Teaching Your Dog To Play


Getting your dog to play – It’s all a matter of “desire”!

Play is an extremely important part of dogs’ lives.

It is a means to:

  • measure/compare themselves to other members in the group;
  • build or cement a bond between individuals;
  • release stress, unwind, relax;
  • stimulate body and mind;
  • break down inhibitions.

There are two major types of play:

The first is solitary play with a ‘toy’. The dog’s ‘desire’ is to relieve boredom, stimulate his body and mind and relax. This is similar to a human shooting hoops with a basketball, (toy), or playing a video game, (toy).

The other type of play is interactive play with a playmate. The dog’s ‘desire’ is to build or strengthen a bond with the companion. This is similar to a human playing tennis with a companion using a racket, (toy), or physical games against an opponent, like foot races, with no equipment (toys). The ‘desire’ is the same.



As with human children, the best environment for puppies is one where there is a generous supply of novel toys always available to the pup. This is especially critical at the breeder’s home.

Take Note: The majority of problems with dogs start with the ‘breeder’. ‘Breeders’ come in many varieties from legitimate breed enthusiasts whose main concern is the welfare of the breed, to puppy mills, production ‘breeders’ and some ‘backyard breeders’ whose main concern is profit.

Puppy Mills are commercial dog breeding factories where dogs are born and maintained under deplorable conditions.  No veterinary care is given to them.  Their food, if available to them, is very low quality, often contaminated and spoiled.  Their water is very often covered with algae, urine or other contaminants.  The dogs are treated like products, not like living beings.  They are crammed into filthy wire cages, as many as ten dogs to a cage, lying in their excrement, often with open sores and other untreated injuries.  There are about 10,000 puppy mills in the U.S. , often with thousands of puppies in each mill!  The puppies are sold on line
and in Pet Stores.  These puppies are often very difficult to potty train, because they have been living in a cage all of their lives and have little or no human contact.  They are often fearful which makes training difficult.

‘Production Breeders’ are only one step above Puppy Mills.  Again, the dogs are considered products.  There is little interest in the dogs’ welfare other than to keep them looking healthy so that they are more easily sold.  Production Breeders have 5 to 10 bitches who are bred every time they come into heat.  When you go to a production breeder you do not see the mother and father of the litter.  These dogs are sold in pet stores and on line as well.

Backyard breeders are often friends or neighbors, one of whom has an intact (un-spayed) female and the other has an intact (un-neutered) male. Some dog owners believe that their dogs are so cute and sweet that they want to produce puppies just like their dogs!  (This does not usually happen!!)  Other owners think that they can sell the pups and make a few dollars.  One of the biggest problem with this is that often one or both dogs carry genes for breed related diseases and maladies like hip dysplasia, von Willenbrand’s disease, entropia etc. The ‘breeders’ are usually unaware of these diseases.  The unwitting purchasers of the resulting puppies are often faced with emotional pain and enormous veterinary bills, if they can afford them, or the tragic choice of putting their ‘defective’ pets to death.  (Known as ‘Economic Euthanasia’)  Another problem with back yard breeding is that when 10-12 puppies are born, even if homes are found for these puppies, those homes are no longer available to dogs already in the shelters, waiting for a new home.  Dogs in shelters, who are not adopted, are eventually put to death because there are no homes for them.  Those homes went to the puppies that the backyard breeders produced!!!  If you are thinking about breeding your dog, please first go to the local shelters and walk down the rows and rows of cages.  Tell each of the dogs there that you are going to produce more puppies who will take the homes for which these shelter dogs are waiting, so they will have to be put to death!!

Many owners purchase AKC registered ‘pedigreed’ dogs believing that this gives them a better chance of finding a healthy puppy. In fact, AKC ‘papers’ mean nothing more than that your dog was produced by allegedly pure bred, registered bitch and dog.  Most breeders require that you spay and neuter your pups so, unless you are going to compete with your dog in AKC sponsored events, your pup’s AKC papers are of no value.  They do not in any way insure a mentally or physically sound puppy. In fact, AKC papers do not even insure that the puppy is actually pure bred!!! If you are looking for a pure bred dog, be certain that you are purchasing from a well respected breed enthusiast who knows how to handle the litter for the very best temperament development of the puppies.

OK  Back to teaching your pup how to play.  ‘Toys’ do not have to be purchased from a store. A ‘toy’ is anything with which your dog enjoys playing. A favorite ‘toy’ is a crunched sport water bottle, with a few dry lima beans rattling round inside, tied inside a sock.   Empty paper towel rolls, a soft rope with knots, braided strips of soft fabric etc.

