Playing with you, his owner, is different from any other activity your dog engages in. It’s not like playing with toys by himself or playing with other dogs. It’s not like doing training exercises with you, earning treats – those exercises are important, but different. Playing with a toy with a dog is simple, but it can help you create your future together.
Your dog’s play with you teaches him lots of important things. He can learn appropriate interactions when you have fun but carefully plan your play to teach him what you want him to learn. In the video below, watch how I use my hands much like dogs use their mouths in playing with a toy with my dog – gentle and playful, never pushy.
What dogs can learn from playing with their owners:
Bite the toy, not me – and even then, bite softly. In the video below, you see me ask my dog, Al, to “drop it.” He has already learned this cued behavior, separately, and I asked for it because I felt his teeth. It’s not that he was in trouble, as you can see – I just needed to re-set so we could start playing again, remembering the proper procedures.
Tolerance of being handled
Al is associating my hands touching him in various places and in different ways with the fun of play and the freedom of choice to be involved. Notice how I pat his butt and his face, gently push him away, tug his ears, lightly restrain him, and more. I keep it gentle and light because I want him to be gentle and light.
Trust for me
I am careful not to threaten, even accidentally. I’m not taking the toy from him (in fact, I’m pushing it toward him most of the time!) His body language and mine indicates we’re partners in play – there’s a give-and-take going on. You can see him take the toy and move away, only to come right back. We give each other space. We’re playing together.
Playing in a relaxed, comfortable way
You see there’s no indication of arousal, no frantic or stiff movements. I’m keeping the play close to the floor, somewhat slow-moving with a gentle flow, encouraging gentle, soft body movements. Having fun can encourage dogs to get more and more excited, which can lead to arousal and unpredictable responses. I want him to learn confident, polite interactions so I make sure to always be pushing the interactions toward relaxed and gentle, away from super-excited and aroused. That means 4 feet on the floor, head moving downward, soft and gentle movements.
Thinking and problem-solving
My dog is experimenting with ways to move, pull on the toy, and present it to get me to play. He is learning to experiment to find the behavior that works best and also learning which behaviors work to solve the immediate problems – how to get the toy in his mouth, how to make it make noise, how to get me to play, what movements are the most fun! He’ll be able to apply some of these skills to other learning experiences.
How to have a great relationship
We are partners in play when I don’t try to drive a particular outcome. This is not an organized game of fetch or tug – although those are great fun also! This is the two of us creating an experience together while practicing and getting better at the basic rules of polite interaction. Dogs have to learn this, so be patient if yours wants to run away with the toy at first. Consider how you might change what you’re doing to help him learn to trust you enough to play with you.
Learning to play with your dog
Find out which movements your dog is comfortable with. If he’s not coming close to you with his toy, hang back and show inviting body language. (Email to ask about our online course in Reading Dogs that can help you learn the best practices in handling, managing, and interacting with dogs.) Don’t move toward him. Always work to get him to move toward you, in every interaction. If all you do in your first play session is let him know you’re not going to take his toy, it’s just fine. You may see him bring it closer next time!
Dogs have to learn that people aren’t going to pull stuff out of their mouths. Helping your dog feel secure, letting him not bring the toy to you, but continuing to invite and leave the lines of communication open, may be just what your dog needs. It’s OK to just watch him play with his toy at first, until he volunteers to invite you to play. Being patient is a virtue! Observe his behavior and determine it for yourself.
Changing behavior during play sessions
If your dog is one who really likes to get close and is sort of “all over you,” you may want to encourage a little more space between you by gently tugging the toy away from you, to turn his head away. Keep your arm somewhat stiff to provide that space. Place your hands out from your body when you’re playing to help your dog position to create space. Create a system in which your dog comes close but also moves away. This will help him in his interactions with other dogs, too – it’s polite to give space and not crowd others!
It’s important for humans and dogs to both be safe during play and all other times! If your dog has a tendency to guard items, be extra careful; however, playing in this way may help you develop an approach that does not threaten the dog. You should be practicing The Trading Protocol separately from playing so your dog learns to give you things he has in his mouth.
Observe your dog constantly for signs of stress or arousal: Stress signs can include stiff movements, a more “serious” look, whites of eyes showing, a wrinkled forehead, pinned ears, body and tail stillness, and more. Make sure your dog’s body is soft and moving in a gentle, flowing manner during play with you. Signs of arousal include coming up on rear legs, faster movements, pushiness – coming into your space in a sudden or “serious” way, grabbing the toy harder, pulling on it in a determined manner. Stop the play at any time to re-set, or to end it. It’s best to end a play session while both you and your dog are still relaxed and having fun so your dog don’t associate stress and arousal with play with you.
We humans may have to learn, too
Just as your dog has “many different dogs” within him (playful, sleepy, excited), his owner is also “many different humans.” Humans are naturally good at being busy and ignoring dogs, and dogs certainly need to learn to be OK being bored because that’s part of life. We are also often good at planned training sessions, at napping, relaxing, and cuddling with our dogs. We may even be good at walking with dogs. I have encountered many humans who are good at playing with dogs in ways that build great relationships and behavior. I have also seen humans who don’t understand what’s happening when dogs become aroused and stressed during play with them and those dogs learn unfortunate, unsafe play habits. But we can learn! I learned. You can, too.