
And just like people dogs need to be social. They generally want to be part of a group, even the scared and shy ones. Dogs by nature are social animals and they thrive on interaction, whether it’s with people they trust or other dogs.
So, one of the easiest ways to make your dog happy is by spending time with them.
There are many ways you can spend time with your dog. You can spend time training them. You can have relaxation time by petting and cuddling with them. Or you can play with them.
While I think all of these ways of spending time with your dog is appreciated by your dog, when was the last time your dog became excited to cuddle?
However, bring out their favorite toy for some playtime and they will show you their happy dance. For my pup that means strong tail wags that make her entire body wiggle and we might even get a smile out of her.
The next question is what is the best way to play with them. Not all dogs are alike therefore they don’t all like to play the same games or like the same toys. So how do you decide what is your dog’s play style?
Global Pet Expo
Let me take a step back for a moment. The idea for this post came from my conversation with a couple of Tall Tail marketing representatives I met at the Global Pet Expo. I was at the Expo looking for all natural toys and other products that I could feel good about giving to my dog. I wanted something that was free of chemicals and only contained natural materials. Although there were lots of natural dog foods and treats, natural toys were harder to find. But I did manage to find the Tall Tails natural leather toys and also their natural rubber toys.
Since the Global Pet Expo was virtual this year all you really could do was look at the products online and add them to your favorites. I figured I would add the Tall Tails natural toys to my favorites list and then look into them some more after I was done with the Expo. Well, I didn’t know it at the time, but by flagging them as my favorites it informed the company that I was interested in their products. With that the company reached out to me to talk about their natural toys and also about their new way of thinking about dog toys.
Dog Play Styles
During our conversation the marketing representatives for Tall Tails explained that they believe dogs have different play styles and I couldn’t agree more. All my dogs had their favorite games that seemed to match their breeds and personalities. They also went on to say that Tall Tails designs their toys based on these different play styles. Tall Tails define dog play styles as Tug, Fetch and Sensory.
The representatives offered to send me a few free toys from their natural collection so I could try them out. I plan to do a thorough review of the toys after I have had them for a while. Here are the toys that they gave to me.
First is their Natural Leather Antler shown below. This fetch toy is made with vegetable tanned leather, cotton-jute stitching and has a coconut husk filling.
They also make a few tug type toys in natural leather. Here is their Natural Leather and Wool Tug Toy and their Natural Leather Tug Toy that they also sent me.
Finally Tall Tails makes a few natural rubber toys that mimic shapes found in nature like the acorn, pinecone and stick. Here is the Acorn that they sent me.
All this talk about play styles peaked my interest and I started to do my own research about how dogs play.
Here’s what I learned about Dog Play
1. All dogs are different
Just like people, every dog is a little different. These differences can come from their breeding, socialization, and a dog’s innate personality.
For example our English Springer Spaniel wanted to play fetch 24/7. Since she was a retriever, she enjoyed running after something and bringing it back to us. Just like her ancestors did back in the day. She also liked to run around and play chase with the neighbor kids but her favorite activity was always fetch.
On the other hand our Rat Terrier Poodle mix loves a good game of catching prey. She will play fetch for a little while but eventually gets bored and stops. Bring out something that is moving fast and needs to be caught and she could play forever.
2. Dogs prefer to play with people
Dogs prefer to play with people more than on their own, even if there is a toy around for them to play with. Play between a dog and their human can either be via direct play or indirect play. Direct play is when a person and a dog play interactively with the same toy, like a game of tug of war. Indirect play is when a person moves a toy for the dog, like a prey chasing game, but doesn’t actually engage with the dog.
The one exception to the belief that dogs prefer to play with people are treat related toys, then it depends on the dog. Our spaniel preferred to play fetch but our Golden was all about food.
3. Dogs play to learn
There are a few theories as to why dogs like to play, but they all point to one thing. Dogs are learning every time they play. For puppies it’s believed that they play to practice their motor skills and learn social skills. Wrestling with their litter mates and other dogs teach them how they can move and how to protect themselves. Mouthing and biting teaches them bit inhibition. Play can also teach dogs how to deal with the unexpected and to cope with stress. As they mature dogs will continue to play to practice these skills.
4. Play helps provide exercise and mental stimulation
Imagine spending your day lying around with nothing to do. Unless your dog has a job this is what most pet dogs do. So to help with the boredom and provide them with daily exercise, playing is a great addition to their daily routine.
5. Playing helps to satisfy innate desires in dogs
If you look at my spaniel example above, you can see that our dog loved to retrieve. It could be a ball, a Frisbee or even a stick. It didn’t matter. What was important to her was to satisfy her need to retrieve, which was inbred in her after generations of breeding. Herding dogs may like to play hide and seek to satisfy their desire to round up everything and keep them in their place. Small terriers like to hunt and therefore may prefer bait and chase type games just like my rat terrier mix does. Scent dogs like hounds might like a treasure hunt. I think you get the picture.
6. Playing with your dog re-enforces the bond you have with your dog
Let’s face it, if you are having a good time with someone you naturally want to spend more time with them.
Playing with your dog
As you can see there is more to playing with your dog then just throwing a ball. Understanding the WHY helps you decide on the WHAT. As in WHAT type of games your dog might like. Here we have 5 games that we matched to the type of dog that we think will like to play it the most.
