Terriers are working dogs, bred to root vermin out of holes. They have more energy than most people can conceive and can going long after other dogs want a nap. Bear this in mind before you welcome a terrier into your home. They can be small, but they don’t always make good lap dogs. They’re far better suited to active lifestyles that include dog sports and activities.
To keep your sanity and keep your terrier out of trouble, you need to channel that zeal and enthusiasm into acceptable outlets. If you lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle, either choose another breed, or embrace activities like hiking and cycling.
Remember that providing mental stimulation is as important as meeting your terrier’s physical exercise needs. Training and dog sports cater to both types of needs. There are also a number of games that you can play at home that will challenge your terrier’s brain and keep them fit and flexible.
Here are some great games, sports and activities that you and your terrier will love.
Dog sports and activities
Canine Freestyle/Dog Dancing
Canine freestyle (musical freestyle, musical canine freestyle, freestyle dance, dog dancing) involves putting tricks and heelwork to music. It won’t tax your terrier physically but the brain work involved is phenomenal – for you and your terrier. After a good training session even the most active of terriers is likely to want a nice long nap.
Dancing with dogs has grown in popularity around the world, with canine freestyle associations in most countries. There are regional, national and international canine freestyle competitions. For those with stage fright, there are also digital (video) competitions. These allow people from all over the world to compete in the same competition without having to travel. Video international qualifications are a great way to advance in the sport without subjecting your dog (or you) to the stress of the ring.
Dancing teams consist of a one handler and one dog, one handler and two or more dogs, and two or more handlers with several dogs. Teams are judged on their technical (tricks and heelwork) and artistic (flow of routine and interpretation of music) merit. Costumes also add to the score. Props can be used.
Heelwork to music is very closely related to canine freestyle except the team doesn’t perform any demanding tricks. Instead they are judged on the dog’s ability to maintain the heel position while carrying out different moves. Heelwork to music is a good training option for handlers with big, heavy dogs (mastiffs, Great Danes, Newfoundlands) who aren’t physically able to perform tricks.
Terrier racing meets your terrier’s prey drive without putting any other animals at risk. Racing is a favorite among Jack Russell terrier handlers but any terrier up to 15 inches tall can enter.
Some competitions allow other small dog breeds to enter, provided they meet the height requirements and have oodles of stamina and energy. In essence, terriers chase a lure across a course which is between 150 feet and 200 feet long. The course can be flat or over hurdles (steeplechase). Dogs start from a starting box and end when they go through a hole in a stack of bales (or foam stacks).
They chase a scented lure (usually a piece of fur but it can also be a scented sock) which is pulled by a Lure machine. All dogs are muzzled for safety. Puppies as young as 6 months old and 10 inches tall can compete. There is also a category for dogs older than six years and up to 15 inches tall.
Even though the chase drive is inherent in all terriers, it’s still important to train your terrier properly for racing. They need to learn how to chase a lure and get used to wearing a muzzle. Dogs must be physically fit and know how to safely jump hurdles. It’s important to introduce them to starting boxes and the race track as early as possible. This is why casual race days are a good idea. You can start training your terrier puppy when they are about 4 months old. However, remember to keep the physical training to age-appropriate levels.
K9 Nose Work
K9 Nose Work keeps all dogs mentally and physically stimulated. However, it’s particularly good for terriers who need that little bit extra to keep boredom (and destructive behavior) at bay. Nose work also builds focus, which is great for other dog sports, like freestyle or agility.
K9 Nose Work is essentially are casual form of the canine scent activities used by ‘professional’ scent dogs. Terriers use their natural scent and detection abilities in a safe and secure environment, while bonding with their humans.
Start training your terrier using her favorite treats or toys hidden in boxes in one room or a patch of garden. You build up the search area until it includes your entire house and the garden. When your terrier masters treats or toy, you can move onto different scents and scent discrimination. The scents traditionally used in nose work are birch, anise and clove. Always reward your dog well for targeting the right box and that you reward on the box.
Canine Good Citizen
The Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Dog Scheme has branches as far afield as the UK and South Africa. It is not necessarily an obedience test, but rather a test of your dog’s public manners. It also tests your ability to manage your dog when out and about.
All breeds, ages and sizes can participate. Some breeds known for their exuberance, like terriers, benefit greatly from the focus on self-control and handler attention. There are three levels: Bronze, Silver and Gold, and a foundation assessment for puppies.
- CDC Bronze. The Bronze test looks at how dogs perform at basic obedience. This includes walking on lead, maintaining a short stay, and allowing strangers to handle them.
- CDC Silver: The Silver tests builds on the requirements of Bronze. Test exercises include play with handler, road walk, stay with duration, leaving distractions, and controlled greeting.
- CDC Gold: The Gold test builds on the Silver test. Exercises include road walk with distractions, controlled off-lead walk, send to bed, and emergency stop.
The sense of achievement when one passes each level is unparalleled, especially if one has a challenging dog.
Rally Obedience (Rally, Rally-O, Rally Free) is similar to canine freestyle. Behaviors are performed to music, but teams follow 15 – 25 pre-determined signs. Each sign (or station) tells you what behavior to perform. For example, handler circles dog or dog performs a counter-clockwise spin. Dogs must maintain the heel position between stations. The team is also judged on how happy and relaxed they are. Entrants get the course layout about 10 days before the event, to familiarize themselves with the order of the signs.
