8 Easy Ways To Teach Your Dog How To Play

Train Your Dog Like a Pro to Tug, Chase, and Search

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Tug. Fetch. Chase. Search. Most of us love to play with our dogs. Whether we’re tugging, tossing a ball or a stick, or playing some other game, one of the great joys of sharing our lives with canine companions is the opportunity to engage in mutually enjoyable activities, i.e., play. However, for dogs, playing with humans is a learned behavior. Dogs who don’t have the opportunity to play with humans early in life may grow up with a play behavior deficit – one that can interfere with their ability to connect with the two-legged members of their family in a way that’s important and meaningful.

Unfortunately, a significant number of dogs grow up play-deprived. These may be dogs from puppy mills who spent the first formative months of their lives in cages at the mill, and then at the pet store. They may be dogs who were “kennel-raised” by a breeder, with minimal play interaction with humans. They might even be dogs who were purchased as pups by humans with good intentions, but who ended up in the backyard, or in the home of one or more play-deprived humans who just didn’t understand the importance of frolicking with Fido.

If you share your world with a play-deprived dog, the good news is that you can teach your dog how to play with you, and have fun doing it. Read on to find out how. As you do, keep in mind this one very important caveat: It is vitally important that you not use verbal or physical corrections in your training program. In order to let his guard down to play, your dog needs to know he can trust you to not to hurt him. Dogs trained with positive methods learn that it’s safe to offer new behaviors – and that’s exactly what play will be for your play-challenged dog – a new behavior. Dogs trained with punishment or corrections often learn that the safest thing to do is … nothing! A dog who is already inhibited about play will be quite content to do nothing, and never engage in play, especially when he knows you could turn violent if he makes a wrong move.

1. Teaching Play

There are a number of techniques you can use to get your dog to engage in dog-human play. Make note of any times where your dog seems particularly cheerful or lighthearted – these can give you clues as to how he might best be prompted to play. Food can often encourage a dog to play, since all dogs have to eat.

Experiment with the play-training techniques described below, and see which ones start to capture your dog’s interest. Remember, go slow, and control your own excitement. Rein in your natural impulse to celebrate your dog’s first small play efforts so you don’t accidentally intimidate him.

As you experiment, remember to watch for, appreciate, treasure, and gently reinforce even the tiniest bits of play behavior. These might include:

  • A flip of the head
  • A flirty sideways glance
  • A quick bounce
  • A sudden paw movement
  • A brief lowering of the head,
  • chest, and shoulders
  • A short step forward, sideways,
  • or back
  • A dip of the head
  • A bark
  • A sniff of a toy or other object

Make a note of what might have elicited that behavior, and try to recreate it. Be casual; if you’re too obvious or deliberate, your reluctant canine player may shut down.

The following are some other ways to help your dog learn how to play.

2. Build his Desire to play

You can sometimes convince a reluctant dog to play by creating interest and desire in a toy. Start by preparing a toy that can be “jazzed up” by the addition of some food. You can can do this by cutting a seam in a stuffed toy and pulling some of the stuffing out, cutting a slit in a tennis ball, or purchasing a “food toy” with a Velcro opening designed for this purpose. Place the toy somewhere that the dog can see it but not reach it. Several times a day, go to the toy and play with it: tossing it in the air, letting it fall to the floor and grabbing it, and letting your dog watch you put treats in it.

When your dog is starting to show interest in the toy and your activities with it, create interaction. (It works best to do this when he’s somewhat hungry.) Sit on the floor and let your dog see you stuff the toy with treats. Toss and catch it a couple of times, then let it fall, or drag it around the floor.

If your dog approaches the toy at all, open up the toy and let him eat all the treats, telling him what a good boy he is.

Repeat two more times, then put the toy away, out of reach but where he can see it. You can even feed your dog all his meals this way for a week or so.

Gradually be slower and slower to “help” your dog by opening the toy. You should see your dog begin to take more initiative himself – perhaps touching the toy with his nose or paw, eventually picking the toy up in his mouth or trying to rip it open to get the treats. Continue to open the toy for him as he becomes more motivated to interact with it, until he’s enthusiastically interacting with it.

playful dog

3. Teach him “Find it”

This is a simple behavior that even play-challenged dogs can perform with relative ease. It’s tons of fun! And it also has useful applications, such as finding your lost keys, the TV remote, or even a missing pet or person. “Find it” capitalizes on your dog’s natural desire to eat food – especially high-value treats. Here are some tips for teaching your dog the “Find it” game.