5 Games That Will Make Your Dog Happy
For retriever type breeds fetch mimics retrieving the hunters catch. But even non-hunting dogs love the game. It may also mimic the feeling of chasing and catching prey. Fetch can easily be played outside or inside if you have space. Most people play fetch with a Frisbee or a ball but you can play it with any object that can safely be thrown and retrieved by your dog. Here is Bella with the Tall Tails Natural Leather Antler Toy.
Tips for playing fetch:
- If your dog is not interested in chasing the object, play with it by yourself for a little while by throwing it up in the air. Most dogs will see you playing and want to join in.
- If they chase the ball but don’t want to give it back have another toy or treat to lure them back to you.
- Also you should have a strong “drop it” command in place before trying to teach a dog to fetch.
- Our dogs are also taught the “bring it” command.
2. Tug of War
Tug of War is another almost universal game for dogs. Most dogs love to compete for an object much like they would have competed for food in the wild. Nowadays domestic dogs no longer need to hunt and fight for food, but they still enjoy the competition. There are many toys on the market made for tug-of-war to pick from. Choose one that is long enough for you to safely keep your hand away from your dog’s mouth.
A word of caution – Before engaging in a game of ‘Tug of War’ make sure your dog knows and follows the “drop it” or “leave it” command. Practice these commands before and during the game. If at any point your dog starts to become aggressive or too excited, stop the game! Do some training exercises (example: making them sit, stay and lay down) before and during the game to ensure you are in control of your dog. If you believe your dog has a tendency towards aggression do not play this game. Some dogs may get carried away with the competition. Even my sweet, gentle spaniel managed to catch me with her teeth once in a game of tug.
Don’t forget to let them win from time to time. It’s generally believed that it’s ok to let them win as long as they are playing calmly and by the rules.
Dogs are smart and they learn fast. Most dogs will realize that to get the upper hand they need to grab where your hand is. If you allow them to do this it’s likely that you will get accidently bit. If you see them trying to move towards your hand stop the game and reset. Their mouth and your hand should be at the furthest points away on the toy.
Here is Bella with her new Tall Tails Natural Leather and Wool Tug Toy. Notice that the rope is long enough to keep my hand away from her mouth. I also like the fact that the leather and wool bone is between us. This keeps her from trying to inch her way up the rope. A larger dog my not be deterred by the bone though so you need to stay focused on the game.
3. Hidden Treasure
Scent and hunting type dogs might really like this type of game. In this game show your dog their favorite toy and then hide it under a box or behind something when they are not looking. Then ask your dog to go find it. It may take a few times of guiding your dog to the treasure for them to understand the concept of looking for their toys. Once they find it either let them have the toy (if that is safe to do with your dog) as a reward or give them a treat. My dog cannot be trusted with any type of toy that can be ripped apart no matter how durable it looks so we use treats as rewards.
This is a good game for a scent or herding type dog. Hide and seek can be played with just you and your dog. Simply have your dog sit in an area that they cannot see you then hide from them. Call them to come to you and see how long it takes to for them to find you. You can turn this into a family game by having more than one person hide.
Another game all my dogs love to play is “Chase”. My poodle mix is generally the one that initiates this game. She will come up to us with a play bow and the minute we look at her she takes off. If we don’t follow she comes back and barks at us in an attempt to engage us. It’s a simple game that can be played anywhere. We often find ourselves playing this in the house on a raining day.
It’s important that you have a strong ‘recall’ command in place before playing this game. Otherwise your pup may thing you are playing when you are not. To reinforce your ‘recall’ command, stop the game from time to time and call them to you. They should be able to tell by the tone of your voice when you are serious and need to comply.
6. Monkey in the Middle
Monkey in the Middle is a variation of the chase game. Here my dog chases the toy as we toss it around from person to person. Just remember to drop the toy from time to time so they don’t lose hope with the game or become too frustrated.
A word of caution: Much like tug of war dogs can become over stimulated with the monkey in the middle game. If at any point your dog seems to be getting frustrated or aggressive stop the game. Spend a couple of minutes going over commands to focus your dog. Do not play this game with a dog that has aggressive tendencies
7. Treat toys
I know I said that dogs like to play with us and also with other dogs. But sometimes they need to play by themselves. A sure fire way to keep your dog occupied is with a treat toy. Treat toys either have treats hidden inside them or in groves on the outside of the toy. Either way the objective is to get the treats from the toy. Throughout the years I have tried many treat dispensing toys. The best ones are the ones that the dog can easily but slowly get the treat from the toy. If it’s too hard the dog loses interest. If it’s too easy the fun is over way to soon.
I also prefer treat toys that are easy to clean. I try to look for ones that are dishwasher safe like the one below.
When using treat toys make sure whatever treat you use is safe for dogs. Some foods like peanut butter may use a sweeter called Xylitol that is poisonous to your dog. Also feeding your dog too much peanut butter can cause other issues. The American Kennel Club has a good article on dogs and peanut butter that you should read.
How do you know if your dog is happy?
Although every dog is different, there are signs that can show us a dog is happy. For my pup I know she is really happy when she is wagging her tail so hard that her entire body wiggles along with her tail. Other signs can be:
- An open relaxed mouth that almost looks like they are smiling
- Eyes relaxed
- Relaxed posture
- Relaxed but fast tail wagging sometimes to the point that their whole body wiggles.
- If a dog’s tail is moving in a short, stiff tail wag, they are not happy, and may be confrontational.
- Ears appear relaxed
- May make some yappy or sing song sounds
- They may squint their eyes. Often they also have a mouth open when they do this
- They give you a play bow