If you're anything like most dog owners (or at least anything like me), you probably spend more time hanging out with your dog than you spend with most other humans. That's okay. Dogs are great. But what are you doing during that time? If your answer is always "Netflix and chill," then your dog probably isn't getting as much out of the hang time as you are. Dogs are playful creatures and, as such, they need a healthy dose of play in their lives. Since you're their No. 1 favorite entity in the universe, they especially love it when that play can be with you.
What games should you play with your dog, though? Here's a quick little guide to the games that dogs like best and why—and don't worry, these are games that won't cost you more than your time because they can all be played with standard dog toy staples you already have lying around (like, all around—dog parenting is a messy business, right?) the house.
Why is playing games important for your dog?
Play is very important for dogs, both in their puppy stages and in their adult lives. Dogs love to play with each other (duh), by themselves (as anyone who's ever seen a dog totally destroy a chew toy knows), and, of course, with humans. Each kind of play fulfills a different need for dogs. When they play alone, they're exercising some of those predatory instincts that we've mostly eliminated the need for. Your dog doesn't have to hunt and kill his own meals, but that instinct to tear apart a squeaky little creature is still buried deep within him—thus the joy he gets dismembering a fluffy chew toy.
Play with others, whether that other is another dog or a human, fulfills a lot of important doggo needs—and acts as a major source of intel. Because dogs are such social creatures, they need to interact with other beings (both dogs and humans) to feel those happy pupper feels, but their highly-social nature also means that playing with others is one of the main ways your dog learns about the world and about the dogs and humans he's playing with (he can also learn a lot by just watching two other dogs or humans play and interact). Play is the healthiest way for dogs express their dominance with each other and determine their own place in the proverbial pack. When it comes to playing with humans, it's a way to learn what we want from them (the drive for lots of play with us came right along with the selective breeding we did that made dogs so trainable and created different breeds with natural urges to perform specific tasks) and to bond with us.
tl;dr: Play is important for your dog. It lets him exercise his wilder instincts in a healthy, human home-friendly way. It lets him get to know other dogs and what they're all about and to read social situations. And, when it's done with humans in particular, it reinforces dogs' trainability and strengthens the human/dog bond.
Why is playing games important for you?
And as if the benefits to the main pup in your life weren't enough (they are), play is important for you too. There's a ton of emerging research that shows that engaging in regular play is a key way for adult humans to reduce stress and increase their overall well-being. Since humans are also social creatures, play also helps us increase a sense of connection, meaning that playing with your dog with strengthen the bond on both sides.
The more you know, right?
Okay, so at this point, you should be thoroughly convinced that, yes, you should play with your dog. Now, what are the best games to play? Here are the games dogs like best.
Tug-of-War is a cheap, easy game that your dog LOVES (and that you might too, TBH). All you need to get started is a rope, old towel, or any stuffed toy that's long enough for you and your dog to grab onto at the same time.
Dogs love tug for a lot of reasons. There are a couple of theories about the primal itches the activity scratches. When dogs get really into tug, they tend to shake the toy (or rope or old towel) violently from side to side, which, in real-world terms, mimics the way a wild dog would shake (and kill) its prey. Another theory? Apparently, in the old days, wild dogs would frequently hunt small animals that hid in burrows and getting them out of those tiny hiding spots required some of the same skills that dogs practice with tug of war today.
In addition to meeting some of your dog's primal needs, tug-of-war is a great way for the two of you to bond and for you to build your pup's confidence. You don't want to let your dog win every game (they would lose interest if you did, anyway), but if you let your dog win a round of tug every now and then, it will build up his confidence and reduce potential anxiety.
Fetch is another popular dog game with a low barrier to entry. All you need is something to throw (you can go with the classic, dog-loved tennis ball or anything else that you can throw and your dog can carry back to you). Fetch is a great option for dogs for a few reasons. First, it's an amazing source of exercise and just playing it gives your pup a rush of endorphins (which explains the dopey smile on his face when you play).
Second, if you have a retriever (or a retriever mix), fetch will activate the instincts that have been trained into your dog's breed for generations. This makes it not just fun, but satisfying on a really primal level, especially for a modern dog who is wired for a job he doesn't actually have to perform.
Chase is literally the cheapest game you can play with your dog. It requires just your dog and you—and, obviously , enough space to run around in. There is a catch though: Experts say you should avoid playing the version of chase where you're It. In other words, only play chase if your dog is chasing you, never the other way around. If you chase your dog as a game, he might learn to run when you approach him because he thinks it's play time. This could be annoying, clearly, but also dangerous, like if you happen to be outside and your dog runs into the street to start the game.
Hide and Seek
Hide and Seek is another game that will be as much fun for you as it is for your dog. It works because, for your dog, it's a scent game. You can play in a few ways. You can hide yourself by putting your dog in a sit stay, hiding, and then calling his release word to start the hunt. You can also hide one of his favorite toys and then release him to search for it. Either way, the game engages your dog's sense of smell and exercises his brain.