Teaching a dog to play

Jasper is a consummate player!
Jasper is a consummate player!

I’ve asked many people in many places what they want to see for the blog, and I’ve had a few people who have shy or fearful dogs, or just dogs that weren’t perhaps socialized well, discuss how they’d like tips for these dogs on how to play and enjoy themselves. It’s an interesting topic so I thought I’d give it a go this morning before I leave town on vacation!

First, if the dog is extremely fearful, it’s important to go slow and build confidence before trying to engage in high-spirited frolic. While many dogs get rambunctious and move around friskily while playing, and our likewise similar excited body language is more than acceptable in these situations, for fearful dogs, it is not. Over-excited movements and vocal tones can really put some fearful dogs in a place of extreme stress and fear, and it’s counter-productive.

For very fearful or timid dogs, it’s important to always go AT THEIR PACE. We can never force these dogs to accept things, even if these things aren’t going to cause harm in our opinion. Don’t use direct eye contact, approach head-on or place your hand directly over the heads of these dogs, as this language is threatening. Be gentle with your words. In the beginning, you may not even want to speak, just sit with your back to the dog and head lowered, and let her approach you.

Have some tasty treats ready as rewards in case she comes out of her shell, to encourage and reinforce that behavior. Every fearful dog is going to be different in how much she can handle so I suggest hiring a dog trainer or behaviorist with experience in using positive reinforcement techniques to build confidence and a feeling of safety and trust with the dog. Check out Nicole Wilde’s blog and her book, Help for Your Fearful Dog, linked from our resources page for more about how to work with fearful dogs.

A good exercise to build confidence in fearful dogs is to teach them to target, or “touch.” The ASPCA has a great guide for how to teach and use this here on their website. Targeting has many useful applications and is great for any dog to learn! Pat Miller wrote a spectacular article about how useful targeting is that I can also highly recommend; read it here.

For dogs who may not be fearful but don’t show much enthusiasm for toys, I have a few other tips. First, make sure to pick up all toys and only bring out a toy when you’re ready for them to be trained on it/play with it. We want to make it a special thing so that’s why we don’t allow all-access to the toys. Be enthusiastic with the dog about the toy and reward them for any interest they show in the toy.  If he sniffs it, click (or give a verbal marker like yes) and give a treat. Raise criteria for rewards–he has to move toward the toy, he licks it, he puts it in his mouth, etc.

Another trick I’ve used that works is to actually make the toy more appealing by putting a food smell on it. I was able to teach a dog fetch by getting his interest in a ball after I sufficiently covered it in hot dog smell! Again, keep rewarding any and all interest/interaction with the toy, and make it special for them. Make it engaging and exciting. You can give body language signals like a play bow to get them more engaged as well.

One other way that is sometimes successful is for dogs to learn by watching other dogs. Needless to say, if you have a fearful dog it may not be the best approach if the dog is fearful with other dogs. However, if you have a dog that is curious but unsure, watching other dogs at play with each other and with toys can help. Be careful the teachers you choose; a run-of-the-mill dog park with dogs running amok unsupervised may not be the most ideal. We don’t want your dog to pick up habits we don’t want! Choose appropriate play groups led by trainers, or ask friends and family who have well-behaved and adjusted dogs for play dates. Ensure everyone is vaccinated and doesn’t have any guarding issues with toys either.

This advice is not meant to replace the importance of a professional if you are experiencing behavioral issues with fear or anxiety. Please contact us if you need help with your dog. And remember, all dogs have preferences! Some dogs LOVE toys while others don’t. This doesn’t mean they’re not happy or that there is anything wrong with them. They just have things they enjoy better (like perhaps food or belly rubs)!

Happy training!
Owner, Delightful Doggies

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