A family that plays together

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By Tracie Korol

When we watch a litter of puppies play we can be convinced that play is a natural behavior. But I’m sure you’ve met some dogs that don’t play well or that don’t seem interested play at all.  How can this be?

For starters, dog-dog play is different than dog-human play.  While puppies naturally know how to play with other puppies, they have to learn how to play with their people as a part of their socialization. Dogs that don’t have this opportunity in their critical formative weeks may not have any idea how to engage their humans in play, and play is one of the elements that strengthen the dog-human bond.  As odd as it may sound, the dogs that do not learn how to play with their people are often the same ones that end up in shelters because the social contract — the one that says a dog deserves a lifelong loving home — has been broken, usually by his human.

Unfortunately, some people have a severely limited idea of what constitutes dog play.  If your dog won’t fetch the ball, you might think your dog doesn’t know how to do the dog thing.  How many of us have thrown the ball for our Best Friend to have him turn around with a condescending look of “What!?”. While Tucker, my lab, would retrieve until the moon came out, his housemate Bea would give me her version of “nice throw” and walk away. She preferred a touch-and-run game we called Scream the Beagle.

Many dogs love running games, chasing games, digging activities and tug-play.

But don’t stop there. Everyone has fun teaching dogs tricks and the list is endless: Roll Over, Take a Bow, Say Your Prayers or the Commando Crawl. My dad taught all of our dogs “Wait For It” with tiny pieces of kielbasa balanced on their noses.

If your dog won’t play one game with you, change your approach. Certainly, Scream the Beagle was not a game I learned about in a book. It developed over time by responding appropriately to cues from the Bea. If you’re patient, understanding and willing to look a bit foolish, you can help your play-deprived dog learn how to get in some kind of game. Here are some mistakes we might make in trying to convince a party-poop dog to play:

• Too much intensity — pressure to perform turns the dog off.

• Shoving a toy at his face to get him to play with it.

• Becoming too excited, and frightening the dog just as he begins to show     interest.

• Giving up on the dog. If he declines to participate, try another and another until you find a game he likes.

• Failing to recognize and reinforce inbred play behavior, such as the bounce in his step, flip of the head, the play bow, a momentary reaching for a toy, or reach with a paw.

• Relying on food as the only reward in learning how to play. A reinforcer is anything your dog wants — a squeak, a run, or your attention.

• Not ending the session soon enough. You want to leave your dog wanting more!

Some activities aren’t appropriate for particular dogs because the games are too arousing, physically risky, or they reinforce inappropriate behaviors.  If you don’t allow your dog on the furniture, or if he is low to the ground (think daschund), then jumping on and off the couch is not a good idea.  Some humans insist on playing inappropriately, and it’s your job as your dog’s protector to prevent them from having access to your Best Friend. If your brother-in-law’s idea of dog-play is to encourage play biting or body slamming, then you have to step in.  Plus, you can’t expect your dog to play with humans he doesn’t care for. If he dislikes children or is frightened by men with beards, it’s unfair to expect him to play with the Abe Lincoln look-alike next door.

Play is not something a dog outgrows but rather an activity keenly pursued throughout their lives. Unhealthy and unhappy dogs do not play, so play serves as a barometer of well being, indicating that a dog is well fed, in good health, and content. Like humans, dogs do not play when they’re sad or distressed. If they simply do not enjoy playing anything, they should be carefully scrutinized to make sure all is well in their lives.

Who should play? Everyone.