4 Things Video Games Taught Me About Dog Ownership

After years of longingly staring at pictures of puppies online, last year my girlfriend and I decided we were finally ready to get one. Unfortunately, after a long conversation with the RSPCA, it turned out that online staring doesn't 'qualify' you to become a 'responsible dog owner'.

So, during the long weeks while we waited for our puppy to grow from a Beanie-Baby-looking thing that fit into the palm of one hand and into an actual normal-sized dog, I readied myself in the only way I knew how. While my other half read all the books and websites you're actually meant to read, I decided to play a load of games with dogs in them instead.

Cynical readers might note that this coincided with the release of MGS V, and I was just looking for an excuse to spend more alone time with my Xbox. But, after a few months of successful dog ownership ('successful' here meaning 'he's still alive, and so are we'), I'm here to share my learnings. And some pictures of my dog.

Meet Lucky Spencer-Dale:

The First Lesson: Dogs Have Rubbish Tutorials

The first game we play, Puppy Luv – a budget release from 2006 – sets us up with some useful advice on caring for a little furry life: “Make sure all his stats are as filled as possible”. Yup, makes sense.

It's not, however, entirely clear how to achieve this in Puppy Luv. We spend a lot of our time guessing at the results of our actions (“do you think he gets better every time he catches the frisbee?”, “does playing in the park make him less clean?”) which is actually a remarkably accurate of the mental process we go through every time every Lucky starts woofing.

So maybe the shonkiness isn't just a result of the game being a rushed Nintendogs cash-in. Maybe it's actually a brilliant simulation of the chaos of dog ownership. It's certainly more honest than The Sims 3: Pets, which gives a status bar for every one of your dog's needs – although, brilliantly, this includes the 'destruction' urge to chew stuff.

Dogs come with one innovation in this area, however, which beats out any game: the wagging tail. Even the reward loop of a Destiny or World of Warcraft can't compete with the swish of a contented pup's back end.

The Second Lesson: The Controls Are Even Worse

OK, so let's say you've managed to figure out what your dog wants. Having offered food, toys, that one corner of the garden that they seem to think of as their outdoor en suite, you finally realise, oh, they must be thirsty. Now all you have to do is reach the water bowl without them spotting, leaping into and eating their way back out of that gigantic pile of leaves.

The thing is, dogs are almost entirely voice-controlled – and frankly, the speech recognition isn't great. This is something Nintendogs gets exactly right, relying on spoken commands to control your virtual dog. This still feels like strange magic, even a decade on, and it's exactly the same for the real-life variety. It's incredibly rewarding to see your pup sitting down just as you tell it to – even if you do quietly suspect that it may have been a coincidence.

The other thing about Nintendogs is that it's a DS game. Play it on the go and you're likely to be the guy on the bus that everyone else avoids sitting next to, as you loudly berate the unresponsive piece of plastic in your hands. If you plan to get a dog, though, this is a useful experience. You'll spend plenty of time in public shouting commands, as the dog looks on disinterestedly and continues to chew on the child's shoe you desperately hope it just found on the street.

The Third Lesson: You Need To Learn To Multitask

The Sims 3: Pets captures this experience best with the autonomy setting turned up to max. You can queue up commands for the dog, but momentarily turn your attention to one of the bipedal Sims under your care, and you're likely to find your furry friend disregarding those earlier suggestions in favour of digging up that carefully landscaped garden.

Frankly, even the most helpful in-game dog is going to get in the way of your objective every now and then. D-Dog is a great companion on MGS V's missions, able to sniff out enemies before you spot them and act as a distraction... until the moment things go wrong. Suddenly, you're angling the camera over Big Boss' shoulder to check D-Dog hasn't rushed over to tussle with the driver of that Metal Gear walker with the two machine guns strapped to its sides.

This is how working from home with Lucky feels. He's a great stress-buster, but has an uncanny knack for launching a salvo of woofs during any vaguely important phone call. It's hard to stay angry with a face like this, though:

It's much, much worse when you're the problem. While playing with Boss's new stun arm, trying to figure out how it works, I accidentally knock D-Dog out with a concentrated burst of electricity. 'Your bond with D-Dog has decreased', reads the on-screen message.

