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The Drawbacks of Playing Keep-Away Games With Your Dog

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.


Does Your Dog Love to Play Keep Away With You?

Raise your hand if you have ever played a game of "keep away" with your dog. If you are scratching your head wondering what in the world a "keep away game" is, then you certainly deserve an explanation. Actually, you will need several explanations, such as why this game can be quite counterproductive and why you should invest time in playing alternate games.

In this article, we will be covering the following topics.

  • We will see what keep away is and why dogs are naturally drawn to play this game.
  • A variant form of the keep-away game.
  • Watch a dog playing keep-away in action and its associated body language.
  • Three big problems with playing keep-away games with your dog.
  • Seven alternative, productive games you want to play with your dog.
  • When keep away gets serious and why caution is needed when dogs get a hold of items they don't want you to take from them.

Introducing the Keep-Away Game

The "keep away game" is a favorite game among dogs; indeed, they love to play this game with other dogs and even their beloved owners if they're open to it. It's a game that dogs love to play because it comes naturally to them; no learning is required. You'll see puppies and dogs play it without ever being taught it. Requirements involve an owner willing to run a bit (or at least willing to try to) and a dog loving to be chased.

Most likely, your dog has invited you to play this game many times in the past. It usually starts with a play bow with the tail wildly wagging side-to-side while your dog looks at you, and perhaps barks at you excitedly. Your dog's eyes are bright and his body is quivering in anticipation. Then, as you slightly move towards your dog, your dog abruptly swifts away in hopes of you trying to catch him. If dogs could talk, their excited barks would say: "Come and get me, catch me if you caaaaannn!"

Coincidentally, this behavior seems to occur right when you seriously need to get a hold of your dog. It's almost as if he's reading your mind that it's time to leave the dog park or go back inside after being in the yard and most likely he really does know what comes next, especially if you have rehearsed the chasing behavior several times in the past.

So there you are, you're moving towards your dog, and right when he's within your arm's reach and you're about to grab the collar, he swerves away making you look like a total idiot. If you find it more easy to grip slippery fish you know what I mean.

A Variant Game of "Keep Away"

The game may gain an even more fun twist if the dog happens to grab something in his mouth. He comes close to you to show you his prize and then tells you in doggy language tells "You want this? You really want it? Then, come and get it!" followed by your dog running away.

Quite often, to the owner's discontent, the item chosen is something he is not supposed to have. Again, your dog isn't being naughty or spiteful when he does this. He has just learned through past associations that only when he grabs this particular item, you activate yourself and show interest in playing this game.

So, if every time your dog grabs your expensive Victoria Secret bra and you start screaming and chasing your dog room to room, congratulations! You have just trained your dog to love this game more and more!

Positive Reinforcement Training at Work

Now, keep in mind that in behavior science behaviors that are reinforced, tend to repeat, (that's the power of positive reinforcement training) so if you have given in and involuntarily played this game with your dog in the past, he'll likely want to play it with you more and more!

You may think though, "How can my dog really like this game if every time I'm smoking mad and cursing as I'm trying to catch him or retrieve the item he got a hold of?" Most likely, your dog thinks your behavior repertoire is all part of the game.

Yes, perhaps your play behavior is a bit odd, but since you're chasing him every time, your dog perhaps may think that you must be at least having some fun. And even if he doubted it sometimes, the adrenaline rush from being chased will supersede, and possibly, cancel out your frustrated behavior.

Not to mention that if you were out at work all day and your dog was home alone, even that little bit of negative attention is much appreciated compared to no attention at all! So your dog this way gets a kick out of a fun game, and on top of that, a big bonus, your attention. He'll likely feel like he hit the jackpot!

So now you know it. Whether you just chased your dog to get him or to retrieve that precious item he has in his mouth, you are now involved in the keep-away game with your dog. After all, it takes two to tango, but what's the big problem with this game? Although this can look like a rather innocent game, it can have deleterious effects.

I hate to be a party pooper, but in the next paragraphs I will provide some details as to why I don't recommend playing this game to my clients. And this applies to both frustrated owners who are trying to desperately catch their dogs or those happy owners who just love to play the game.

Two Dogs Playing the "Keep Away" Game With a Toy

Two Dogs Playing the "Keep Away" Game With a Toy

The Problems With Playing Keep Away With Dogs

So your dog loves to play keep away, that's a fact. Now, there are several problems that you may not see at the very moment, but that may pop up one day and even lead to some serious consequences. So here are the potential problems.

Your Dog Will Play Hard-to-Catch

This can be annoying at the dog park or when he's in the yard and you want him inside, but it can get dangerous at times when you need your dog to stop. For instance, the kids of a client of mine played keep away with their dog regularly, and one day, they were unable to catch him when he suddenly bolted out of the door and ran towards traffic.

Attempts to catch him were close to zero as he had a poor recall and every time they got closer, he bolted farther away. Keep away games risk having your dog going, going and soon gone if you don't find more constructive games to play with your four-legged pal.

