Today Amy discusses the power of play and how we can use it as a helpful motivator for our dogs. Learn tips and tricks to achieve success with your dog all through play.
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The Power of Play
Hello! Thank you for listening today. I hope you are having a great week. Today I want to discuss the power of play and how we can use it as a helpful motivator for our dogs.
Baxter is currently in his adolescent phase of life. Ahhh, adolescence. So fun! Ok, so it can definitely be trying too. Over the past week I have been thinking a lot about how I help him succeed. What things am I doing to help motivate him to make good choices? Play came to mind and the power behind making me more rewarding than the environment or a toy more fun than a leaf. Depending on where you live, leaves are blowing and falling all around which really create tough distractions to compete with! While I enjoy the beauty for sure, I’ve had to be more creative in how to get Baxter’s attention.
Let’s back up a bit and review how dogs think. Dogs do something if it is worth it to them. If it brings them no benefit, they won’t do it or stop doing it. We can teach a dog good behavior by rewarding things we like, making those things worth it to our dog.
Oftentimes we use food to pay our dogs for doing good things - why because dogs need to eat and it acts as a powerful motivator to do desirable behaviors. Once our dogs learn they get paid to be calm, chill on their mat, go into their kennel, come when called, etc, it is more likely they are willing to do these things and we see an increase in their choosing to listen to given cues. We work to establish a healthy relationship where our dog understands rules, boundaries and what will or will not work for them.
Food definitely works, but I have also found play to be super powerful in capturing a dog’s attention. Dogs are social creatures and love interacting with us. Dogs also love movement, chasing, stalking prey and capturing things. Toys are a wonderful way to help your dog experience these natural instincts while playing with you, both things they love - AND - toys are fun. They can be quick, squeaky, unpredictable (something we often use to keep a dog’s attention) and fun to chase! When you are more fun than the environment, your dog pays attention to you.
When you are playful with your dog, you’ll notice the many behaviors improve, including the recall. For example, if Baxter is out exploring around our backyard, I can squeak a toy, then run and hide. The quick running steps and the fun playful squeak entice him to get involved. Then I disappeared! What? Where did she go? Suddenly he gets to hunt me out with his nose - super fun for many dogs. You can tag on a recall cue like, “Baxter come!” as you hide then when he finds you, mark “YES! Good boy!” The reward at this point can be that he found you! You can rub his ears, back or belly. You can toss the squeaky toy for him to chase further. You can play a gentle game of tug with him and the long furry squeaky toy. Or you can pay with food too. There are so many options, but all rewarding to the dog and it started with your willingness to play.
Games such as Hide & Seek may be adapted to work for a variety of fitness levels. If running quickly is not your thing, use the toy to do the quick exciting movements. Calmly go hide while your puppy is busy sniffing, then use a toy attached to a long rope to create movement as you squeak another toy - trying to capture your dog’s attention. Tying a toy to the end of a rope and dragging it through the grass can be super motivating for dogs. The quick unpredictable movements encourage the dog to chase. Then when your dog notices and comes running, reel in the rope with the toy attached and reward as previously mentioned.
Using play to recall your dog often takes the place of even needing to say a cue. Start play with a favorite toy and watch your dog come running. Baxter loves to try and catch toys - once I noticed this, I started using CATCH as a fun reward for coming. This also works with fetch to trade out the toy he has in his mouth. Start playing CATCH and he drops the toy on his own, no need for a cue. I find play takes the place of speaking - my dog and I can enjoy good times together without the sometimes stressful vocabulary being introduced.
Be creative when it comes to play. Find out what your dog loves naturally. Baxter for example would not fetch a ball a month ago. I would toss it and nothing. I pulled out a frisbee. With this toy he did somewhat better, but when he tried to pick it up out of the grass, it must have been too much work because he quickly gave up. So I tried a bumper. This is a toy made of rubber, plastic or foam with a short rope attached to it making it easy to toss long distances. It is lightweight and easy for a dog to carry in their mouth. I pulled this toy out, wiggled it around making it exciting for Baxter, swung it around then tossed it as far as I could across the lawn. Baxter immediately took off after it and scooped it up in his mouth. To help him win the fetch game, I quickly started jogging away from him, hoping he’d continue the chase after me. He caught up to me with the bumper in his mouth and we had success.
We built success around a toy he naturally liked, and since then we’ve progressed to him fetching other things. He’ll now go after a ball, especially indoors and plush toys too. I try to notice what he naturally likes and use that as motivation for good behaviors.
So what kind of toys work best? As mentioned, this depends on your dog. You may need to experiment like I did with Baxter and the ball, frisbee and bumper. Generally speaking, I find puppies adore long, furry squeaky toys which allow you to hold one end and they can bite the other. As they mature around the ages of 4-7 months, fetch becomes more interesting so adding a ball, frisbee or bumper into the mix is great.
With any play, we don’t want to overdo it. Allow your dog to take breaks when they need it and limit jumping or cutting back and forth until joints are fully developed around 18 months to two years of age. You’ll want to check with your veterinarian on that one to be sure.
I encourage you to give play a try this week and see how powerful it can be in motivating your dog to do good things! Try to discover what play your dog loves most and add this technique to your training tool kit. See you if you can NOT say a word and still get your dog to do things like a recall this week. We are a community - so if you have a favorite toy your dog loves, share it with the rest of us! We are all in this together and sharing your successes can help others.
Thanks for listening - now go have fun with your dog. I’ll talk to you next week.