My heart sinks exactly like it does every time I accidentally trod on Lucky, or shut the gate in his face, or ran over his tail with my office chair. In MGS V, you can hammer a button to tell D-Dog he's a good boy, until that tail starts wagging again and you can breathe a sigh of relief. In real life, Lucky just stares at me with eyes full of confusion and betrayal.

The Fourth Lesson: You Can Never Truly Be Prepared

There are some things that no game can really prepare you for. I don't remember the bit in MGS V, for example, where D-Dog is sick en route to a mission, producing a substance that resembles awful school-dinner chilli con carne but which he apparently finds delicious.

There's no Nintendogs minigame that has you waggling the stylus to pee against a shed at 3am in a sleep-deprived attempt to teach your new puppy that the garden is a great place to go to the toilet. Your Sims never have to handle a call from the vet, telling them in gibbering Simlish that they've spotted that the dog still has his balls attached and, as he's already under anaesthetic, they can lop them off for an extra twenty quid if you act now.

Every day of dog ownership comes with more snap decisions than an entire season of Telltale's Walking Dead. It's deeply rewarding (as if to prove this point, Lucky has just collapsed onto my lap as I write this, like a softly snoring hot water bottle) but equally exhausting.

Thankfully, when it all starts to wear you down, you can always turn the comforting relief of games. I hear some of them don't even have any dogs in.

This post originally appeared on KotakuUK, which is gobbling up the news in a different timezone.


    I have had my dog 8 years and the one before that 13. Let me impart some wisdom from what I've learnt.
    1. Look up dog body language. Dog's communicate non-verbally. There have been many times that I've stopped Sid from being hurt because we've both seen the dog has it's trail straight up
    2. Socialisation is very, very important for dogs. Not just dogs, but people and also other pets you or friends may own. A lack of socialisation can lead to aggression. Make sure your dog meets and plays with dogs of all sizes. Most big dogs are gentle giants.
    3. Aggression. I have a general rule. Don't reward behaviour that you wouldn't let a big dog do. So if a little dog snaps, treat it as you would a big dog. A lot of little dog aggression problems come from under socialisation and rewarding of aggressive behaviour. Also, be wary of food aggression. You should be allowed to tough your dog or their food while eating.
    4. Training. Start training early. Train inside, train outside. Train at the park. Train with other dogs around. Teach your dog the drop command, because if he or she picks up food they find, you want them to drop it, as opposed to running off and eating it.
    This is all I can think of right now. Best of luck and remember, dogs make the best people

      Re: 4 and drop for food, you're better off training your dog not to eat unless you give them a command. That way if they find food when you're not around, they won't eat it.

      Also don't let your dog near the table while the kids are eating. Corn cobs are expensive to get out of your dog.

        Either one works really. As long as they don't swallow it.
        Oh and add to the do not give dogs list:
        Onions, any type
        Cooked bones (raw is fine)
        Xylitol (type of artificial sweetener)

    Couldn't agree more @scree,
    Adding to your very fine points; Dogs don't understand English or German or Swahili - they understand body language and tone. Verbal commands are not necessary so much as a sound.

    My Blue Heeler was an absolute menace until I took him for training, the Dog Whisperer (my title, not hers) was amazing. She had Clay super relaxed and social and an absolute joy to be around.
    Her explanations about pack mentality and imposing our leadership on Clay were fantastically clear and made perfect sense once vocalised.
    She believes in a leash free existence for all dogs and I couldn't see myself ever putting a lead on another dog in my life after her teachings.
    "A leash is an extension of your arm" she would say, "if the lead is tense, the dog thinks there is a threat and will react with fear and lash out" Was the best advice ever.

    Last edited 21/01/16 12:22 pm

    Dogs and computers can both have great speech control, and with both you have to spend time training them to recognize your commands.

    I see you have a dog of the small yappy variety, but since I have an english mastiff I get to say that about every type of dog. >.>

    This might be the burning hot sun on my newly-shaven face talking, but god I want to shave your dog

    That dog is seriously too dam cute! Am a massive dog lover, feel like a part of me is missing since my last dog passed (about 5-6years ago now), as I've not been able to get another due to living arrangments. Hope you enjoy the journey :) honestly they just keep getting better

    Also, watch the dog whisperer, he has some amazing tips on reading your dog and how to train them :)

    Last edited 22/01/16 2:19 pm

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