Your Dog Will Grab Things and Not Give Them Back

OK, catching your Victoria Secret bra may be funny after all, but what if your dog grabs a battery or piece of baker's chocolate (the most harmful type of a chocolate a dog may have) you have left on the counter? Most likely, the moment you see your dog grabbing these dangerous items you will "activate" and your dog will sense the start of the game. He'll likely run off with the dangerous item, and if he really wants to keep the item out of your reach, he may even decide to gulp it down faster than you can retrieve it.

It Puts a Dent in Your Training

Reality check: If you have played keep away with your dog for quite some time, it will be more challenging training your dog a strong recall and training the "leave it" and "drop it" cues which are life-saving cues because they can prevent your dog from accessing harmful things and ingesting them.

So if you have played keep away with your dog for a long time, how can you remedy the situation? Is it all lost? Not really, there are several ways to remedy the situation. First and foremost, stop playing this game with your dog, start working on training your dog and if you have a playful dog and wish to continue playing fun games with him, invest time in playing alternate games.

7 Alternate Games to Play

Everybody loves playing with their dogs, but some games are much better than others. Great games incorporate fun, pave the path for a bonding experience, provide mental stimulation and even add some foundational training elements. Here are some great games to play as alternatives to playing keep away.

1. Come-and-Get-Me Game

If your dog loves to be chased, most likely he likes to run, so it doesn't hurt to do some role reversal. From now on, don't give in to your dog's invitations to chase him, rather, have him chase you! And when he reaches you, praise and reward with some tasty treats.

You can even put the game on cue. I like to say "come and get me!" in an excited tone of voice and my dogs come running trying to catch me. When your dog catches up on you (most dogs do very quickly, so give yourself a head start with some distance) give him a treat or play a game of tug with him.

2. Hide-and-Seek Game

If you want to make the game even more fun, turn it into hide-n-seek. Put your dog in a sit/stay or down/stay, then hide somewhere and yell "come and get me!"

Your dog will come looking for you and when he reaches you, remember to reward him lavishly. This way, should you ever need your dog to move away from a situation, you can re-direct him to chase you instead of running away.

3. Round-Robin Game

Another fun game is to train recalls doing round-robin sessions. When my Rottweilers were young, my husband and I used to place each other at a distance and would call our dogs back and forth in a fun game that my dogs always looked forward to playing.

With this game, my dogs learned to look forward to being called as it was fun to play and they got rewarded for coming to us. With time, we significantly increased distance, if space permitted. We were even 100 meters apart and our dogs were always eager for the run.

4. Collar-Touch Game

Puppies should also be trained from a young age to accept collar touches. We can turn it into a fun game called the "collar touch" game. Start randomly moving towards your dog to give him a treat. Then, moving towards him, lightly touch the collar and give a treat, then moving towards him, grab the collar and give a treat, then grab the collar and walk with your dog a few steps giving treats as he walks next to you.

If you do this often enough, your puppy will look forward to being "grabbed" by the collar. Trained correctly, he won't swerve away but will rather linger nearby almost in hopes of being "grabbed!"

This can also be taught to older dogs, but please be careful and consult with your dog trainer/behavior consultant if your dog resents collar grabs as this will take a more graded approach. According to Dog Star Daily, a good 20 percent of dog bites takes place when an owner is attempting to grab a dog by the scruff or collar. For more on this, read my article on dog collar sensitivity.

Moral of the story? Make being around you always a pleasurable event. If you are at the dog park (I am not so fond of these, but let's use it just for the sake of an example), nothing will beat calling your dog, giving him a treat and sending him back to play. Your dog will think you're the most wonderful person on the planet and will thank you. You can almost hear him saying to his four-legged buddies: "Wow, my owner just called me, and instead of clipping the leash on and taking me away from my buddies he not only gave me a treat but also sent me back to play!"

And what about when you must leave for real? Make it fun! Give him a treat and then when the leash goes on, get your tug toy out and play some fun tug or toss treats as you walk together and let him go on an "on-the-go" treasure hunt. Make this a routine he looks forward to. Don't be surprised if day after day he starts stopping to play to just check on you and hope it's time to play his favorite games with you on his way home.

5. Two-Toy Fetch Game

At the present moment, I have a dog who was taught how fun keep away is when he grabs an item. The owner would like him to learn the drop it command because he gets a hold of things he shouldn't. This is going to take some time.

For the time being, I am forced to keep him leashed because earlier in the yard, he showed me the intent to grab a hold of a dead lizard and of course he would run off with it and possibly eat if he didn't want me to have it. We, unfortunately, stumble on dead critters every now and then and it's hard for me to inspect the whole yard because it's a whole fenced acre.

On top of that, we have naughty vultures who like to eat their meals on the electric poles and being the sloppy eaters as they are, they always drop a few bones here and there! My goal is to teach him that when he drops things, wonderful things happen. So in these days, I have taught him the two-toy fetch game. It's a modified version of fetch, using two toys rather than one:

How do you play this game?

