Training Your Dog Through Play

September 19, 2012 | By Lori Mauger, CPDT-KA | Category: Behavior & Training | 2 comments
Tags: behavior & training

Easy ways to make learning fun for your pets.

Adolescents at Heart

Dogs appeal to us as companions due to their social nature. Actually, dogs and humans share an interesting similarity that may be partially responsible for the bond between us. Dogs, like humans, are one of the few creatures that possess something called neoteny. Neoteny means that an animal retains many of its juvenile traits and behaviors into adulthood. For example, play is a juvenile behavior.

Dogs thrive on play in much the same way as humans do. Think about it — whether we’re on the local bowling league, or playing a game of pickup basketball, or gathering to watch the Super Bowl, humans require recreation. If your dog has ever given you a play-bow, then you know how much dogs require fun, too.

In Pursuit of Play

Dogs have an additional evolutionary reason for needing to play. Although their requirement for food is met by their indulgent owners, most dogs retain some of the hard-wired hunting behaviors they inherited from their ancestors, and they enjoy exercising them in play. Hard-wired behaviors are also known as motor patterns.

In their book, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, Drs. Ray and Lorna Coppinger outline the basic hunting motor pattern as follows: orient >>eye >> stalk >> chase>> grab-bite>> kill bite>> dissect >> consume. Wolves in the wild must exercise the entire predatory sequence in order to survive. However, domestic dogs have had the motor pattern altered to suit mankind’s needs. For example, according to Drs. Coppinger, retrievers have been bred to emphasize the orient>> grab bite portion of the pattern which enables them to locate and retrieve ducks.

On the other hand, Border Collies have been bred to highlight the orient>> eye>> stalk>> chase aspects of the pattern so that they excel at managing livestock. According to Dr. Ray Coppinger, the domestic dog’s performance of such motor sequences is considered an act of play. He uses sled dogs to illustrate his point. “Sled dogs running together is actually play, or what we call social facility. They run because other dogs run. In fact, they find it hard not to participate.”

Puppy Play is Pattern Performance

If you’ve ever witnessed puppies playing together, you’ve probably seen them testing various components of the hunting motor pattern: they might spot another puppy or a toy to play with, then run over to the desired object or play partner and engage in a lively game of keep away, and finally have a play-battle before curling up with one another for a well-deserved nap.

Acting out portions of the hunting motor pattern serves a number of purposes for the domestic dog. First, it’s a social outlet; second, it helps dogs to meet their exercise requirements; and finally, it’s simply a feel-good behavior because endorphins (body chemicals that promote a sense of well being) are released when dogs engage in hard-wired behaviors, making it intrinsically rewarding to do so.

The Morphing of Play

We know that play is important for our mutual species. However, it seems the definition of human play is being radically altered before our eyes. Anyone for a game of Scrabble? Or how about an energetic afternoon of tag-you’re-it? Most modern kids would likely say, “Boring!” In fact, mention fun to today’s youths, and they’ll probably regale you with strategies for the newest video game or the latest in social media apps. Heck, many adults spend as much time as their kids do with texting, gaming, and social media! As a result, in merely one generation society has de-emphasized the importance of interactive face-to-face play, both for children and for pets.

Interactive play for pets? Isn’t an occasional visit to the dog park good enough?

Sure, dog parks are great for some dogs, and yes, appropriate play with other doggie friends is a great outlet for them. But there is also immense value in playing regular one-on-one structured games with our pets. Structured games? How do you play structured games with a dog?

First, you teach them the rules (training). Then, you enforce the rules (sportsmanship/good behavior). Finally, you have fun (exercise and socialization)!

Has tossing a tennis ball gone the same route as board games? No, not exactly.

Like humans, dogs thrive on mental as well as physical exercise. Throwing a ball exercises the dog’s body, but not his mind. Humans do the opposite. We tend to exercise our minds thanks to the daily demands of work and school, but we’re generally lax when it comes to physical exercise.

The good news is that with minimal effort on the owner’s part, ball-throwing can easily morph into a mind-body experience for the dog (and an opportunity to express those hard-wired hunting skills) with the added advantage of a little bit of training thrown in for good measure. The ultimate benefit is that such play gets pet owners up and out of those armchairs to interact with their best friends!

