I was recently asked by an owner of a ball-mad spaniel how they could get more out of games with their dog, without just relying on fetch. This is a great question. Playing more imaginative games can help keep your dog keen and focused. It’s great way to train as you play because if you can’t control your dog when you’re playing ball, how do you expect to do so if there is a novel distraction such as another dog, a picnic, a toddler on a scooter or a jogger heading towards you.
The other important reason for limiting simple fetch games is that they don’t challenge the average ball mad dog in any way. Mindless fetch often results in a super canine athlete, pumped full of adrenalin, who needs more and more physical exercise in order to tire them out. This, as the owner of any working breed will tell you, can be a challenging dog to live with.
There is an entire page in my online course (not just for puppies) dedicated to training through play and this free blog explains how to lay foundations for retreive, tuggy and drop. You’ll need those foundations in order to get the most from the ideas below so why not visit that page first and set some ground rules for safe play.
Now, are you ready to game-up your ball play?
The first couple of games are for novice dogs, while building foundations of focus, patience and improving wait and recall. The Seek Back Retrieve is simple and helps your dog realise that by engaging with you in a particular way, he can claim his prize. This is the basis of all good training. Adding a time laspe and a sit/wait before release results in a more enthusiastic retrieve. For starter dogs, keep the distance short before sending your dog, and don’t worry about the sit/wait element until they have understood the rules of the game. You can add this bit in later.
This next game of hiding the ball in several possible locations is a winner for ball mad dogs. It’s easy to set up either in your garden or on walks. If your dog isn’t steady yet with his sit/wait, tether them until you’ve worked on this. They will love using their nose either by air or ground scenting to sniff out the location of the toy. You may like to use less dense undergrowth to start with.
This game is a great scentwork challenge, with added cardio. The perfect starter challenge for the ball mad dog. If your pooch will wait while you throw the ball, you can increase drive & enthusiasm by adding restraint. By holding himself back, your dog will be even more keen to search for his prize. If your dog doesn’t have that skill, leash them up before sending them to find the toy.
If your dog is a keen swimmer, this novice game is a great search and fetch challenge for them. Throwing the toy to the far bank into long cover will challenge their scenting abilities and means less joint stress than land based ball games. Watch Jack Russell Jellybean hone in on the location of the ball with a combination of air and then ground scenting.
For more experienced dogs, in this next game, you’re building your dog’s skills by asking them to wait while you go out of sight to hide the ball behind a phycial barrier. This requires them to trust you that the ball is out there and to use only their nose to find it. You’ll see Whiskey the Vizsla air and ground scent while searching. If your dog won’t stay in position while you hide the ball, get someone to hold their collar gently until you return to send them to search.
Upping the game, this retrieve game requires patience, restraint & steadiness with added distraction. It improves focus and listening skills, as the dog waits to hear his name. Don’t make the distance too long, or the cover too deep when starting off. And don’t make your dog stay for ages before sending them. My most experienced dog Guinness the Border Collie is sent last and although he’s has only one eye and is slower than the others (he’s 12 now), watch how he narrows in on the toy using his nose.
This is a more advanced game for most dogs, so keep them leashed to start with if needed. If you don’t have other dogs to help, fetch the toy yourself or get a friend to fetch remembering to say the human’s name. Your dog is holding back, waiting to hear their name so it doesn’t matter who is retrieving before them, human or dog. It’s all about waiting your turn, with distraction.
Training games are all about real life applications. Afterall, the more control you have of your dog, the more freedom they can have. Imagine you’ve sent your dog to get the toy, but you realise that a jogger, toddler, or another dog is about to get between your dog and the toy. You may need to stop the dog, or recall your dog away from the incident to avoid challenges. This game is great for reinforcing the ‘wait’ cue (or stop whistle) and the recall cue (or recall whistle) as these will get stronger once your dog realises he can get his toy as soon as he responds. It’s helpful to have a human helper to remove access to the toy if your dog doesn’t listen but this is also a clear signal to you that your wait and recall cues need more work so perhaps focus on the easier games for a bit longer.
For this game, your dog will need to understand directions but this is super easy to train. Sit your dog in front of you and place his bowl of food to his right or left hand side. Step away but keep facing your dog. Using a straight arm gesture, indicate right or left depending on which side the bowl is on. This signals the release to find/fetch/eat. Once your dog has the idea, gradually increase the distance between the dog and the bowl, then yourself and your dog. Now you can start to substitute the bowl with his favourite toy.
In the video, Whiskey the Vizsla must wait for me to place the toy out before being sent to find it. I’m pretending to place it directly ahead so he goes to that location first, but actually I place it to the right. He needs to listen to my signals to help him find the toy. We are working on strengthening the ‘wait’ cue (or stop whistle) and being able to listen even when distracted with something very exciting, such as trying to find his precious ball.
Like the ‘where is it? retrieve for novice dogs shown above, this variation is great for more advanced dogs. Try leaving them down wind and placing multiple balls in several locations over a wider area. They will need to cover ground, use their memory and both air & ground scent to find all the prizes you’ve left for them. A great cardio boost and mentally challenging also.
You’ll notice that as you send your dog out to search more times, they may loose their drive & enthusiasm and might need your help. Work up from two balls, to three etc. rather than going from one ball search to multiple. And if you’ve trained a redirect, you can always help them as I do at the end of this video.
Ball obsessed dogs need to be challenged mentally not only physically, and these games are a great way to do just that. More than that though, you’ll find you have better focus, more control on walks and your dog will want to be with you more to join in the exciting games on offer. Happy Training!