By providing toys for your pup from the moment you meet him, your pup will learn to play competitive games with safe objects rather than with other dogs’ ears, necks and tails or with your ankles! When your pup has been introduced to inanimate toys early in his puppyhood, it will be simple to manage his ‘nipping/mouthing stage’ by supplying him with toys he prefers to your hands or ankles.

All dogs play. When attempting to set up a play program, it is important to determine

  • with what toys your dog will play,
  • with whom your dog will play,
  • where your dog will play, and
  • when your dog will play.

With what toys?

If you purchase a toy from a pet shop without asking your dog’s opinion, and it is one that your dog does not particularly like, it is unlikely that he will want to play with it, or you. If your dog is more interested in a toy brought by another dog owner in the park, it is unlikely that your dog will want to play with the toy you have provided.

You must ‘ask’ your dog what kind of toy he would like. Chances are he will tell you that it’s something that is fun, novel and interactive with a playmate, not necessarily something you bought from the pet shop. Watch him round the house and see what he loves to ‘steal’. If there is something in your environment that he loves to chew, that’s a good toy for him. Now don’t give him a pair of your shoes! Find something of little value to you that he loves to steal. Something that he is willing to pay a ‘penalty’, (NOT punishment!!), to keep and you do not mind losing!

The toy must be something that is valuable enough that your pup will go to great extent to get hold of it, yet not so valuable to him that he is not willing to give it up . For retrieving games, for example, the toy must be valuable enough that the dog wants to chase after it and pick it up but not so valuable that he does not want to return it to you and give it up. Be sure the toy can be safely used by your dog. Be careful it is not easily swallowed and has no sharp edges or small parts that he can remove and swallow.

Take Note: Tennis balls, one of most dogs’ favorite toys, are really quite dangerous toys!

A dog with a strong enough jaw and sharp enough teeth can puncture a tennis ball, cause it to collapse under the strength of his jaws, and swallow it in his excitement. Once in his throat the ball then pops back open and suffocates the dog. This occurs far more than most people may realize. Other dangerous toys are racketballs for medium and large dogs, and golf balls for all dogs. Again, these balls can easily become lodged in the dog’s throat and suffocate the dog. Be sure to learn dog CPR!!  The other problem with Tennis Balls is that they are abrasive and wear down the Enamel resulting in need for Root Canal surgery!

When choosing a toy, keep in mind your dog’s breed and purpose. A terrier will want a high pitched squeaky toy that he can shake and ‘kill’.     A Border Collie will want a ball on a rope to chase. The Staffordshire Terrier will want a tug toy to grab and hang onto. A lab will want anything that he can retrieve and bring back to you. Get the picture? Keep in mind, too, that your dog uses all five of his senses and the toy must be attractive to all five. A toy must smell, taste, sound, appear and feel attractive to your dog. It must also move well

With whom?

When you are teaching your pup to play, the best person to start him is the person who sets your dog into a wild, excited frenzy when that person comes to your home. That may very well not be you! You may have too much influence over your dog’s behavior which may inhibit his desire to play!


If you practice obedience work in a particular area, that would not be the place to teach your pup to play. If the environment is very distracting with activities/noises/smells, these distractions may be more exciting than you or the toy you are offering. An example of an overwhelming distraction is any area where other dogs are present, especially when the other dogs tend to run off with the toy!


Choose the time of day when your dog is on the upward swing toward getting excited and not when he is at the peak of excitement. For example, do not wait until your dog’s supper is ready to be placed on the floor before starting your training session. He is at the peak of his excitement anticipating the imminent supper and it will be very difficult to maintain his attention. Start your training session about 20 minutes before the time that you usually start to prepare his supper. Determine whether your dog responds better in the morning or evening. Dogs are “Crepuscular”.   That is, very active at dawn and dusk because these are the two times when wild dogs would be hunting. It’s a dog thing! Experiment with your dog to determine his most active and attentive time of day and start your first lesson just before then.

NOTE:  Never allow your dog to play, exercise or run for at least an hour after meals, especially if she is one of the breeds most subject to Bloat and Vulvulus.  Large, deep chested breeds …. Great Danes, Rottweilers, Dobermans, Standard Poodles, Greyhounds are among the most vulnerable breeds.

Now. You have the correct toy, person, location and time to teach your pup to play.

