How to Train a Dog to Play

Terrier puppy with tennis ball
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Before my parents adopted Molly, a 4-year-old Boston Terrier, she had been rescued from a puppy mill where she was kept as a breeding dog. Kept in a kennel for most of her life, Molly had little contact with humans. By the time she arrived at her new home, Molly was shy and terrified and had never had as much as a chew toy to call her own.

Over the last few months, Molly has learned to love her new home. She's come to trust her new owners and enjoys being pet and walked. The one thing that Molly is still learning is how to play. It seems like it should be instinctive, but some dogs, like Molly, need to be taught how to play.

The following tips can help you train a dog to play:

Benefits of Play

Before getting into the how let's take a look at the why. Is it important to train a dog to play?

While some dog owners might not care if their dog is playful, there are a number of benefits involved in dog play, including:

  • Playing offers dogs mental stimulation and a way to burn off energy.
  • Playing is a great way to build the bond between you and your dog.
  • Playing is a great way to reward your dog for learning new skills.
  • Playing is fun! Just like with people, playing and doing activities they enjoy increase a dog's quality of life.

Start Slowly

There are several reasons a dog may not have learned to play. One reason, as we see with Molly, is a lack of early socialization. Dogs don't play simply because no one has ever engaged in a game with them. Another reason is that their instincts may drive them to do other things. For instance, a Border Collie may have the drive to herd your children together in the yard rather than engage in a game of fetch.

No matter the reason your dog isn't playing, you should begin by slowly introducing them to toys and games. Start by leaving the toys around to sniff and get used to, rather than immediately trying to engage them in an all-out game of tug-of-war. An improperly socialized dog may be scared if you move too fast, and a dog whose instincts are pushing them to do something else will just be confused.

Reward Any Interest in Toys

Start off with soft praise or a treat for any interest your dog shows in toys. You can even hide a treat or spread a little peanut butter on a tug toy or a ball. Your dog will quickly learn that toys mean good things happen.

Get Involved in the Game

Once your dog is comfortable with the toys, it's time to start interacting with him with the toys. Again, start off slow. Sit close to your dog and roll a ball towards him or shake a tug toy a little. If he shows an interest give him a treat and/or praise. It may take some time, but the more you engage your dog in play, the sooner he'll learn what he's expected to do. Before you know it, your dog will be playing as if he's done it all his life.

Teach the Rules of the Game

Sometimes teaching a dog to play involves more than simply slowly introducing him to the idea. Games like fetch, for instance, have more than one part. It might be easy to teach your dog to run and pick up a ball you throw, but he'll have to know "come" and "drop it" in order for the game to continue smoothly without turning into a game of chase. If your dog is having trouble playing, make sure he knows the basic commands involved in playing the game.

Choose Games According to the Dog's Interests

Not every dog is going to like every kind of game. Try to choose games that best suit your dog's personality. A retriever is likely to enjoy a game of fetch. A terrier might really get into a game of tug-of-war. Herding dogs, such as Border Collies and Australian Shepherds, tend to do well at agility and Frisbee. By matching the games you choose to suit the things your dog was bred to do (retrieving, herding, etc.), it'll be easier to teach your dog to play, and a lot more fun for your dog.