You’d think that dogs and play would go together like apples and cinnamon, and in most cases, they do. But depending on how a dog was raised and treated, he may not enjoy or even know how to play.
Most dogs live life to the fullest, and love to play by themselves or with their humans. Toss a toy their way and they pounce, toss, wiggle and have a great time. But there are also dogs who don’t seem to grasp how to play, or who have a low play drive. Why does this happen, and how can we teach these dogs to enjoy play?
Let’s start by defining “play”, so we are on the same page. According to the Collins Dictionary (collinsdictionary.com), “When children, animals, or adults play, they spend time doing enjoyable things, such as using toys and taking part in games.” The takeaway word is “enjoyable.” If the activity isn’t enjoyable for both parties, it’s not play. We need to remember this whenever we interact with our dogs.
Why a dog may not enjoy play
In my experience, dogs don’t play with their humans for two reasons.
1. They weren’t brought up to play during their puppyhood and developmental period,
2. They were reprimanded for playing “wrong”.
Puppies brought up playing a variety of games with a variety of people become good players and grow into more confident and engaging dogs. On the other hand, if a dog is trying to play with someone, but the person reprimands or scares him, the dog will learn not to play, with negative behavioral consequences. The same applies to a dog who was never given enjoyable human contact while growing up.
How to restart play
If you have or know of a dog that doesn’t seem to know how to play, there are ways to help him learn while having fun in process. With some simple guidelines, a positive attitude and patience, he can soon be up and playing with the best of them.
1. Stay positive
Remember, the definition of play includes the word “enjoyable”. During playtime with a dog, always be positive, fun and encouraging. Don’t use words such as “no”, “wrong”, etc. The same goes for your body language. Dogs are amazing at reading human body language, so don’t slump or seem disappointed. You want to teach the dog to fully trust you and feel confident about trying anything.
During playtime with a dog, always be positive, fun and encouraging.
2. Consider the dog’s comfort level
It’s always important to understand your dog’s comfort level, and what makes him happy, nervous or excited. Some play-deprived dogs are very nervous, and startle at the smallest gesture or change in voice. For these dogs, it’s important to continually monitor his enjoyment versus his stress levels. You may need to actively tone down your intensity to match his style.
3. Know what he likes to do
What does your dog like doing best? Does he like sniffing, chasing, using his feet or touching you? Don’t be discouraged if he doesn’t have in interest in dog toys; play does not have to include an object. It’s about connecting and enjoying each other. When introducing play to your dog, choose the behavior your dog seems to enjoy most (see below).
“Find it” — a beginner game for play-deprived dogs
“Find the treat” is a great game for most dogs, and a good place to start with a dog that doesn’t enjoy or know how to play. The object is for the dog to find treats you hide around the house. All you need for this game are healthy treats — 100% meat tends to be best because of its high scent, making the treats easier for the dog to find in the beginning stage.
Start by showing your dog the treats. Ask him to stay, if he knows this behavior, and place one treat five feet in front of him. Then tell him to “find it” as you encourage him to get up and eat the treat. Right after he eats it, give him a second treat for being so smart. If the dog doesn’t know how to stay, just tell him to “find it” as you toss the treat right in front of him. Once again, give him a second treat right after he eats the first.
Practice this fun game a few times a day. At this stage, you are teaching your dog two things:
- “Find it” means he’s going to get a treat.
- You are a great person to play with. (Yes, this is play!)
As your dog starts to understand this game, increase the distance of your treat placement or toss. Instead of five feet, move it to ten, 15 and so on. Finally, the dog’s treats will be out of sight and he must search for them. Prep him with a few easy “find its”. Then put him in the next room and close the door, place a handful of treats about ten feet from the closed door, open the door and happily say, “find it”. Watch your dog light up as he sees his loot!
Repeat this sequence about four more times. On the fifth set, place the pile of treats about 15 feet out from the door and off to the side. Now, your dog will need to start looking for the treats. Gradually make it more challenging for him to find the treat stash.
Over time, you and your dog will become masters at this game. When he can easily find hidden stashes of treats, you can start decreasing the number of treats in the pile and place single treats the hourse around for him to find. This will also really start to exercise his scenting ability.
Once your dog understands the basic concept of “find it”, you can teach him to find other objects such as his dinner, meaty bones, yourself, and any toys he happens to like. Remember: if he doesn’t have a desire for the object, then he won’t have a desire for the game. If he’s not a ball dog, for example, asking him to find a ball won’t be very fun or successful. But sneaking out of the room, ducking behind the curtains and saying “find me” as your dog runs around looking for you can be loads of fun when he finds you. As an extra bonus, give him some treats when he finds you. If your dog isn’t having any luck finding you, make a bit of noise to make it easier for him.
Games dogs play
When choosing a game or form of play for your dog, think about the things he likes to do most. Play doesn’t always have to involve toys. It can include:
- Petting, rubbing, nose or paw targeting
- Chasing you
- Tricks and training
- Sniffing walks
- Obstacle training
Toys meet different needs depending on the dog’s play style:
- Food-dispensing toys
- Fetch toys
- Tug toys
- Chase toys
Play is not a frivolous activity, but something every dog should know how to do.
Teaching a dog to play is a powerful way to interact with him. Not only will you both have fun, but you will be creating a bond with him and helping him build confidence and trust in you and in life. Play is not a frivolous activity, but something every dog should know how to do, for his own physical, social, mental and emotional well-being. Now, go have fun!