The first session should last no more than five minutes. The person who is working with your dog must be absolutely uninhibited and silly. A young person is ideal for this. After five minutes of acting like a clown, gently pet the pup and stop the game. This must be done with absolutely no frustration. Your dog will likely not join in the game for at least three days. If he does, BONUS!

Repeat the five minute play session the next two days. Five minutes each day for three days.

If your pup does not play after the third day, reduce his access to any other dogs for three days and try again. By “reduce his access” I mean do not allow them any unsupervised access to one another and no play time or exercise time together for three days.

With some breeds you will have to change the toy every two or three sessions so that it retains some novelty value. With breeds with short visual memories, Border Collies for example, the same toy can be used extensively. For dogs with long visual memories, ***Dobermans*** (no bias there :-) ), for example, the toy must be changed often to avoid his becoming bored with the toy..

As your dog begins to enjoy the play sessions and join in the game with the toy, you will start teaching him the rules of the game. Done correctly, the game will become more exciting. Done incorrectly, the game will not be considered fun by your pup. This, and the choice of toys are the most critical steps.

For a dog who is reluctant to play, you will have to allow him to win most of the time until his confidence improves. If he compares himself against you in early games and realizes that he has no chance of ever winning a game, he may lose interest in the game early on. On the other hand if he never loses he may throw a temper tantrum and take his ball and go home if it looks like he is losing!!  :-).

Use your common sense to know when to start allowing him to lose the game.  Remember, allowing him to win has nothing to do with Dominance.  Many uninformed ‘trainers’ will tell you to never let your dog win a game and to never play tug of war with him because that allows him to think that he is the “alpha” and “dominant” over you.  That is ABSOLUTE NONSENSE!!!!  Please re-read the “Philosophy” page of this site.

Now that you have determined the right toy, person, location and time to teach your dog to play, you will need a game!

The retrieve is the best interactive game for dogs. The secret here is the toy with just the right value. If too much value, your dog will not want to bring it back to you. If too little value, your dog will not want to go get it.

Session one:

Find something your pup likes to chew like a sock or slipper or toilet paper roll. When it appears that your pup is looking for mischief get the toy or article and tease him with it. Throw it a short distance and allow him to run and pick it up. DO NOT CHASE AFTER HIM.

Chasing him will make him think that you are competing for the toy and force him into taking avoiding action. He will likely take the toy to a particular spot in the room and lie down with it to chew. SLOWLY get up and move toward him without looking him in the eye. Sit on the floor, extend your arm and stroke him, gently reassuring him with your voice. Do not attempt to take the toy from him at this stage. When he drops the toy, quickly grab it and tease him with it, return to the spot from which you originally threw it and drop it. Allow him to pick it up and take it back to his “safe spot”. (The place where he took it to chew on it.) Again, walk over to him without looking him in the eye, sit on the floor, stroke him and speak to him softly. As before, when he releases the toy, grab it, tease him with it, and return it to the throwing place, drop it and allow him to pick it up and take it to his safe spot. Repeat this whole process as many times as he is willing to participate in the game.  If he starts to lose interest, stop the game immediately.  Offer him a treat and when he drops the toy, gently pick it up.  Tell him what a good boy he is and take him for a walk or do something that he likes.  The idea is to simply let him know that the game is over, not that he did something to cause you to take his toy.  Play this game for two or three sessions.

Session two:

This time, throw the toy and when your pup runs to pick it up, YOU go and sit in the ‘safe spot’ where he had been taking the toy during the previous sessions. Your pup should bring the toy right to you and lie down next to or behind you to be stroked. Stroke him and tell him what a wonderful pup he is. Repeat this exercise several times. Next, move your position about six feet in any direction from the ‘safe spot’. If your pup takes the toy to the old location and lies down with it, ignore him for a few seconds then use your voice to encourage him to go closer to you. Pat or scratch the floor, your leg etc.  Whatever it takes to have him want to go to you. When he goes to you do not touch the toy. Scratch him, rub him and praise him lavishly. Gently take the toy from him and throw it for him again. Repeat these sessions several more times as long as he is enjoying the game. Your pup should bring the toy to you wherever you are sitting .

Session three:

The “trading” step. When your pup goes to you with the toy, gently take it from him, praise him, and throw a second toy for him to chase.

This exercise is useful when your pup picks up anything he should not have. It is easier and safer to call him to you with the words “good boy, get it” rather than the words, “bad dog, leave it!”

Let us know how this works!