Downeast Dog News

Playing by the Rules

Mix Training into Fun!
By | Sep 01, 2020

Forget about a “job” - our dogs love to play!

The great thing about playing with our dogs is that we can cultivate a huge range of habits and behaviors in the context of pure delight. Play can be a tool, used strategically, to help a fearful dog gain confidence, to increase drive and attention, to teach basic behaviors, and so much more. Most of us don’t take full advantage of the learning power of play. Let’s see if we can change that!

Incorporate training into play… and play into training!


The human player must control the intensity of play, especially with young pups, to help them learn how to control their mouths, energy level, impulses, and to help promote deference. It’s easy to do this - if your dog starts to cross the line, suddenly stop playing and freeze your body. Freezing is a great way of saying, “I’m done.” You may re-engage after 3-5 seconds of stillness. If the dog repeats the same infraction 2 more times, the game is over and the pup needs a break.


It’s up to you what the rules should be, but be sure you and other people who play with the dog are consistent. “Dad” may love it when the dog jumps on him or wrestles roughly with him on the floor, but this can easily become a pattern with other people and quickly degrade into something you most definitely don’t want. Consider long-term effects of what is and what is not permitted during interactions.


Very few people appreciate a dog jumping on them, but when dogs do this in play, it will often translate to other situations. If your puppy puts his paws on you without invitation, even when you are on the floor, end the game momentarily (freeze!). This teaches your dog boundaries. Withhold the good stuff if he’s pushy or invasive.


I don't like any tooth contact on me or my clothing when I'm playing with or training a dog. Substituting a toy can work well, but sometimes that's not enough, and we have to switch gears and do another activity. You can use bitter apple spray on your clothing or your hands to help dissuade your dog from enjoying them.


Tug is a fabulous game to play with our dogs! Contrary to an outdated but persistent belief, it will not cause your dog to become aggressive. Au contraire! If you play by the rules, your dog will learn how to turn on and off his excitement, relinquish valuable items, and you will have a great game to play together! For instructions on how to teach this, search “PupStart” and “tug with rules” on YouTube. It’s a surprisingly simple skill to teach.


Do not encourage "chase the puppy" games.

We don’t want a dog to learn the joy of running away from her humans. It will negatively affect recall, fetch, handling, and more. If a dog derives joy from running away with something in his possession, it’s even worse. Dogs can quickly learn to guard “their” items, sometimes aggressively, if they learn they risk losing them when a human approaches.


Allow your dog to chase YOU! If you consistently reward your dog low or on the ground, you will not have a jumping problem (but if jumping starts, stop the game). Even better, your dog can chase a flirt pole or a toy tied to a rope that you drag behind you. Chasing you can turn into a heeling game: have treats ready at your side and feed your dog right there as he runs beside you.


Abruptly ending the fun is way more effective a tool than saying “no” or “gentle” or anything else. By ending fun, we are controlling the consequence of a pup’s actions. He’s having fun, he breaks the rules, the fun stops. That’s instant feedback!


Start games with a clear invitational cue so your pup knows the games are ON! Otherwise, play has not commenced. An invitational cue or release cue comes in handy in many situations.

Now... go out and play with your pup, with rules!


See past article, “Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun” (August 2017)