Structured play is literally one of the most invaluable skills to have with your dog. It is a fantastic reward system, it builds confidence and your relationship and it is a seriously awesome outlet for conflict.
This is something at That Dog School we value MASSIVELY!
Dogs engage in play in the same way as their predatory drive works which is why for our dogs, engaging in proper play can be a great biological outlet for them. The 6 stages of play are:
1) Searching – Think looking for a toy and sniffing around.
2) Stalking – Think Border Collie stalking a sheep or the moment of still before your dog pounces.
3) Chasing – Chasing the toy around.
4) Fighting – This refers to the struggle of playing tug when they are trying to win the game.
5) Celebrating – Usually when the dog takes the toy and runs around with it.
6) Consuming – Taking the toy off to go and chew on it.
Some dogs will favour a particular part more than another. The goal is to find the parts of play that spin your dog’s dials and create a game that focuses on those aspects. This will create a dog that finds play incredibly reinforcing.
How to create play ‘windows of opportunity’:
The biggest challenge for a lot of dogs is that they usually aren’t quite sure when the game is over. To help your dog understand context, follow these simple guidelines:
- Always initiate with a cue such as “are you ready?” or “do you want to play?” This makes it very clear to your dog when the opportunity to play in this manner is on the table, rather than leaving it up to them to decide how and when play starts.
- Have a clearly defined area on the toy that is the target bite zone. If at any stage your dog starts bringing the game to close to your hands, the play stops.
- Teach a give command so that you can get the toy off your without creating bad habits.
- Have an end cue such as “finished” to let your dog know when the game is over. Some dogs will try to push for the game to continue if they feel they have not yet had enough. An end cue lets us teach the dog that the game is done, and they need to settle down. Without it, the dog will often continue to pester you in the hopes the play will resume.
- Pick one special toy that will be your dog’s training toy and when the game is over, take that toy away and put it out of reach. This will make it special and add value to the game.
If you let the dog call the shots and allow things like biting of hands or clothing to occur, this can cause you bigger problems down the road. Be very clear with your dog about the criteria of the game.
The type of toy used should be something that is:
𝘚𝘰𝘧𝘵 – heavy rope or hard plastic toys are not ideal as they are not comfortable for our dogs to grip. If the toy is uncomfortable in their mouth the dog will continuously spit it out which interrupts the flow of play.
𝘚𝘲𝘶𝘦𝘢𝘬𝘺 (𝘰𝘱𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘭) – if your dog really gets silly when they have a toy that squeaks, then by all means utilise what motivates your dog.
Toys we do not recommend when training are frisbees and tennis balls. While these are ok to play with on occasion just for fun, they are not suitable when training because the dog feels best when they catch the thing you’ve thrown which means they have forgotten about you and are getting their satisfaction elsewhere. We want to encourage games and play that involve us so that it adds value to our relationship with our dog.