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Gamify Your Walks: Using Games on Walks with Your Dog with Alisha Ardiana of Empawthy

When you’re walking a sensitive dog in the Bay Area, you may have a dog who barks and lunges when people or dogs approach. That feels awful right? It’s scary, frustrating and super embarrassing. 

If you look for training advice, you may be told to teach your dog an alternative behavior to prevent the barking and lunging. Many people may try to teach their dog to sit and look at them when they encounter that jogger or dog. This may make you, the person, feel better, but does it really provide your dog with a sense of safety? If the only option you’re giving your dog is to sit, and your dog is unable to perform that behavior, you may conclude that you tried positive reinforcement, and it didn’t work. You may decide to put the dog on a short leash, to control their behavior and keep the public safe. You may even believe you need a prong or shock collar to change the behavior. 

A dog sits inside of a bike ring

I do agree that if you want your dog to stop doing something, you need to give them something else to do. In this case, let’s think about the function of the barking and lunging. Let’s ask ourselves - what would we do if something problematic was approaching us? If you and I are hiking in Golden Gate Park, and we see a coyote in the distance, we’d probably stop and wait to see which way it was going. I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t sit down. 

If a coyote was coming towards us, we would stop going forward and we’d move away. We might wave our arms and yell to scare the coyote away. 

So let’s adapt our training strategy: If you want your dog to stop doing something, give them something else to do - THAT ALSO MEETS THEIR NEED FOR SAFETY. In most cases, this will involve some form of movement. You want to teach your dog that there are behaviors they can engage in besides barking and lunging that will still give them a sense of safety (and that also happen to be fun!) Over time and with repetition, your dog will internalize that: 

“We see A, we do B.”

“We see X, we do Y.”

“We see people, we play games, people go away.”

“We see dogs, we play games, dogs go away.”

I think back to when I was a kid. So many of my favorite games involved stillness and movement. Why? These games are engaging, predictable, FUN, and are also fantastic outlets for releasing stress, adrenaline, or pent up energy. 

Freeze Tag

Freeze Dance

Red Light, Green Light

Red Rover, Red Rover

Duck Duck Goose

Mother, May I?

Sharks and Minnows

Let’s see how we can take this concept and apply it to our walks. We’ll start with two extremely simple games. 


The first game I teach any dog to play is “Up.” Up means the dog puts four paws on an object. Sometimes this is called “stationing.” 

It can be a rock, a log, a bench, the steps of a Victorian. Make sure it’s something that’s easy and stable for them to jump on, and that it’s physically comfortable for them to do so. Something to keep in mind: the average dog can jump 1 to 3 times their height. But a good rule of thumb is that if your dog is jumping down, it shouldn’t be anything higher than shoulder height. Dogs don’t have collar bones, so it’s very easy for them to get a shoulder injury. When, in doubt, always go for the shortest thing your dog can jump on. 

Another thing to understand. Dogs walk on their toes. It’s often very difficult for a dog to jump up on furniture from hardwood floors. So rugs or yoga mats, can often make this easier in the house.

To teach the game, you’re not going to use any language at first. If your dog is trying to figure out how to get the chicken out of your hand, that’s not the time to learn language. But to start, you can show your dog the food, and use the food to lure them up onto the object. You’re demonstrating to your dog that as soon as they put four paws on an object, they get fed. Make sure you’re using a high value food reinforcer. 

Dogs are very literal. So if you continue to use the lure, the dog may believe “Human has food, I jump up.” So as soon as possible, get that food out of your hand, and point to the object.

When the dog jumps up on the object, then feed your dog.

Once you have pointed at the same thing, 5 times in a row, and 5 times in a row, your dog has jumped up on it successfully, try naming it. 

Say the word “Up” and wait a second. 

Some dogs will jump up, and then you feed them. 

Some dogs will look at you blankly. 

If your dog looks at you blankly, do not repeat the word. Follow it by the point.

Resist the temptation to say “Up” ” WHILE you are pointing.  If you’re talking and using body language, that’s too confusing. Start small, and start easy, with just a few repetitions on each walk. 

When we ask our dogs to play “Up”, we are stopping in place. I ONLY choose this game when I know we aren’t going to be interrupted by whatever is approaching us. I think of it this way: 

“Life is a game of tag, and when we play “Up,” we’re on base. We’re safe.” I won’t choose this game if the approaching person (or dog) is heading straight towards us. Fear gets worse when things get closer, and we can’t get away. This is a great game to play when people or dogs are at a distance or are moving away from us. 



So simple: teach your dog to chase treats. This is when I reach for a chicken or cheese, white moving objects are the easiest to see. Say “Go” and gently toss a treat starting from your dog’s nose outward on the ground. Just toss it a few inches away, so your dog will be successful. Work up to tossing the treat a little further away, or in a different direction. This can be a great game in and of itself. It gives your dog something to focus on besides a passing jogger, or a passing dog. It can help your dog move away from something that might be bothering them. And it’s fun!

“Go” can also be a marker word. A marker word means the dog's behavior is going to result in a treat. For example: Ask your dog to sit. If you say “yes” and pop that treat in your dog’s mouth, that’s fine. But here’s the secret. It’s way more fun to ask your dog to sit, then say “Go”, and toss the treat. You’re telling your dog, “Your behavior is going to result in a treat, and this is how the treat will be delivered.” Remember, dogs are opportunistic scavengers. It’s more fun for your dog to chase down a treat than to sit there and get it delivered to their mouth. 

Put these two games together, and voila! The “Up/Go” game. Just these two simple games can improve your walks so much, empower your dog, and increase their feelings of safety and predictability. 

To play either of these games, I recommend a long leash. You can’t play the “Go” game when your dog can’t go anywhere. I recommend an 8 or a 10 foot High Tail Hikes leash for most walks and outings, especially when you’re just getting started with longer leashes.

I also recommend trying out these games in locations where you’re able to easily create distance from things that may be worrisome to your dog. High Tail Hikes has a helpful blog series about choosing locations for an enrichment outing with your dog. Practice until the behaviors are fluid, and then you can start to practice in environments that may be a little more challenging. As always, if you’re struggling with reactivity or aggression, or simply want to further improve your relationship with your dog, consult a certified positive reinforcement trainer.

Give these games a try, work on it every day, and see if your walks get any easier. 


About the Author

Alisha Ardiana (She/her) BS, CTBC, CPDT-KA, FDM ~ Positive reinforcement for pups & their people

Definitely follow my Instagram, @ajardiana

I post frequently about the work I do with my walking clients and our Papillon Civetta. 

And if you’re in the Bay Area, and you’re still struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out.

My goal is to help guardians learn how to support and care for their dog’s unique needs. Many of us are just trying to survive, but through play and connection, I think we can thrive.