- Make it EASY to start with
- Cats can play too!
- Be creative
- Don’t leave out the old guys!
It can be hard to focus on teaching your rambunctious puppy at the end of a long day. Interactive food games are enjoyable, easy to play and can involve the whole family. These are guaranteed to bring laughter and fun for you all.
Round Robin Recalls (cat or dog) – Sit in a circle with other family members. Each person should have some treats in their pockets. One person calls the pet’s name and as the puppy or kitten arrives, the person pulls out a treat to feed. As soon as he’s done swallowing the treat, the next person calls. This is a great way to teach your pet his name and that coming when called is completely rewarding.
Hallway Recalls (cat or dog) – Place a treat on the ground and as your puppy is eating it, walk or run in the opposite direction. Just as he finishes the treat and starts to turn, call his name. Reward with a treat from your hand when he gets to you then place another treat on the ground to start the game over. You can also toss a treat. After he gets to it and eats it, recall him back to you.
Here’s a video of this game with an 11-week-old puppy –
Find Me (cat or dog) – Place a few treats on the floor and then move away to “hide”. When your cat finishes the treats, call her name and let her “find” you. For dogs, if they know this game well, you can actually just be silent and let the dog find you. Have a huge party when he finds you. As he gets good at the game, you can make your hiding places harder to find. With young puppies or kittens, start your “hide” by just moving across the room. The next step would be to stand with part of your body behind a piece of furniture or door frame. After your pet is successful with that, try going in the next room.
If there are two of you, you can make this an even more exciting game. Start with your puppy (or kitten) with one of you. Feed a few treats – place them on the floor one at a time while the other person gets in position. Start with a position that’s visible. The person with the pet then says, “Find Mom!” (or Dad or Jack… you get the idea) As your pet starts toward the person they’re “finding” that person makes a HUGE party happen. Don’t wait for your puppy to arrive, start the party as soon as they “find” you. For the first step of this game, that means as soon as they turn around and see you. Feed a couple of treats and then repeat the game, with the puppy finding the first person.
Once your pet is racing to find the other person immediately, you can make it a little harder – hide a part of your body behind a chair or a door jamb. Build this game until your dog is racing across the house looking for you. With cats, the success of this game will depend largely on the age and food motivation of your cat. Try it and see what happens. For cats and kittens, I would use a name call as part of this game to help your cat be successful.
A lovely side benefit of this game is that it’s easy to do at the end of a long day when you don’t have a lot of energy but you have a rambunctious puppy. This is an energy-intensive game for the puppy, but an easy one for the humans. It also tends to result in a lot of laughter and fun so can be nicely rejuvenating at the end of a hard day.
Find It (dog) – This is a nice variation on the Find Me game and you can easily play it with just one person. With your young puppy, make this VERY easy to begin with. Start with your hand on your puppy’s chest and place the treat just a few feet away. Let your puppy see you place the treat. Say “Find It!” and release your puppy. When he “finds” the treat, make a big deal about it! Repeat this a few times. If your puppy’s really enjoying it and it seems easy, progress the game in the following steps:
- Treat is a few feet away
- Treat is farther away but still visible
- Treat is JUST behind the edge of an object
- Treat is around a doorway in the next room
- Treat is up on a low object (visible to your dog at first)
- Treat is JUST under the corner of a towel or bedding (visible to your dog at first)
You get the idea. Eventually, you should be able to have your older puppy or dog in one room, hide the treat in the next room and send him to find it. If your dog loves toys, this is just as much fun to play with a toy. For some dogs using a toy that you can stuff with treats or a simple food puzzle is another way to make this fun.
Food Trail (cat or dog) – Place your pet in a different room (or leave him inside). You can set this up inside or outside; outside will be more difficult. Obviously, for indoor cats, keep this one inside only. Use treats with a strong odor (e.g., hot dogs) and/or that are highly visible (e.g., mozzarella cheese) to start. Cut the treats in small/thin pieces so that you’re not giving a huge meal of calories. Lay the treat pieces in a trail with a small distance between each treat. Initially this might be only a foot. At the end of the trail place a few treats as a jackpot to end the game.
Bring your dog to the trail and point to the first treat. Initially you might have to point out each treat so your dog gets the idea that there’s a whole trail of treats. When he gets to the jackpot, tell him how brilliant he is! As he gets good at this game, you can spread the treats out more. If he gets stuck, “help” him find the next treat.
A variation of this game is a “food scatter” and can be very calming for dogs. Take a handful of treats and gently scatter them on the ground. Let your dog sniff around and find them. I use this often for dogs that are worried at the clinic and as a reward after an exam. It’s a nice thing to do when you arrive home and you want your dog to be a little less jumpy/excited. Place a food scatter and tell your dog in a low, calm voice how good he is.
Catch & Get It (dog) – Teaching your puppy to catch kibble is a fun trick that many people teach. Wait until your puppy is 4-6 months old to start this skill as many pups won’t have the eye/mouth coordination to do this at a younger age. Starting this with larger treats makes it easier. Chasing a treat, on the other hand, is something you can start teaching sooner, certainly by 3 months of age. Place a hand on your puppy’s chest, let him sniff the treat, toss it a short way (just a few feet) then say, “Get It” and release him.
As your puppy understands the game, increase the distance you toss the treat. In fact, I’ll make it more active for my puppy by tossing a treat one way, “Get It!” and as he comes back to me, I’ll say “Get It” then toss one the other way.
The value of using a verbal cue is that you can make it more exciting just by your tone of voice. When your puppy learns “Catch” and “Get It” then you can alternate between them and your puppy learns to listen. In fact, I add in my food scatter cue (which is “Vacuum”) to make it even more fun. Remember to say the cue then reach to get the food from your pocket and either send it spinning along the floor (for “Get It”), soaring in the air (for “Catch), or scatter it on the floor (for “Vacuum”).
Novel Foods or Food Presentations – For puppies so many things are new experiences and just presenting a food they’ve never had before can be a fun game. Try carrot slices, a piece of strawberry, some yogurt, a thin slice of lemon, an ice cube, or a piece of banana. You can put a favorite treat in a paper bag, an empty paper towel roll, or a plastic container.
Try wedging a carrot into the crate bars or stuffing a Kong® with a tasty mixture of kibble, yogurt and a small amount of peanut butter. Place some thin slices of mozzarella and hot dogs inside of crumpled paper (the kind of long pieces of paper you find as stuffing in packages). In short, be creative!
Here’s a video of my puppy, Seeker, experiencing a few novel foods or food presentations:
And this is Seeker’s brother’s first experience with a lemon:
A word of caution – play these games with only one dog at a time. Even easy-going dogs can get competitive about this fun interaction with you and we don’t want any fights. Have them take turns. So, crate (or otherwise manage) one dog while you play with the other.
Each of these games can be played with your senior dogs (and even some cats). Just like with the puppies, start super easy. Make a big deal when your dog “wins”. All of our dogs love to get a cheer and “what a brilliant boy you are!” after succeeding at a new game.
Make sure when you’re playing these games that the surface you’re dog is moving across isn’t slippery – play in carpeted areas or outside. If you’re using high value treats (which is fine), ensure you’re cutting back on the food you’re feeding a little bit as our seniors are more prone to gaining weight. For some seniors, even using their kibble or regular dinner or breakfast will work fine. Let your dog’s response guide you – wagging tail? Eating readily? Moving quickly to the next game? All of these are signs of a dog who loves the game.
Dr. Rachel Blackmer
DVM, Dip ABVP (Canine, Feline), CCRT