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Why It's Important for Dogs to Play

By: Eamonn Lynch

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Ask dog trainer Gail Fisher what benefits a dog gets by playing, and the answer is direct and simple: "What benefits don't they get?" Fisher, who has been in the business for the past 30 years, has taught animal behavior at the University of New Hampshire and in 1993 opened All Dogs Gym, an activity retreat for pooches in Manchester.

"Playing for dogs is no different than playing for humans," she says. "It's a good mental break, good physical activity, a good stress reliever. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, it's healthy."

Whether chasing a ball in the yard or using canine treadmills, exercise or play is vital in helping dogs expend pent-up energy. Without that outlet they may show behavioral problems that can range from destructive tendencies to attention-seeking antics. Just as surely as a couch potato would benefit from a trot around the block, a dog prone to chewing the couch or digging up a garden will find a much-needed release valve in play and exercise. Often, such physical activities form an important part of resolving behavioral issues.

"Play is a phenomenal outlet for the dogs' natural behaviors," Fisher says. "Dogs very often don't get an opportunity to express what comes naturally to them."

15 Minutes of Fun

Lack of playtime opportunities can be a common problem for dogs that are part of a family in which both "parents" work. Yet, as Fisher explains, helping your dog to get exercise through play does not always mean time-consuming walks or a canine Olympic workout: Any level or manner of activity serves a positive purpose.

For the average dog owner, Fisher recommends retrieving as a good game, especially if it involves rewards for the dog. Retrieving is not a terribly time-consuming pursuit - few dogs last more than 15 minutes strenuously chasing a tennis ball or Frisbee.

Don't Get Too Physical

While it would be nice if a healthy dog could run 5 miles with his owner, Fisher says, it is not necessary that the animal's play be interactive with either the owner or other dogs. Indeed, there are potential downsides to interactive play involving two dogs, or even one owner and a pent-up pet.

"Playing with other dogs can be pretty rough. When we play with the dog the way a dog plays with another dog, it very often gets us in trouble," Fisher says. "Dogs like to wrestle and use their mouths. When they are playing with another dog and use their mouths, this mouthing doesn't appear to hurt the other dog but it sure hurts us. I don't recommend that owners wrestle with their dogs for this reason."

For interactive play with a pumped-up pet, it's important to set strict ground rules. "I particularly like tug-of-war as a game, but it has to have very specific rules because it can be dangerous," Fisher says. After all, it should come as no surprise when a dog new to the game gets so excited about winning that his owner becomes part of the contest – resulting in a wrestling match to the bitter end. If you stick to retrieving, though, there is less potential for the game to get out of hand.

Owners who want their pet's play to be more than mere energy burning can help their dog develop coordination and "body awareness" through agility classes. "It's an activity that most dogs love," says Fisher. Agility training is centers around an obstacle course for dogs. It is patterned after show jumping for horses, and involves the dog navigating the correct path through a series of barriers and tests. "Dog agility is becoming very popular – maybe the most popular pursuit ever," Fisher says. Most agility classes require a commitment of several weeks.

For all the obvious physical and emotional benefits of play for a dog, is there then such a thing as bad play? Maybe, Fisher says. "Play by definition isn't bad but it can go over the top and become bad." The trainer knows what she's talking about: Every day her daycare program sees up to 70 dogs playing together, a spectacle that she confesses amounts to a crash course in crisis management.

Start With a Good Diet

All physical activity prescribed for dogs is based on the assumption that the dog is healthy. The ability to indulge in strenuous play begins with the dog's diet, Fisher says: "In my experience, there are dog foods that will contribute to hyperactivity and, conversely, lethargy. The better the dog's diet, the healthier the dog will be."

It is important to note that in the world of canine play, size isn't everything. Just because a particular breed of dog is larger than most does not mean he requires more exercise or play time. Newfoundlands are one of the larger breeds, but they are actually likely to need less physical indulgence than smaller breeds, like the frenetic Parson Russell terrier.

Experts also recommend establishing a regular time for play – as one might arrange play dates for a child. This will help you set a routine that the animal will come to expect. Just don't be surprised if your playful pet resents it if you skip a session – and takes it out on your couch.

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