To play a game with an animal is an experience highly contingent upon the animal in question. Dogs and cats tend to enjoy different kinds of games, and even individual dogs or cats will prefer different activities depending on their personalities, capacities, etc. My parents’ cat will obsessively chase after, pounce upon, and paw at the spinning feathers of the lure on his fishing rod cat toy. However, the idea of fetching a thrown item seems entirely alien to him. If understood at all, it is only as an affront to his feline dignity. By contrast, my brother’s 3-year-old Australian Shepherd, Hertta, will happily retrieve sticks for hours, but lacks a cat’s hunting instinct.
I spent last-weekend dog-sitting Hertta and want to offer a review of a few of the games that we played together from the perspective of someone who has spent very little time with dogs. These games include such classics of the human-dog play repertoire as ‘throwing and fetching’ and ‘tug-of-war’, to the less codified ‘free-form running, chasing, and barking’. Clearly the reviews are highly subjective, not only because they reflect my personal experience, but also importantly, those of Hertta.
The most iconic variant of ‘fetch’ uses a stick, and its structure is both simple and well-known: the human participant throws the stick, and their canine counterpart fetches it. Single player versions of this game are possible. Hertta certainly seemed to enjoy wrestling with fallen branches. However, the human single player mode is not quite as satisfying and can lead to strange looks.
Despite being so well-known as to be entirely unremarkable, fetch still entails a relatively improvisational and freeform relationship to the urban environment that subverts many of our usual relationships to its spaces and object. Unremarkable things suddenly assume great value as one scours the ground for the right stick to throw, and routes are chosen not for their efficiency, but to facilitated better playing.
Weather can also be a big modifier for ‘fetch’. While Hertta enjoys the classic game mode, in the recent snowy conditions, she particularly enjoyed attempting to fetch thrown clumps of snow. Watching her pounce into the white expanse attempting to find an object that had now become part of a fungible mass was very funny.
‘Tug of War’
‘Tug of war’ is another classic dog-based game, only this time one that pits humanity against a beastly opponent. Its basic form entails holding onto a piece of rope, a toy, a branch, etc. while your dog attempts to wrench it from you. This is an excellent game for when you’re tired, watching something, and/or it’s both icy and rainy outside. Based on the amount of determined growling and snarling that it produces from Hertta, she seems to really enjoy this game. She will often bring a toy to you to let you know that it’s time to play. As fun as this game is for the human participant, it can be tiring on the arms.
‘Free-form running, chasing, and barking’
Free-form running, chasing, and barking is a game best suited for empty parks. You run around with your dog, prompting excited barking as its herding instinct kicks in. Wavy, zigzag paths and lots of encouraging talking seem to make this game much more enjoyable for Hertta. However, be careful! This game can lead to a little too much excited barking and jumping, so requires moderation.
There are many other classic dog-based games that I didn’t have room to review here. Perhaps next time my brother goes away for the weekend, I can continue my research in this important field of study and prepare another report.
All images taken by the author or their brother.