ThinkstockMy dogs and I love to tramp the 150 acres of our Almost Heaven Ranch in northern Idaho. For the dogs it's more than a physical workout; their noses are constantly twitching as they breathe in the scents of the woods and fields and the resident wildlife. They alert me to the presence of deer, wolves and other creatures long before I, with my puny senses, would ever have seen them.
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Hiking with my dogs is one of the greatest joys of my life, and it has more benefits than just exercise and the pleasure of being outdoors. Spending time together is one of the ways we build relationships, whether those bonds are with people or animals. So is communication and working toward a common goal.
You can strengthen your relationship with your dog in a number of ways, from going on regular walks or hikes to learning and competing in dog sports - even just practicing tricks and obedience commands for a few minutes each day. Here are some of the most fun ways you and your dog can build a bond.
More Than Training Teaching your dog isn't just a way to get him to do the things you want - it's a powerful form of communication. Once you know how to teach your dog, there's no end to what he can learn and do, as long as it doesn't require opposable thumbs. Here are a couple of great ways to get started.
1. Puppy kindergarten. It's never too early to start building a bond with your dog. You can sign your new pup up for class starting at 10 weeks (after he's had his first set of vaccinations). A good trainer will help you teach your puppy the essential skills - sit, down, come and stay - as well as how to communicate with him throughout his life. With that foundation, you and your dog can go on to learn all kinds of things together.
2. Canine Good Citizen. Once your dog has a little experience under his collar, you can work toward his ability to be polite in public places. All the things he needs to know to be a civilized member of society are encompassed in the Canine Good Citizen test. To pass it, dogs must demonstrate that they can perform certain commands, sit nicely while a stranger touches and grooms them, and respond with equanimity to startling sights and sounds, such as an umbrella being opened unexpectedly or an object clattering when dropped. These skills will prepare him for participating in dog sports, not to mention just making him all-around nicer to live with.
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Games and Sports There's nothing wrong with walks, hikes and playtime at home for spending time with your dog; they're easy, free and can be done whenever your schedule allows. But if you want to stretch yourself as a trainer and bring out your dog's full abilities, try adding one of these fun activities.
3. Agility. If your dog can leap a fence in a single bound, crawl on his belly in the space behind the sofa, and fly through the park at light speed, he might be a candidate for this canine version of track-and-field events. Agility dogs - guided through the course by their handler (you) - must negotiate a series of obstacles such as A-frames, tunnels, jumps, teeter-totters and weave poles. You can do it just for fun or compete for titles.
4. Flyball. This relay race involves four hurdles and a tennis ball. The twist? The dogs operate the equipment that delivers the tennis ball. A flyball team has a minimum of four dogs and five people per team. Two teams race each other over a 51-foot course lined with four jumps. At the end of the course is a spring-loaded box that ejects a tennis ball when the dog steps on it. The dog must catch the tennis ball and race back over the hurdles, crossing the starting line before the next dog goes. The first team to run without errors wins. Dogs earn points toward flyball titles based on a team's time.
5. Nose work. The object of this game is for the dog to find a particular odor - such as birch, anise or clove - and alert his handler to the find by sitting, looking at the person or giving some other indication. It can be played indoors or outdoors on all types of surfaces and in all conditions, including rain and snow. Like agility, you can play it for fun or compete for titles.
6. Trick training. Who doesn't love a dog who can jump through a hoop, shake hands or twirl on his hind legs? Teaching tricks is a wonderful way to engage your dog's mind, exercise his body and give him an entertaining outlet for interacting with people. All you need to get started is a clicker and some treats. You can find lots of books on teaching tricks, and some trainers offer trick-training classes.