One of the great joys in my life is knowing that my dogs are idiots. Don’t get me wrong. They are intelligent, well-trained, eager to work, and well accomplished in dog sports and activities. It’s just that, on occasion, they seem to enjoy acting like idiots.
I don’t mean to suggest that I only enjoy their periodic lunacy for my own entertainment (although that certainly is a factor). If I’m honest, a large part of my enjoyment comes from my ability to join them in their silliness. You see, I like being an idiot too sometimes.
Everybody’s free to be silly
If we feel safe, if we are with people we trust, we can feel free to be as silly as we like. Maybe it’s a bad pun, maybe it’s a funny face, but we all like to goof around and laugh. It’s the same with our dogs. They enjoy the freedom and release of just being silly too sometimes. Anyone who has ever owned a puppy can attest to this as I’m sure you have seen “The Zoomies”, those sudden bouts of just running all over the house for no apparent reason that seem to happen mostly in the evenings.
Depending on your particular kind of dog, you may feel more or less comfortable with doggy silliness in your household. While silliness and play are a natural part of being a dog, there can be some drawbacks. Larger dogs don’t know which of your furnishing are fragile and may bash into things. Dogs have claws that may mark up floors or scratch doors. And I have heard dogs described as having a “mouth full of cutlery”, those sharp teeth that sometimes accidentally inflict minor scrapes.
The Big No
Yes, it’s all fun and games until the human puts a stop to everything. Your dog is in the middle of having a grand old time when suddenly a table gets bumped or someone gets nicked by a tooth and “NO!”, the game ends abruptly. Your dog can be confused by this. They were just having some fun and suddenly they are getting yelled at. They probably aren’t sure why you are reprimanding them.
Dogs don’t really know that it’s ok to crash into the sofa but not the end table. They didn’t mean to catch your finger when they were re-gripping that rope toy you are playing tug with. So when we suddenly end the game, it may not exactly be clear to our dogs what went wrong. Being proactive in teaching our dogs the rules before we start the game can save everyone some unnecessary stress.
Each of our dogs has different games they enjoy. Our youngest, Rizzo likes to play with toys. Any toys. And he’s not shy about telling you when he wants to play. He simply grabs a toy from his collection, shoves it into the back of your leg, and wraps a paw around your leg. It’s almost like he’s saying, “Ah hah! Game one, dude!” And frequently we will oblige him.
But it was important that we taught him a cue for “Not Now.” It’s ok for Rizzo to ask for a game but it also has to be ok for us to say no from time to time. So we taught him that “Enough” means we’re not playing now but we rewarded him for finding another activity to do instead of continuing to be pushy with us.
Our older girl Tira is very intense. She loves a good game of fetch. What she does not enjoy is when little brother Rizzo finds it necessary to get involved in the game too. Tira can be a little possessive about her stuff. So it is in everyone’s best interest to manage her play sessions so that Rizzo can’t get in the way of Tira’s good time. We do our best to manage the two and make sure that Tira gets to chase her toy in peace. That way there’s no fighting and no accidental squabbling over toys.
As much as we like to be silly with our two dogs independently, Tira and Rizzo seem to enjoy being idiots together as well. It’s Rizzo’s custom to seek out Tira at some point in the day and give her that cheeky look or quick bow that says “Hey! Catch me if you can!” and he takes off. Depending on her mood, Tira will either give chase or give us that look that says “Why did you ever bring that idiot into this house?” In either case, we usually end up encouraging the silliness and getting involved ourselves. We grab a few toys or take them out in the back yard for a romp. Silliness is a regular part of our routine.
Regular trips to the park are also part of our routine. Rizzo and Tira have a few doggy friends and we often meet up with them at the park. While we do monitor their play together, we generally do very little to direct their silliness. We sometimes throw balls for them or chase around with them a bit but the main activity we practice is asking for things. We think it’s important to call our dogs in from time to time. Just to ask for a sit or a down. Other times we will ask for the ball and a couple of behaviours before throwing it for them again.
The tools of playing safe
So it is silliness with a few requirements. So long as our dogs continue to respond to our simple requests, we can get as goofy as we want to get. Most of those requests are behaviours we teach first at home in a training environment. “Drop it”, “Take it”, “Leave It”, “Sit”, “Down”, and “Wait” are all important parts of our training program. “Drop it” or “Leave it” can be just the thing to settle down an overly enthusiastic game of tug. “Sit” and “Wait” can give our rowdy dogs a much needed break from chasing around the field at the park. So it’s important to teach some utility behaviours that we can use to manage our dogs even in their silliness.
The important thing here is that we are using several frequently practiced, highly rewarded behaviours to manage our dogs’ play. We don’t just say “No!” or “Stop it!” That would communicate very little to our dogs. In fact, it may even give them the impression that we don’t want them to be playing. And that’s not really the case. Sometimes they just get a little over the top and need to be redirected and calmed down a bit. Using those previously trained behaviour engages their brain and let’s them earn rewards for cooperating with us.
Tira and Rizzo trust us. It’s what makes our silly times together work as well as they do. We have taken the time to teach them how to know when it’s “Game On” and when it’s “Game Over.” We’ve taught them a few simple rules to playing with us safely. We’ve taught them some useful behaviours to help direct the games so that everyone has fun. But perhaps most importantly, we have been consistent in how we have used all of these tools.
Trust isn’t something that comes for free with our dogs. It has to be earned. I think we have earned our dogs trust by listening to them when they tell us they want to be silly, to play around some. We earned their trust by letting them “win” a fair amount of the time. We earned their trust by not just shutting down the game for reasons they might not understand. And we earned their trust by not changing the rules to our advantage whenever it suits us.
Playing with my dogs is one of the great joys of my life. When my wife refers to “the idiots that live in her house”, I’m proud to count myself right in there with Tira and Rizzo!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
Photo credits –
All photos – Petra Wingate 2011-2013