A simple game of fetch is more than just fun for you and your dog. Dogs that play frequently with their owners learn to bond better with them and obey commands more readily. In fact, a lifetime of play is crucial to a dog's development and well-being.

A pup's mother starts the playful learning process right after birth. Her tussling, tickling and licking activate a young dog's mind and provide needed exercise. A gentle bite on the nose tells the pup to stop when the play gets too rough. After a few weeks, the pups grow more rambunctious, wrestling with each other and carrying socks or small toys in their mouths. By competing with each other for these toys, the young pups learn their place in the litter's pecking order.A pup needs to learn its place in your home's pecking order, too, just as soon as it arrives. A game of fetch can help teach your new pet that human family members are the top dogs. Learning the game forces Fido to pay attention to your commands and to recognize praise. Both lessons subtly teach your dog that you're the boss. They make Fido more prone to obey you at other times, too - when you take him to obedience class, for instance, or when you shout "stop" when he lunges off after a squirrel.

To start the play, roll an old tennis ball or other soft toy in front of Fido. He won't be able to resist the fun. Praise him when he picks up the toy. Heap more praise when he voluntarily drops it before you. Next, toss the ball and praise him when he returns to drop it at your feet. As a variation, hide the ball someplace nearby instead of throwing it.

The key to correct training is to instruct and reward your dog one step at a time - when he picks up the ball, when he drops it, when he runs to fetch it and so on. That way, the lessons sink in. Use praise only when Fido performs correctly. Remain quiet if he runs off with the ball or wants to play tug of war (an aggressive game to be avoided altogether). If Fido bites playfully, take a lesson from his mother: Hold his nose firmly but gently to correct his behavior. You also can redirect inappropriate biting to a toy.

Good play helps a young dog grow up to be a model citizen. Bad play, such as wrestling, teasing or roughhousing, can turn a dog into a neighborhood menace that's prone to bite.

Fido won't be able to tell good play from bad, but your kids will. So lay down the rules - no horseplay - especially if you own one of the more aggression-prone breeds, such as chow, Doberman, Akita and Rottweiler. With such breeds, it's best to play more sedate games, like fetch and running on a leash. Again, start young. Praise your Doberman pup when it rolls over on its side (a submissive act in dog body-language), and reward it further with a belly scratch.

Terriers, retrievers and spaniels naturally love to play fetch, while beagles and basset hounds probably would prefer to have their necks rubbed. But all dogs will want to play with you throughout their lives. (Just take an aging Fido's physical condition into account before you make him part of your daily jogging program.) Besides the healthful exercise, play continues to reinforce lessons of obedience and makes the dog feel part of the family.

If you play with and exercise your dog regularly, he may be less likely to chew the rug or furniture when left alone. One suggestion is to play with the dog immediately each time you return home.

Most dogs don't care when you play with them, but you should set aside the same time each day, and try not to disappoint. Like many people, dogs crave routine.