Basic version: Start with a dozen yummy treats and your dog in front of you. Say “Find it!” in an excited voice and toss one treat off to the side. Be sure he sees you toss it. As soon as he eats that one, toss another in the opposite direction and say, “Find it!” again. Keep doing this, tossing treats back and forth, until your dozen treats are gone. Most dogs, even play-deprived dogs, can learn to happily dash after treats in no time.

As you toss treats back and forth in this part of the game, watch for small signs that he’s loosening up and enjoying himself. Toss a couple more treats and then stop – remember to end when he’s enjoying the activity, and don’t overwhelm him with your enthusiasm.

You might even start the game when you’re not really thinking about play, but perhaps just sitting on the sofa watching television. Toss a few treats from time to time, and don’t worry if your dog thinks of it as play. When you start to see a little eager anticipation in his eyes as he waits for the next toss, you know you’re on the right track.

teach your dog to play

Now leave your dog on a “Wait!” or “Stay,” toss a treat 10-15 feet out, and release him with an excited “Find it!” Repeat this a half-dozen times, then leave him on a wait or stay while you walk 10-15 feet out, place a treat on the floor, return to him, pause (so he doesn’t think your return is the cue to release) and release him with your “Find it!” Repeat a half-dozen times.

Introduce hidden things to find: Next, let him watch you hide treats in easy-to-find places, such as behind a table leg, on a chair seat, or under a paper bag. Each time you hide a treat, return, pause, and release him with your “Find it!” cue to go get the treat.

When he’s doing very well with that step, make it more difficult for him to see exactly where you hide the treat, by blocking his view with your body as you hide it, or hiding it where a piece of furniture impedes his view. Now he really has to start looking for it. This is the beginning of the real fun. Remember to keep the tone of your “Find it!” cue happy and excited! Your dog will start using his incredible sense of smell to find the treat, and you’ll get to watch and learn how to read him when he’s “on scent.”

During this part of the game, you may be tempted to help him find the treat if he doesn’t find it right away. Be careful! It’s okay to indicate the general area, but don’t find the treat for him – he may learn to just wait for you to show him rather than working to find it himself. If your dog has started to show interest in the “stuff the treat in the toy” game, you could also hide that toy as part of your “Find it” game.

Increase the difficulty: As soon as he’s figured out how to find the hidden treat using his nose, you can increase the challenge by putting him in another room when you hide it. Wipe the object on a clean gauze pad first, and then hide it. When you bring your dog back into the room, hold the gauze pad in front of his nose and say, “Find it,” and then let him look. (Again, you can indicate the general area at first, if necessary, to help him get started, but don’t help too much!) Allowing your dog to sniff the pad tells him what scent he’s looking for.

Alternatively, you can name the object prior to this stage and use the name to tell him what he’s looking for, as in “Find the cow hoof!” The gauze pad method gives you more flexibility to have him look for new objects in the future that you haven’t pre-named for him. When he’s good at finding one treat or object you’ve hidden, hide several while he is out of the room, then bring him back to look.

4. Other “finding” games

There are limitless ways to use of the “Find it!” cue; here are just a few games that you can play with your dog.

Find and destroy – Put a few treats in an empty cardboard container destined for recycling, such as an oatmeal cylinder, FedEx box, paper towel tube, layered cereal boxes, etc. Have him wait or stay and show him the container, shaking it with drama, “Oooooh, what’s this? What do I have here?” Have him wait while you hide the container in another room, then return to him, pause, and tell him to “Find it!” Follow him and have fun watching as he finds and then gleefully shreds the container to get the goodies inside. If he’s reticent to shred, you can help him, once he’s found the box. Remember – don’t overwhelm him!

Caution: If your dog eats cardboard you may choose not to encourage this behavior, or at least you will want to retrieve the cardboard shreds before he ingests them after finding the treats.

Find Treats in Tub – This one’s as simple as it sounds, and is great for keeping your dog busy for a while as well as teaching him how to play. Put all his toys in a tub (a small child’s swimming pool works well for this), then toss a handful of treats in with the toys (mix them all around to make it harder) and let him search for them.

