The Importance of Playing with Your Dog
Updated: Jan 27
Did you know that play can be one of the keys to help you reach your dog’s fullest behavioral and emotional potential? Play can be a powerful reward when you use it correctly, and my hope is that I can encourage you to play with your dog in a way that will enhance your relationship and give your obedience training a boost. Even if you don’t want a highly trained dog, play still provides a plethora of benefits that should not be overlooked.
Increased tolerance for unexpected events (improved resiliency to stress)
Can help treat social anxiety, irritability, and depression
Increased trust in you
Teaches them how to engage with you in sustained cooperative exchange (Golden Rule)
You might be using food in your training program to reinforce good behaviors, which is a tremendous thing to do in the beginning of your dog’s training journey. However, it is not the only thing that a dog needs and craves from us and limiting yourself to one type of reinforcement will restrict some of your training potential down the road. When a dog learns that they can earn a wide variety of rewards through offered behaviors, those behaviors become reorganized and generalized, resulting in a dog that has a clearer understanding of what is being asked in any situation. It also forces us as trainers to become more creative and playful alongside our canine companions.
A dog’s willingness to play can give us information on their emotional state and mental health. If your dog’s desire to play is on the decline, you should have them seen by your veterinarian as soon as possible because this can be a sign that your dog is feeling unwell. If your dog is healthy and they are not willing to play, they might be suffering from an emotional imbalance.
Play is a good way to assess and improve your dog’s behavior. A dog that is under extreme stress will not eat. A dog that is somewhat stressed might eat but won’t play. A dog that is completely at ease will eat and play.
Here are some of my favorite games and tips that I recommend
Fetch and Tug are a dog and owner favorite. An important tip is to keep ALL your fetch and tug toys put away when you are not playing with them. This prevents your dog from "begging" for the game, and it also helps you maintain the toy's value. If the toys are freely available, they are not as exciting anymore!
Hold your tug with both hands and encourage your dog to target the center of the toy. Hold the tug at their level so they don’t have to strain their necks. Do not throw your dog all over the place with the tug and whip them around! Instead, use smooth side to side motions and be mindful on how your movements might impact their neck and spine.
Let your dog “win” many of the tug games. When you feel your dog tugging, let go of the tug and then immediately start tugging again and repeat. This is an incredibly fun game for many dogs, and it can encourage them to bring the toy back to you so you can continue the game. When you want to end the game, trade the toy for a treat.
Chase games can help your dog learn to run back to you for a reward. To start, show them a treat or a toy and encourage them to chase you. Give them the toy or treat once they finally get to you. Once they learn the chase game, you can encourage them to grab a toy and then run away from them to come to you (hopefully with the toy in their mouth!). When the dog gets to you, you can use the Two-Toy Game (below), give them a treat, or play tug if they happen to have a tug toy. Once they are reliably bringing the toy back, you can start fading out the amount of time that you spend running away from them.
Two Toy Game: Use TWO toys when you play fetch. Throw one toy while you hide a second toy in your pocket or behind your back. Present the second toy once your dog brings the first toy back to you. You can do the same thing with tug toys as well. Don’t worry about using a “drop it” command because this is all about teaching your dog to engage with the toy that you throw or tug, bring it back, and anticipate another toy. “Drop it” will come easily later.
Stop the game before your dog gets tired. A lot of dogs are more likely to chew the toy or run off with it when they start to get bored. If their performance starts to decline in any way, the game has gone on for too long. This might mean that you only play 1-3 repetitions of fetch or 30 seconds of tug at first. You can gradually increase the length of your play sessions as their enthusiasm improves.
Here are some quick tips that will help your dog play politely
Sit (or another EASY command) initiates the game and prevents jumping.
Jumping up for the toy makes me turn away and disengage from the dog.
Barking does not make me give you a toy (try to offer the toy BEFORE they bark or ask them to do an incompatible behavior so they can “earn” the toy).
I will not throw another toy for you until you bring the first toy back to me. This is taught through chase games.
If you playfully put your mouth on me, I become “dead and boring” or I will walk away. If you do not put your mouth on me, I will play fetch or tug with you.
But won’t tug make my dog aggressive? NO! You might get nipped if you neglect to handle your toys correctly and if you don’t teach your dog some basic boundaries around play, but this is not the same as being aggressive. In fact, being in a playful state of mind is the exact OPPOSITE of being aggressive (displaying threatening body language with the intent of driving you away). When we neglect to play with our dogs due to this outdated myth, we tend to facilitate the problems that we were trying to avoid in the first place. When faced with a mouthy or excitable dog, our first instinct is to suppress the behavior and discourage anything that might provoke it from occurring, but this approach usually backfires. I usually see this approach make problems worse, or it makes our dogs flat and depressed. It also creates a stifled and unnatural relationship with our dogs, which can cause us to withdraw and lose interest in them. Play provides an appropriate outlet for our dogs and it gives us the opportunity to teach them social boundaries that go beyond the play session itself. This is one of the main reasons why it is crucial that all dog owners know how to safely play with their dogs.
Important tips to know before playing with your dog
Play requires humans and dogs to learn the Golden Rule – Do as one wishes done in return. Play will not sustain itself if the game is extremely imbalanced where there is always one winner or loser. We must be sensitive to each other’s needs to maintain a playful spirit and to keep the game alive. I have seen many dogs lose interest in play altogether when we include too many rules and when we never allow the dog to “win” the game. Therefore, it should be our top priority is to develop a playful attitude first and incorporate obedience later. If we incorporate too many rules too soon, we will dampen their desire to play because it will no longer be fun for them. This will ruin your ability to use play as a reinforcer later in your dog’s training journey.
Dogs learn social skills through play. Dogs with good play skills will oftentimes “self-handicap” which is where they pretend to be weaker than another dog, and they also tend to “role switch” so each dog gets a turn being chased or tumbled over. They also should learn from a young age how to practice bite inhibition and how to avoid causing fear in their partner. If they hurt their partner or frighten them, the play ends temporarily. If one of the dogs does not adapt their behavior to suit their partner, the play session might turn into a fight to establish personal boundaries.
Playing without obedience does NOT mean that the game lacks boundaries. And not all games are created equal. Structured fetch and tug games are the two best activities that you can play with your dog. I would NOT recommend playing games where you chase your dog or encourage a lot of “keep away” where the dog prevents you from grabbing something that they have. Dogs tend to love those games, but they are extremely counterproductive if you want to use play as an obedience reward and to teach social boundaries.
Wrestling can be a fun for some dogs, but I do not recommend it for beginners because these games can easily cause a sensitive dog to become fearful. Once you are a pro at reading dog body language and playing with your dog, you will be able to tell if this is an appropriate game for your individual dog.
I hope this article has encouraged you to start playing more with your dog. If your play continues to do well, start incorporating one or two easy obedience commands and playing with them as their reward. Now you can truly get creative and have even more fun with your dog! I would love to hear from you on how play has impacted your relationship with your dog. You can contact me at email@example.com. If you need help with your dog you can fill out my quick assessment form by clicking here.
Lindsay, S. (2005). Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 3: Procedures and Protocols. Wiley-Blackwell.