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 against others in the pack;
  • 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 ‘backyard breeders’ whose main concern is profit.

Backyard breeders are often friends or neighbors, one of whom has an intact (un-neutered) female and the other has an intact male. Often one or both parents carry genes for breed related diseases and maladies like hip dysplasia, von Willenbrand’s disease, entropia etc. The dogs are bred and 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.

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 unless you are going to compete with your dog in AKC sponsored events. AKC “papers” 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 breed enthusiast who knows how to handle the litter for the very best temperament development of the puppies.

“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, an empty paper towel roll etc.

By providing toys for your pup from three weeks old, 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 state” 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’ to keep and you do not mind losing!

The toy must be something that is valuable enough that he will go to great extent to get hold of it, yet not so “valuable” to your dog 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 small dogs. Again, these balls can easily become lodged in the dog’s throat and suffocate the dog. Be sure to learn dog CPR!!

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 Pit Bull 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 often 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.

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*** 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.

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. 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 come closer to you. Pat or scratch the floor. When he comes 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. Your pup should bring the toy to you wherever you are sitting .

Session three:

The “trading” step. When your pup comes 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 boy, leave it!”

Let us know how this works!