  1. Get two toys that are fun to toss and that your dog finds equally appealing. (This dog likes stuffed animals and he has a nice repertoire of them, so I have been using them to my advantage.)
  2. Grab one toy and toss it.
  3. Let him grab it in his mouth. (Usually, when he has a toy in his mouth, he would run away with it, but we want to extinguish this habit.)
  4. Instead of chasing him when he has a toy in his mouth, stimulate his predatory drive by moving the other toy around until he's eager to have it.
  5. At this point, toss it and he'll drop the toy he already has in his mouth. Rinse and repeat this exercise over and over.

What is he learning in this case?

Well, first off, he is no longer rehearsing the catch-me behavior which is good. On top of that, he's learning that good things happen when he drops the toy in his mouth. So he also gains some trust since he learns that when I am around, I am not trying to remove the toy in his mouth, but I am actually giving him another toy that is even more fun than the one in his mouth since it's moving! He's doing very well so far, and he looks forward to the game.

6. The "Drop It" Game

On top of that, we'll also play the "drop it" game. We'll start creating a conditioned response to the words "drop it". These words need to become music to a dog's ears. We teach this even before he has an item in his mouth so through associative learning he learns to associate the word with eating delicacies.

This method was coined by reputable Certified Pet Dog Trainer and Pet Behaviour Counsellor working in the UK, Chirag Patel. His video on training drop it is featured below. Although it may seem odd to those who have trained "drop it" the traditional way, I can assure this is one of the most powerful ways to train a reliable drop it.

One word of caution on the drop it command: you need to do refresher sessions every now and then to keep it from getting rusty. Also, consider that a drop it command is important, but so is the leave it command. Make a commitment to teach both.

7. "Say Ahhhhh" Game

With puppies, I like to condition them as well from a young age to having their mouths opened, you may never know what life throws out at you and one day, the drop it command for some reason may not work or the item may be hard to get out of the pups' mouth (think some sticky material that can be harmful) so you may need to manually open your pup's mouth to remove it.

I teach this by having the pup hold an object and then gently open his mouth to remove the object and will then immediately pop in the mouth a high-value treat that is far more valuable than the object removed. After some time, most pups will be eager (or at least collaborative) in having you open their mouth. This works great as well to getting those young pups used to having their teeth brushed and having the vet check their mouth for their future routine examinations.

As seen, there are great alternatives to the keep-away game and your dog will love these games. If you own a puppy, start him on the right foot, so you can prevent major problems, and if you own an adult dog, it's never too late to turn the tables in your favor.

Teaching a Strong "Drop It" Command

Always Exercise Caution

One important caveat to keep in mind: Many dogs like to play the keep-away game, but some dogs aren't really playing or some dogs may be playing until they get ahold of something really valuable and things then turn serious.

These dogs have a serious intent to grab the stolen item and keep it out of your reach. Keep-away may start as an innocent game but some dogs may become more and more protective especially if you manage to remove the item from them over and over. One day, a dog may just run off with the item, the next he may be growling and baring his teeth to tell you off.

Please be careful! Trying to grab the item back may be dangerous and things get worse if employ aversive methods such as scolding your dog and grabbing his mouth to remove the item.

Work With a Professional

Behavior modification comes with risks. If your dog ever shows or has ever shown aggressive displays towards you in the past, please report to a dog behavior professional using force-free methods.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 31, 2015:

Thank you Besarien, there are many dog games that are great, but the keep away dog game though comes with drawbacks.

Besarien from South Florida on March 30, 2015:

Great article! Few friends in life bring more joy than a great pet.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 13, 2015:

Thanks so much for the votes up Suhail! You own an independent breed, so coming when called can be challenging. I never had the the pleasure to work with a kuvasz, but last summer had a Pry and I had to use Leslie Nelson's Really Reliable Recall methods to get some results. As a good livestock guardian this dog very oriented towards doing perimeter checks of our yard and clearly told me in doggy language that she had better things to do rather than training, so she really needed extra motivation to get started before reaping the rewards of training.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on January 13, 2015:

And a great video on'drop' command to go along with the hub.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on January 13, 2015:

Ohmy DAWG! I have to practice recall. My kuvasz has got a poor recall. He does come back sooner than later, but not when called.

Great lesson. I will work on these as well.

Found your hub to be awesome and voted up!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 13, 2015:

Thanks for the votes up Tilsontitan, I think both commands are equally important and dogs should be trained to listen to both. "Leave it" is used when your dog is about to get into something, and drop it is helpful once the dog has already something in his mouth. So if say my Rottie is about to pick up a dead bird I can stop him in his tracks by saying leave it, but if I don't see him picking up the dead bird and it's already in his mouth, the drop it command will have him spit it out of his mouth.

Mary Craig from New York on January 13, 2015:

This was intriguing. My dog was taught "leave it" but I think your "drop" works better. Of course I'll have to go read your "leave it" to see if we're on the same page.

My dog is very food obsessed and this is sometimes a disadvantage as well as an advantage.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting. Loved the video.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on January 12, 2015:

Dogs have always been such great friends and your suggestions sound most helpful.