The Power of Play

It is human nature to separate the ideas of work and play. Work imposes a schedule and deadlines. It might involve the hassles of getting to and from a specific place and interacting with others whose company we might not choose in social circumstances. For many people, “work” time is distinct from “fun” time. So unsurprisingly, many people extend that distinction to training or working their dogs. They view “training” time as something distinct from “play” time.
It doesn’t have to be that way.

Do What You Love
There’s an old saying “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” While that may not feel true during rush hour traffic, it is true that even with the inevitable frustrations inherent in any job, people who like their jobs are more motivated and invested in their work than those who do not. Training can be a job your dog loves. Our dogs don’t have to take on a serious demeanor when it comes to training or working and only be carefree and joyful in a “free play” atmosphere. Wrapping training and play into a single package helps keep your dog motivated and engaged. Training games help you develop a meaningful and respectful relationship between you and your dog. And they build your dog’s perception that you are a pretty cool human to pay attention to! Over time, he will come to value your attention and interaction as the best reward.
By creating training games that incorporate obedience, you achieve several vital training goals.

  • Your dog is engaged with you. Attention is a key element of obedience. When you become the most interesting game in town, it is much easier to capture and keep your dog’s attention.
  • Your dog learns that good behavior has highly rewarding outcomes.
  • Your dog comes to have strong positive associations with listening and obeying.

Early on in training, you can use play as a reward for simple obedience. Give your pup a ball toss after a successful recall. As training progresses, games are a powerful tool for building greater impulse control and reliability.

  • Throw a ball or toy while your dog holds a down/stay. Reward him by releasing him and allowing him to go get the one you threw or chase a new throw. If he does not hold the down/stay, correct him and don’t allow him to chase one until he does.
  • With a long leash on your dog, throw a ball or toy and allow your dog to begin the chase. Call him back to you before he reaches the ball or toy. As soon as he returns, reward him by throwing another and allowing him to complete the chase. If he does not respond to your recall, use the long leash to correct him, prevent him from reaching the ball or toy, and reel him back into you. When he returns, try again.

These games practice the skills and impulse control required for real life situations such as being called off chasing a deer or a squirrel or for staying in place when company comes. And real life has its rewards too: When company comes, reward your dog by allowing him to greet your guests if he has controlled his impulse on your down/stay command.

No Parking
Dog playtime is a very inviting activity for many dog owners. Sitting in the dog park, drinking coffee while your dog runs around with his canine friends may sound like a great way to burn off his excess energy. However, when you make yourself a passive by-stander to a session of dog-centric playtime, you give up the power of play.
Dogs don’t require obedience during play and their idea of “impulse control” is vastly different from our human expectations. When you park yourself on a bench while your pup engages in canine free-for-all, you are creating a clear distinction between playing with you and playing with other dogs. Once that distinction becomes clear to your dog, your “work/play” sessions will suffer in comparison. If your role at the dog park is to just watch, occasionally break up the action, and finally be the one who drags your dog away from his buddies, you are going to have trouble maintaining your status as “the most exciting game in town.”
I want my dogs to be “dog neutral.” When they encounter other dogs they are not aggressive or overtly playful. They look at, and, if permitted, may even sniff another dog—but they would rather interact with me because I’m the fun
Taking your dog to the dog park does nothing to improve your dog’s training or strengthen your bond. Furthermore, it is an inappropriate setting for socialization. You have no way of knowing the temperament or the health status of the dogs your dog will encounter. A dog park is a completely unpredictable environment with no structure or regulation. A large group of running dogs feeds off its own energy and becomes a frenzied free-for-all that can lead to injuries such as tearing an ACL or throwing out a hip. The group is not a “pack” with established roles and hierarchies, so aggression can easily break out.

It’s All Fun and Games Until. . .

Games are fun because they have rules not in spite of the rules. We feel good when we meet a challenge. Give your dog realistic challenges and gradually increase the difficulty. Make training a game he wants to win and can win. Don’t whip a 90 mph fastball past his down/stay at the beginning of his training. You can reward with a fast throw, but when practicing impulse control, build up gradually. Keep in mind, however, that the goal of the games is to strengthen obedience and impulse control. The games don’t replace training; they are training. Sports have penalties; training (even fun training) has corrections for disobedience. So don’t let your dog off the hook for disobedience because you are “trying to keep training fun.” The reward of accomplishing the task, interacting with you, and engaging in an activity he enjoys are what keep training fun.
Incorporating play into training is a relationship builder. It is also a solution to building self-control. Your dog will learn to be obedient when excited and he will have a positive attitude about learning. You will have a stronger bond with your dog and will experience more success in your training sessions. In training games, everybody wins.