So when I show people how to play with their dogs, it often surprises them that I can get them to play with pretty much anything they choose, from your car keys to your sunglasses, to even a $10 note from your wallet. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that a dog doesn't understand where you get the toys from and that you spent half your wages on an elaborate selection of the cutest, funniest or toughest toys. For them it's all about how you play with those toys. And when I say how 'you' play with those toys, I mean just that.
Understanding Play Drive
Whilst many dogs will self amuse with some toys, as they all have a desire to play, it's critical to recognize that they require interactive play as well. This can be with another dog but it is much more important for future training and obedience that most play is with its owner. Now this is not as simple as you think. Often the barrier to fun play is the owner themselves. They are often too embarrassed to act silly, exciteable and playful; particularly in front of someone else. So my first task is always to teach and demonstrate to the owner just what I mean and how to engage with their dog, often using the methods that 2 dogs playing together will use.
- 'desire', many dogs always want what another dog has got particularly if they are young. Those of you with children will understand this, it's just the same. It's all about the perceived 'value' of the item. If that dog makes it look interesting and worth holding on to, then I guarantee the other dog will want to get it.
- the 'chase'. The classic I'll chase you, then you chase me game, even more so when a toy is involved.
- 'competition'. Who will get to the object first or win a game of tug?
- teaching 'success' for continued encouragement. If the dog always loses then I guarantee all you will do is suppress their desire to play with toys or play with you. The old fable that you must always win the game to be 'top dog' really can cause more problems that it solves. It's about striking the right balance. Lots of them winning, or I prefer the term 'success' at the start to really encourage them. Then put in more control measures in to the game to ensure they still succeed but have to abide by the 'rules' of the game which are set by you. For example asking them to sit and wait before you throw the toy. This way you still encourage the dog but are in control.
- Finally the 'exchange'. To prevent the dog becoming reluctant to give up the toy you should always exchange one toy for another of equivalent value. The easiest way to do this is by having two identical toys,and I mean identical, even in colour. This is one of the best ways to encourage a retrieve. Don't be tempted to grab the toy out of the dogs mouth or chase them around to get it (as this only encourages possessiveness). Sit or squat down and encourage the dog to bring the toy to you and when they come to you (right to you not half a metre away) verbally praise and stroke your dog along their body (not their head or collar) for at least 10 seconds to reward them. Then produce the other identical toy and wait for them to spit the one they are holding out of their mouth (it can take a few moments initially as they weigh up their options). Be patient and wait, it will happen and if not make the toy you've got look more interesting. Once they do drop it verbally praise them, and pick it up before throwing the other toy.This ensures they do not have the opportunity to pick up both toys and then have control of both of them.
- You start the game when you are ready
- You finish the game when the dog is still keen to play more
- You remove the interactive, 'special', toys so they are out of reach of the dog until next play time.
- If the dog gets too excitable, rough, demanding or barks at you, stop the game immediately, walk away with the toys and ignore the dog for at least 5 minutes. Try again after the 5 minutes and only play if you are satisfied your dog is playing to your 'rules of engagement'.
- Only once the dog is keen to play with toys with you, establish some controls like a 'sit' and 'stay' before they're allowed to get the toy.
- If they go to snatch the ball back again let them (do not compete with them for it, just turn your head away and ignore them and play with the toy you have). Then wait until they bring their toy back again and drop it,praise them heavily, pick the toy up and throw the other one.
- If you have a multi-dog house hold it's advisable to play independently with each dog to ensure one does not out-compete the other which will only serve do diminish their play drive or increase possessiveness. Only once you have established their focus on you and they both abide by the rules can they potentially play with you at the same time.
There is truly an art to playing with your dog and every dog is different in character. Different approaches are necessary for different dogs to ensure you get the best play drive and focus on you. But one thing is for sure, your genuine enthusiasm to play and reward is the key. Dogs, like children, know if you're faking it and not giving them your whole attention. Take note smart phone users!