Let The Games Begin!
Rehabilitating a Play-Deprived Dog
Tug, Fetch, Chase, Search..... Most of us love to play with our dogs. Whether we're tugging, tossing a ball or a stick or playing some other game, one of the great joys of sharing our lives with canine companions is the opportunity to engage in mutually enjoyable activities....PLAY. For dogs, playing with humans is a learned behavior; unfortunately a significant number of rescue dogs grow up play deprived. The reasons are too many and varied to list here. If you share a home with a play deprived dog, the good news is that you can teach your dog how to play with you and have fun doing it. Just keep in mind one VERY IMPORTANT point: it is VITAL that you NEVER use verbal or physical corrections in your training program. In order to let his/her guard down to play, your dog needs to know he/she can trust you to not hurt or reprimand him. Dogs trained with positive methods learn that it's safe to offer new behaviors and that's exactly what play will be for your play-challenged dog.... a new behavior.
First, a Word on What you DON'T Want to Do
These are mistakes that people often make when trying to convince a dog to play. Be too excited or intense – This type of pressure will turn the dog off to play. Pushing a toy into the dog's face to encourage him/her to play with it – Nope! Your dog sees this as just plain rude. Getting far too excited when the dog starts to show interest & scaring the dog as a result. - Nuff said. Expecting the dog to play a certain kind of game – Not every dog likes Fetch, most like Find It or Hide & Seek. Giving up on the dog – This is just plain sad. Not ending sessions soon enough – Keep them short & sweet; leave the dog wanting more!
Teaching Dogs to Play
There are a number of techniques you can use to get your dog to engage in dog-human play. Any time where your dog seems particularly cheerful or lighthearted is a great time to prompt your dog to play. Food can be used to encourage a dog to play as many love to eat. (Remember to go slow and control your own excitement . Rein in you natural impulse to celebrate your dog's first small play efforts so you don't accidentally intimidate or scare him/her). You can convince a reluctant dog to play by creating interest and desire in a toy. I recommend buying a toy that can be 'jazzed up' with the addition of food..... cut a slit in a tennis ball & suff treats in or purchase a 'food toy' that can be stuffed with kibble or treats. Place the toy somewhere where the dog can see it, but not reach it. Several times a day, go to the toy and play with it; toss it in the air, letting it fall to the floor and grabbing it, letting your dog watch you place treats in it. Once your dog shows interest, sit on the floor and slowly toss & catch the toy a few times then, let it fall or drag it on the floor. If your dog approaches the toy at all, give him treats and tell him/her what a good dog. Repeat 2 more times then put the toy away, keeping your sessions fairly short will create desire for the toy. As your dog interacts with the toy, sniffing it, pawing it or picking it up in his mouth, continue the praise & let him/her extract the treats them self.
Teaching Dogs to Find It
This is a simple behavior that even the most play-challenged dogs can perform with ease. Start with a dozen yummy treats and you dog in front of you. Say “Find It' in a excited voice and toss one treat off to the side being sure he sees you toss it. As soon as he/she eats that one, toss another in the opposite direction and say 'Find It' again. Keep doing this, tossing treats back & forth until your dozen treats are gone. Most dogs can learn to happily dash after the treats in no time. You can even start the game just sitting on the sofa watching tv. Toss a few treats from time to time telling him 'Find It'. When you start to see a little eager anticipation in his/her eyes as he/she waits for the next toss, you know you're on the right track.
Other “Finding' Games
Search & destroy - Put a few treats in an empty cardboard box (a cracker or cereal box is perfect, an empty paper towel holder with the ends folded in works well to, use what you have.) Have him/her wait or stay & show the dog the container shaking it with drama, “Oooooh, what 's this? What do I have here?”. Make the dog stay while you hide the container in another room, return to him/her & tell the dog to “Find It'. You can follow the dog & watch as he gleefully finds it & shreds the cardboard to pieces to get to the goodies inside.
CAUTION: IF your dog eats cardboard you may choose not to encourage this behavior, or, you will want to retrieve the cardboard shreds before he eats them!
Finding treats in a tub – This is a simple as it sounds and is great for keeping dogs occupied for a while as well as teaching them how to play. Put all the treats in a tub (a small children's swimming pool works well for this) then toss a handful of treats in with the toys, mix them all around to make it harder to find and let him search for them. You can also graduate to tossing a handful of treats on the back lawn and watch your dog happily use his nose to search for all the treats hiding in the grass once your dog has mastered the search & destroy or tub of toys game.
Hide & Seek
There a several ways to play this game... you can have your dog wait while you hide from him, or just duck behind a bush, tree (or another room if indoors) when your dog isn't looking. If the dog has a bit of Separation distress, he may start looking for you as soon as he notices you're out of sight. If not, you can jumpstart it by calling his name or saying 'come'. When he finds you, have a celebration – make a fuss (a small one if your dog is easily scared) & feed yummy treats. Alternatively, you can have your dog stay with you while someone else hides and tell him “Find (insert name here!)”. You stay still and encourage the dog to leave you & find it on his own. When he finds the person, have them celebrate gently with your dog by giving treats and them send him back to you, where you also reward him with treats. Once your dog is good at finding people in hiding places, make it harder, hide in shower stalls, crawl under a bed, climb up a tree and so on.
Capturing Playful Moments
All but the most unsocialized, fearful dogs will occasionally offer some spontaneous play behavior, even if ever so briefly. If you have conditioned your dog to a reward marker – the clicker or a verbal signal such as the word “Yes” you can teach you dog to play by capturing & rewarding those spontaneous moments. Have fun and be creative! Remember this is supposed to be fun for both of you so baby steps and don't get frustrated or impatient. Once your dog learns to trust that he/she will not be hurt, they will slowly begin to participate and, in time, will play with you for the sheer joy of play!
Authored by Nancy Lemon