Monday, May 2, 2016

The Power of Play: How play opened up a new world for my fearful dog!

If you google the "power of play for dogs" you will find hundreds if not thousand of articles. It's so important that there are special classes and books that just teach you how to play with your dog. Play is so beneficial to our dogs and it's a lot of fun, too! I love playing with my dogs and most of the training we do is based in fun games and play.

Why play with our dogs? 

It makes them so happy!!!

Dogs are social animals and they really enjoy being with us. Play is good for your dog physically, mentally and emotionally. Your dog gets exercise, they get to work their brain and it helps to build your bond. Everybody benefits from play.

One of the first things I noticed about Phoenix when I adopted her was how much she loved toys. She would grab a toy and play by herself or try to play with Zoe. The only thing Phoenix loves more than a new toy is food and trying to figure out how to balance the two out has been a fun journey. If you want to know how to teach your dog to work for both food and toys or you have a dog that needs to learn how to play with toys, I would recommend watching this Kikopup video.

What kinds of games can I play with my dog?  

Tug is a great game and most dogs really enjoy it. All dogs can enjoy tug but I recommend putting some rules on the game. My dogs are not allowed to touch the toy until I give the okay, they must drop it when I ask and they are not allowed to put their mouths on my hand. It doesn't matter who wins the game of tug and most of the times I let my dogs win. When they win, they generally bring the toy back to me for more fun.

Fetch is a great game and it's one of our favorites! It's so easy to add training to fetch, like asking the dog to sit or down before you throw the ball and returning to you with the ball is a lot like training a recall. We start playing this game in the house without any distractions and I use a favorite toy in the beginning. Every time my dogs bring me their toy they get a tasty treat. As they get really good at fetching, we start moving the game outside and I use a variable rate of reinforcement for bringing the toy back. I still like to give them treats for fetching and I generally start the game off by rewarding them for bringing the toy back each time then move on to my variable schedule. Some dogs love fetch so much that they don't need any treats but each dog is different. Any dog can learn to play fetch, though!

Flirt Pole is a great toy to have that works a dog's prey drive. They get to stalk, chase and catch their toy. It gives dogs like mine, who would like to hunt real critters, an outlet for their natural instinct without harming any real animals.The flirt pole has been very beneficial to Phoenix. See the story below:

Play has been extremely beneficial in helping Phoenix overcome her fear of my husband. When we got her we couldn't touch her and even after she started trusting me she still didn't care for him. We ended up making her a flirt pole and it was hugely instrumental in helping her to develop some trust with him. 

The flirt pole is a long horse whip that we tied a toy to. Horse whips are really cheap, just stop by any feed store, you can generally find them for around $10-15. We use a Skinneeez toy but I have a friend who's dogs will chase a bag tied to her flirt pole.

With the flirt pole being so long, it enabled Phoenix to play with my husband without having to get too close to him. They were able to develop some trust without much pressure. Having this sort of toy was very empowering to Phoenix because she could make her own choice about interacting with my husband and she could decide how close she was going to get to him. Being able to make choices is another very powerful thing for fearful dogs.

Hide and Seek is an awesome game that my dogs love to play with me. A lot of the time I will play this at the park we go to. I will hide behind a bush or tree and they have to come find me. It can also be done at home if you have a big enough space. You can ask the dog to stay or have someone hold the dog then go hide. Once you're hidden, call your dog and when they find you have a treat party. This game has been huge for us and it's taught my dogs a lot about keeping an eye on me and paying attention to where I am when we go hiking.

Find It is a fun game where you hide your dog's favorite treats or toy and then ask them to find it. We play this game pretty frequently. I will put my dogs in the bedroom and hide food all around the living room and then release them to go find it. Just be careful if you have multiple dogs, especially if you have one that guards. Generally, Phoenix is pretty good about staying out of Zoe's way so they are okay to do this together but if you're not sure only do one of your dogs at a time. Zoe will even bring me my hidden car keys!

Personal Play/Roughhousing is not something we do often because my dogs are really sensitive to pressure and they don't like roughhousing with me that much. Zoe does enjoy a good game of chase so I will chase her around the house and push her around a little bit. Generally you can tell if a dog likes something if they come back for more. So if you're roughhousing with your dog and they run away and won't come back or they look at all stressed by what you're doing, stop and try something else. Stress Signals in Dogs.