Handlers are allowed to use hand signals and verbal cues, but verbal cues ensure higher marks. For the first two levels, dogs can work on or off lead. Handlers can use praise and encourage their dogs to remain at their sides but they can’t use food on the course.
This makes it challenging for food motivated dogs or dogs that struggle to learn without a proper motivator (like terriers). But it also makes a successful run all the sweeter.
There are three levels: Novice, Advanced and Excellent. Teams must earn three legs (score of 170 or better) under 3 different judges to move up a level. Three qualifying scores of 170 or better also earns teams a Title. Entrants start with 200 points and deductions are made for inaccuracies, lapsed heelwork and poor teamwork.
Due to the variety of the behaviors that can be performed (and the free choice stations that allow teams to be as creative as they like), and because each competition is entirely different, there is no risk that terriers or their handlers will get bored. Rally Obedience provides wonderful training opportunities that crossover if you want to take on the additional challenge of dog dancing or heelwork to music.
Ask anyone who does agility and they’ll tell you it’s the most fun you can have with your dog. Agility is one of the most mentally challenging and physically demanding dog sports. So if you and your pooch are a tad unfit, agility will get you in shape in no time.
Border collies are most commonly associated with the sport, but it’s open to all breeds provided they’re over 18 months old. Pit bull terriers can be surprisingly accomplished at agility. Small terrier breeds, like Yorkies and Borders, fly around the course like no one’s business. Jump height and the angle of the contact equipment is adjusted to accommodate small breeds and senior dogs.
It’s a good idea to take some agility classes, or enlist a trainer for some private lessons. Some of the equipment, like the weave poles, are tricky to train properly so professional help is much appreciated. Basic obedience classes also help your dog become familiar with sit, down, stay (wait) and heel. You can start agility training your terrier puppy when they are 4 months old. However, don’t do any jumps or take any of the contact equipment (A-frame and dog walk) at steep angles. Start off by teaching them to walk on different surfaces and to step over poles on the ground (broomsticks work well).
Once confident in your skills, you can cut your teeth in fun agility days. They’re informal competitions for casual competitors. You won’t see an agility course before the competition. The course is set by the judge and you only see it just before the trial starts. You are allowed to walk through the course and plot your approach. Remember that agility is a timed event, so the quickest time to complete the trial wins. But you also have to complete the course with the fewest faults. You’ll be penalized for taking obstacles out of order and for not making contact properly, for example.
If high-energy dog sports aren’t your idea of fun, you can try some brain games. Brain games are a great way to bond with your terrier while providing mental and physical exercise. Playing with your dog increases your dog’s happiness and staves off depression and anxiety. Games that will appeal to terriers include:
Find It taps into your terrier’s need to use her nose. All you have to do is show your terrier a tasty treat, say, “Find it,” and toss the treat on the ground near to where she’s standing or sitting. She should find it easily enough without even having to use her nose, but as she gets the idea, you can throw the treat further away and even start to use props to toss treats onto, behind, under and into (plastic containers, towels). When your terrier really gets the hang of the game, you can leave her in one room while you hide some treats in another room. Open the door and tell her to Find It. She’ll love it.
Hide and Seek
This taps into your terrier’s desire to track and trace and is a fun way to train the recall without turning it into a drill exercise. You need two or more people to play this game. One person stays with your terrier distracting her while the other person (or people) hides. The hidden person calls your dog (using the recall cue) and rewards the dog with treats, praise and maybe a quick game of tug for her good work. Meanwhile, the other person hides and calls the dog. You can play indoors, outdoors and indoors and outdoors. The more people who play, the more fun for the dog. Note: Always let your terrier find you and never jump out to surprise her. If she gets a fright she may never play the game again and you could put her off the recall for life.
The Name Game
Even if your terrier has 3 dozen toys, she can learn the name of every one and bring them to you on cue. This game is very mentally taxing for your terrier. Start slowly, keep sessions short and enjoy the quiet when she naps afterwards. Pack away all distractions and start with two of your terrier’s favorite toys. Give each toy a simple name, like ‘elephant’ and ‘squeaky’. Pick one of the toys, show your dog, say the name clearly and toss it. Your dog should fetch it and bring it back to you (we’ll look at fetch/retrieve below).
Repeat this game for a few minutes and then switch toys. You can do 2 – 3 rounds of this and then place the toys on the ground and ask your dog to fetch one by name. Reward hugely if she gets it right. Put in a no reward marker if she gets it wrong and try again. If she struggles you can go back to the toss and fetch step before trying again. When she is able to reliably distinguish between the two you can add another toy and then another and so on.
Dogs don’t naturally know how to bring items back. It just doesn’t make sense to them to give things away. You have to teach your terrier to bring back objects. Otherwise a game of fetch turns into a game of keep-away. Training retrieve uses a method call back chaining. You start with the last move and when your dog understands it well, you move onto the second last move, and so on. So, start offering your terrier the toy and as soon as she touches it (either with her nose or mouth) say “fetch” and reward her.
Do this a few times and then test her to see if she understands the game. Hold the toy, but don’t offer it and say “fetch”. She should move toward the toy to touch it. If she can do that reliably, you can increase your criteria and only reward her for taking hold of the toy with her mouth. When you are 100% sure that she will take the toy with her mouth when you say fetch (you would bet actual money on it) you can move onto the next step.
Drop the toy on the ground and tell her to fetch. She should bend to retrieve it and give it to you. After a few successful repetitions you can toss the toy slightly further away for her to bring it back and then further and further. Remember that you are not rewarding her for picking up the toy; you only reward her for bringing it back to you.