Dig It – Digging is another natural dog behavior that lends itself well to teaching play. You could call it “Find it” in the sand. Fill a child’s wading pool half-full of sand and let your dog watch you bury treats and/or toys. Then tell him to find them. Dig in the sand with him to make it a “playing together” activity.

teach your dog to play

5. Hide and seek

There are several ways to play this game. You can have your dog wait while you hide from him, or just duck behind a bush or tree when he isn’t looking. If your dog is very connected to you, or has a little separation distress, he may start looking for you as soon as he realizes you’re out of his sight. If not, you can jumpstart the game by calling him to “Come!” after you’ve hidden yourself. When he finds you, have a celebration – make a fuss (a small one if “fuss” will intimidate him) and feed him some yummy treats. Gradually fade (stop using) the “Come!” cue to encourage him to look for you on his own without being called.

Alternatively, you can have your dog stay with you while someone else hides, and tell him “Find (insert appropriate name here)!” When he finds the person, have her celebrate gently with your dog, and then send him back to you, where you reward him with treats. Teaching him to return to you after he finds someone is useful if you ever want to try your hand at search and rescue work, either informal or formal.

When your is dog good at finding people in simple hiding places, you can make it harder by hiding in a shower stall, crawling under the bed, climbing up a tree, and so on. Be creative!

Caution: Unless your dog has a really reliable recall, play this game only in a safely enclosed area. Also, some dogs panic when they can’t find their humans. If you’re hiding from your dog outdoors, keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t take off on a journey through the woods in his panic to find you.

6. Physical Play

Remember that different dogs have different natural play styles and play interests. A dog who is intimidated by or simply not interested in playing with a toy may be more amenable to play that involves body contact. Touch him only gently and playfully at first, building to more active contact games over numerous sessions (weeks, maybe months!) as he warms to the game concept. Experiment with touch on different parts of his body to see what might elicit a tiny play response. Some dogs get excited if you softly touch their paw, ear, nose, or belly; just don’t use too much energy and frighten your dog with your touch.

7. Shaping Play

Shaping lends itself perfectly to teaching remedial play skills. The very definition of shaping – breaking a behavior into tiny pieces and reinforcing the pieces until you build the complete behavior – is exactly what’s needed for many play-deprived dogs or those who are just reluctant to play. Remember that you need to look for the tiniest pieces of behavior to click and treat so your dog wins a lot and can enjoy success. Even if it doesn’t look like play to you, the more you get your dog to freely and happily offer behavior, the sooner the behavior will start to look like play. (For more about shaping, see “The Shape of Things to Come,” WDJ March 2006.)

8. Capturing Play

All but the most unsocialized, fearful dogs will occasionally offer some spontaneous play behavior, even if ever so briefly. If you have conditioned your dog to a reward marker – the clicker, or a verbal signal such as the word “Yes,” or whatever marker you chose, you can teach your dog to play by capturing and rewarding those spontaneous moments.

Watch your dog for the tiniest of play behaviors: a quick bounce, a flip of the head, a sideways flirt. The instant you see anything that even vaguely resembles spontaneous play, click your clicker or utter your verbal marker, and toss your dog a high-value treat. Praise gently; remember not to overwhelm your dog!

Because all living creatures repeat behaviors that are rewarding to them, when your dog realizes he gets rewarded for play behaviors, he will offer them more frequently, and, over time, with increased enthusiasm. In time, your dog will play with you for the sheer joy of play.

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor.

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

1 COMMENT

  1. Dogs live through their nose. Play ball with him by rolling an orange to him. Tease him with it and chase him and finally let him “win”. Let him sniff and chew on it and notice his change of demeanor when he breaks the skin and finally tastes the inside. Do this for a couple of weeks or until he starts to lose interest in the orange, then give him a lemon. They smell similar, but taste WAY different! Same procedure until he begins to lose interest. Then give him a grapefruit. You can actually watch his brain wake up through this procedure. Finally, return to oranges. Let him have his own orange and change it when it gets too ripe. I did this with my German Shepherd puppy and he grew to be so smart and obedient that I could actually send him away from me and tell him to stay while calling his daddy. Both dogs would do this for me. A lady was walking her two seater stroller down the sidewalk in front of my house and both dogs were olaying on the driveway. About an hour later she came back from the store and saw my dogs laying in about the same spot watching her as she walked by. She remarked, “Your dogs are better behaved then my kids!” High praise.

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