Puzzle Toys are awesome and I highly recommend them. Most of the time, if we are not using a meal as a training session, my dogs are fed out of their puzzle toys. My dogs actually prefer playing with their puzzle toys over eating out of a bowl and they are so great for mental stimulation! We've reviewed some awesome puzzle toys and you can find those reviews by going here: Puzzle Toys

Dog Sports, there are endless activities for dogs these days! Here's a list of all the different sports available: Dog Sports

There are so many games you can play with your dog and I just don't have time to list them all. You can make up your own games or even vary some of the ones I listed above! You just have to figure out what your dog likes best and go with that! Don't forget to mix it up sometimes and keep things interesting!

Play has been so helpful with Phoenix's fears. Fetch, tug and chasing the flirt pole gives her a fun job to do that is incompatible with worrying about other things in the environment. We slowly worked up from playing in empty fields to playing in fields with distractions. In the photo above, I was actually playing fetch with Phoenix at an off leash area. You can see there are several dogs and even a child in the background. Phoenix has learned (for the most part) not to worry about those things when we are playing. Learning to play has really opened up a whole new world for Phoenix. She learned to trust me, she learned to trust my husband and she learned how to have fun with us. She's gotten so much more confident and sure of herself. It's been so awesome to see how much a difference play can make in my dog's lives!

I really enjoy incorporating play into all of my training sessions and the dogs love it, too! I highly recommend playing with your dogs and training should always be fun! Go play with your dog!

How do you play with your dog? What is your dog's favorite game?

Today we are joining the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop. This month's theme is "Play, plus try a new training game challenge". Thanks to the hosts:  Cascadian Nomads, Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days Be sure to stop by the other blogs in the link up to see what everyone else is up to! 



  1. Play is fun for everyone and it is also a stress reliever for the humans!

  2. I also added you to my Awww Mondays meme. Your girls are adorable and I know you work hard at making sure they are well cared for. It shows.

    Have a fabulous day. Scritches to the girls. ☺

  3. What a fantastic article and I couldn't agree more about how play can transform a dog and sometimes make great strides in helping to eliminate certain issues. I'm so glad Phoenix has made so much progress with her fear issues. That last picture is heartwarming to know how far she's come. 😊

    We've worked really hard on Haley's fear issues too and I'm so proud of her and the confidence she's gained.

  4. Barley likes to just invent her own games. She's not all that interested in fetch--but she does like for me to throw the ball so she can chase it and then pick it up and toss it up in the air again herself. She also hates tug, but she likes to hold a toy in her mouth loosely and have me hold the other end and then we'll run around with the toy connecting us :) She does love noseworks games and treat balls (sometimes) but most puzzle games take her about .2 seconds to figure out and then she's over it. Her very favorite, though, is just to snuggle up with her very first toy.

  5. wowow! I did not know there were so many things one can do while playing with your dog! Have a great week!

  6. I love to play even more than my dogs do so thanks for some great ideas

  7. Matt and I play with our dogs multiple times everyday. Khloee just likes the interaction whereas McKenzie Rae and Wynston are obsessed with toys. Matt and I like to sit on the floor and play with all three dogs. It makes for quite a scene in the living room! I also try to get one-on-one play time in with each dog everyday. It's been great for bonding!

  8. It's great that play has helped Phoenix overcome her fears! Thanks for joining the hop.

  9. I love that Vince used a flirt pole to build his relationship with her! Leo is so funny, he loses interest in toys and games pretty fast, but Mia will randomly pick up a squeak toy and squeak her little heart out with it. Music to my ears!

  10. Our dogs LOVE to play and I love playing with them. One silly thing we do in our house is play keep away with the dogs on rainy days. Outside, there's a lot of fetch and training. We're having a blast.

    Love the idea of having a lure game.

  11. That's great it's worked so well for Phoenix! Play (especially frisbee) has helped build up Pike's confidence so much. He isn't keen on trying new things as a whole, but with a frisbee in hand (or, in his case, mouth), he's still tentative, but he will willingly try new things.

    Nola also loves play, but until we get the okay from her vet this week, we aren't doing any tug or ball. She's not happy with that!

  12. Faolan was afraid of his own shadow when I first got him. For real. He still has occasional fearful moments, but I believe that confidence boosting play was a big part in overcoming his fears. Great post. Love that Phoenix has come so far.

  13. That's an amazing story of how Phoenix came to trust your husband through playing! I've read about flirt poles but I've never made one. Maybe I should.

    The "Bogeyman" course at Fenzi focuses on personal play and using it to help your dog be in the vicinity of scary stuff. By "personal play" - they really mean just "non-toy play". I'm learning that personal play is a great test of Shyla's stress. If she's willing to play, she's probably at least almost okay.

    Great post!!!!

  14. Playing is important, it helps with the bonding and new dogs actually open and behave better due to the freedom they have while playing. Your dog looks so happy :D


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