Motivation, Part 2: Play!

I was out with my 2-1/2 year old the other day, walking across a big open space when two other small children ran by her. She immediately forgot about me and started to chase the other girls. As I watched her in surprise, I was reminded of a similar incident that I observed with a friend several years ago, as she was running her dog along an agility course. The dog was running perfectly, following every cue, until a low-flying crow crossed her path. As if caught on a hook, she instantly forgot her handler and followed the crow as it flew to the other side of the field. She only stopped because there was a fence at the end.

I know how much people hate it when we compare children to dogs, yet we are constantly reminded of how similar their reactions can be.  When working with my clients and their dogs, one of the mantras that I continually repeat is that they have to do what they can to remain “more interesting than dirt” to their dogs. We all know how interesting dirt can be, with all its smells and hidden information to them. As it turns out, with children, we may not be competing with dirt, but definitely with the environment.

Playing at the beach

Running and chasing is good play

Going for walks through the neighborhood, the dogs stop to smell every bush and leaf that we pass, checking their “pee-mail” as many people lightheartedly say. The youngster stops at each flower, or to pick up pretty rocks or cool sticks along the way. To keep her interest and keep her moving along, I tell her stories and point out other interesting things further along the path. And there is plenty of praise to reinforce her for moving along and following my instruction.  Similarly, when my dogs are moving along on a loose leash, I reinforce them with plenty of praise and positive feedback.

Of course, it’s may be more intuitive to play with human children than with dogs, since we are humans after all, adapted to rearing children. But the concepts are similar. I tell people to play with their dogs in order to strengthen the bond, and thus have dogs that want to work for them and are more focused. As parents, we are encouraged to play with our children as well, to improve our relationships and help them feel special.  I have noticed that, outside of our close family, the people whom our daughter most enjoys are those who play little games with her or do interactive things with her.

So get out there and play with your dogs and your kids! There are games and activities that you can all play together, such as fetch. Whatever you do, have fun and you’ll find that your kids and your dogs will prefer your company over others.

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