Making the Connection

Perhaps you already play fetch with your dog, but the only criteria for the game are that you throw the toy, and the dog brings it back. So how about modifying the fetch game with a few simple rules? First, a word of caution: some dog-owner partnerships are physical mismatches (giant breed with a petite owner), and some owners may not be in overall good health, so use common sense and adapt or forego any games that may not suit your particular circumstance.

First, have the dog sit while you pick up the toy. If the dog breaks the sit when you reach for the toy, then don’t pick it up! Start again, and remember to only pick up the toy if the dog remains in a sit. At first, this portion of the game may take some time for the dog to master, so initially don’t be afraid to end the session by giving the dog the toy the very first time he remains seated—then reward yourself with a piece of chocolate or a strong cup of coffee! The next step is to hold the dog’s collar while you throw the toy, but only toss it a few feet to start. Of course, when you toss the toy, the dog will strain against his collar because he wants to go, but don’t release him yet! When the dog stops straining against his collar (which he will do out of exasperation, even if only for a split second), then immediately let go of the collar and let him get the toy. You’ve now taught the dog to be patient while you reach for the toy and throw it; in addition, you’ve provided your dog with an opportunity to exercise the “orient” portion of the hunting sequence.

Next, while the dog runs to retrieve the toy, you run the other way. When he turns around with the toy in his mouth, encourage him to chase you! In fact, sometimes it’s handy to have another toy in your possession to entice the dog to chase you. When he catches up, trade him your toy for his, and start the game again. Trading toys emphasizes mutual trust and cooperation, and it also teaches the dog that releasing an object from his mouth is rewarded with another toy and another round of playtime. An alternative sequence is to run away and hide so that instead of chasing you, the dog has to find you. The dog may need to use his nose as well as his eyes in order to pinpoint your whereabouts, and dogs relish the opportunity to employ their olfactory acumen!

After you release the dog to get the toy, hide behind an object—it’s okay if you’re not completely hidden. When the dog realizes you’re gone, initially repeat his name several times in a sing-song voice so that he realizes you want to be found. Once the dog learns the game, you don’t need to say his name. When he finds you — hooray!! Run away and let him chase you, or simply start the game again. Each time you play, try to pick a different hiding spot to keep it interesting.

Rainy Day Play

When the weather outside is frightful, continue the fun indoors with a modified game of monkey-in-the-middle, and expand it into a full-fledged game of hide-and-seek. Start with two people seated facing one another approximately 10 feet apart; each participant should have a handful of treats. Take turns calling the dog back and forth, and reward him each time he goes from one person to the other. Next, have the dog perform a command or trick each time he reaches his destination, and then reward him.

An alternative for the retrieving breeds (which love to carry things in their mouths) would be to skip the treats, and have each person armed with several toys. The first person hands the dog a toy, and then the second person shakes another toy and tries to get the dog to come over and trade the first toy for a different one, and back and forth it goes.

Finally, get rid of the chairs and show the dog how to play hide-and-seek. One person holds the dog’s collar, while the other person shows the dog a treat or a favorite toy and teases the dog with it while scampering away to hide somewhere nearby. Again, it’s fine to be partially hidden. The person holding the dog’s collar releases it and says to the dog, “Where’s Mary? Go find Mary!” At the same time, the person who’s hiding says the dog’s name in a sing-song voice to encourage the dog to search. When the dog locates his missing person, the “found” person rewards him with a treat or a game, and the two players switch places for the next round. When the dog understands the game, make it harder by hiding in different parts of the house; additionally, the hidden person should be quiet while the second person encourages the dog to search. Watch your dog’s expression when he finds you — sheer delight!

Dream Big, Play Hard

Games can be anything you dream up. The point is to teach your dog a few simple rules, and make it fun for both of you. Remember, the best thing about dogs is that they bring out the kid in all of us, if we let them. So put your cell phone and your laptop away, and for heaven’s sake, go play—Rover style!

What are your dog’s favorite games to play? Would you try some of the activities described above? Tell us below!

Comments (2)

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Roger J.

Roger J.
3 years ago

I love watching puppies play together playing tug of war with a piece of rope or chasing their own tails. Bandit loves to play fetch he is 13 now and somewhat slower on the move but pick up his tennis ball and he is right there. I like to think that keeping him active is prolonging his life.

Good Point | Reply ›


3 years ago

Abby and Shorty like chase and Abby likes to roll over and play find the kitty Shorty likes to play instant cat I love the puzzle games for training dogs and I use to play soccer with Skitters!

Good Point | Reply ›

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