How to Train Your Dog to Play

Not all dogs know how to have fun with their human owners

Terrier puppy with tennis ball
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There are many reasons why a dog may not instinctively engage in play with their human owners. For example, a dog kept in a kennel for breeding may have little positive interaction or experience with humans. A rescue dog may have been injured by its owner, or a puppy may simply be shy. If your dog or puppy is anxious or unwilling to engage with you, you can earn its trust through a slow, gentle process of socialization. Once your pet feels comfortable with you, it can learn to play and have fun.

Before You Begin

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.

As you get started, remember that patience is your most important tool. It can take time for a dog to start to trust its owners and even more time for it to learn appropriate ways to interact.

Start Slowly

There are several reasons a dog may not have learned to play. One common reason 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 why 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 it shows an interest give it a treat and/or praise. It may take some time, but the more you engage your dog in play, the sooner it will learn what it's expected to do. Before you know it, your dog will be playing as if it's done it all its 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 it'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 it 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.