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5 Running Games to Play With Your Dog

A few minutes — or even a few steps — are all you need to add joy to your dog’s day.

by Karen B. London, PhD
July 28, 2022
Owner and black dog running outside against blue backdrop
Guille Faingold / Stocksy

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Your dog wants to be on the move. This doesn’t mean you need to take them on luxurious hikes every day (though they’d be obsessed with you if you did). There is a simple way you can keep those four legs moving while not exhausting you, the already overworked and tired biped: Play games with your dog.

Not only will play help your bond grow, but regular exercise keeps your dog flexible as they age, helps control their weight, and allows them to burn off some of that excess energy. If your pup isn’t into “typical” dog stuff like fetch, running games can inspire most dogs to get moving. Here are five quick running games to play with your pup.

1. Chase The Person.

This game is simple: You run and your dog chases you. Yep, that’s it. Clap or make a “smooch” sound to get your dog’s attention, and then excitedly run away from them, so they follow you. When they’re within a few feet of you, turn and reinforce them with a treat or a toy. Stopping before they reach you prevents the chase game from turning into the “nip the human on the back of the leg” game for those Heelers. One important warning: Don’t play the “chase the dog” game — it will teach them to run away when you approach and ruin their recall.

2. On Your Mark, Get Set, Go.

Combine a little trick-training and self-control practice with running. You’ll need to teach your dog to associate a few of their regular basic obedience moves with new cues to do this game. Teach your dog to lie down when you say, “On your mark,” do a play bow to the signal, “Get set,” and start running when you say, “Go.” So cute.

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3. Fartlek.

Runners worldwide use fartlek training to increase their speed. The word fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish and refers to the practice of interspersing short bursts of speed within a training run. To play with your dog fartlek style, surge ahead of them by a few paces, and chances are your dog will happily follow your lead. Then slow down to a walk. When you’re ready, surge ahead and start over again. (And yes, even serious runners think it’s a funny word.)

4. Hard to Get.

This short keep-away game can jump-start a play session. Squeak, bounce, or wave a toy around to get your dog’s attention as you run away from them. Just make sure you don’t tease them by playing keep-away too long. The excitement created by a moment of playing hard to get can start another game, but going on too long without giving your dog access to the toy can result in frustration or anger rather than playfulness.

5. Zig-Zag.

People who are unpredictable in their movements are fascinating to dogs. With that in mind, use the “zig-zag” game to get and keep your dog’s attention. Hold a bunch of yummy treats to lure your dog to your side, then start moving away from them. Change speed and direction often, so they never know what you are going to do next. For example, run five steps, turn and jog slowly for 10, then execute a quick reverse and sprint in the opposite direction. Offer them praise and treats every time they’re right by your side, and keep yourself moving in various directions to keep them guessing.

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Karen London holding up a small dog

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.