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The Power of Play

Updated: Mar 20

Spring is finally springing out- or at least it’s trying to! So it’s a perfect time to get back to training as the days grow longer and hopefully drier. However, training in the great outdoors can be both a pleasure and a pain, especially if you have a dog who is driven by their nose and/or eyes- hello gundogs!

For me, play absolutely underpins everything we do with our dogs and is the foundation of training. For my dogs- and the dogs I work with- I want them actively “opting in” to training. It should feel like a continuation of play so that they enjoy this time with us and WANT to learn.

When developing play with our dog, it's important to put ourselves at the heart of it, to really cement that idea that WE bring the fun (not a ball, food or another dog etc). We need to make coming to us a great choice for our dogs, if not, well, guess which direction they are going if given a choice between you or another dog, or a bird, or a rabbit…


What is play?

Let’s think about what play means first, and why it’s so crucial. Play is a fundamental need, especially for youngsters. It’s how they learn about and explore the world. It strengthens bonds (with humans, other dogs, other species) and it builds their confidence in coping with new and novel situations. Who hasn’t seen puppies play chasing, mating or fighting? Offering our dogs opportunities for play is meeting their natural needs. If we don’t, then they will likely create their own play- the sock thief that engages you in a rewarding (for them!) game of chase, the digger who landscapes your garden, the shredder who destroys your bin contents- the list goes on!

Why is it important for us to play with our dog, if they can just play by themselves?

SO many reasons! At home we really want to encourage and develop behaviours that we like- assuming you don’t enjoy having 20 odd socks and a lawn that looks like a building site! If we are strategic about the TYPE of play we develop, then we can iron out the behaviour we DON’T want. Don’t want your dog jumping? Don’t encourage play that brings that in- ask them for calm before they get the ball, or a sit before they get the treat.

Secondly, and most importantly for me, it’s very common to have a dog who absolutely loves playing and training at home, or who has great recall in the garden, but once we get into more exciting places then – human? Who are you?!!! Ball? No thanks! We need to be able to transfer skills to the big wide world, and it's out there that the importance and value our dogs put in their relationship with us hits the ultimate test in a landscape full of animal scent and movement.


What might stop a dog wanting to play with us?

To begin with, their history with us, what is encouraged or discouraged. What we often try to suppress- biting, jumping, tugging- is actually just natural canine behaviour. There is often a disconnect between our puppy’s idea of play and our idea of play. Biting, tugging, jumping are all ways that a puppy is telling us they want to engage (and see us a source of fun!)- but these behaviours often end up with the puppy being scolded. The dog gives up on seeking us out for fun and finds it elsewhere (This isn't me saying we should encourage these behaviours, but we can redirect them into more desirable ones and make that highly rewarding for our furry friends, so they start to choose the option that pays out).

Next- the TYPE of play we are trying to build, and the approach we take to it, can put a young dog off. If we are being too demanding, too intense, then that can put a young dog off (or make them too intense which then puts us off). It might also not be a type of play they enjoy- one puppy might LOVE chasing a ball, another might have zero interest. A key rule for me is always, keep it short and sweet and stop before the dog starts getting bored- we want to keep quality and value in the game!

Physical condition also has an impact- a teething puppy might not want to play tug, an older dog with a joint issue might not want to be running after a ball (although it’s worth noting that dogs are very good at disguising injury and pain, so always keep an eye out for “the absence of the ordinary” specific to your dog).


How do we become the source of fun play?

Working out what our dogs enjoy and then meeting that need is key. Some love to chase down a frisbee, others won’t even glance at it. Some love to snuffle out treats in long grass, some give up pretty fast. So observe your dog, what do they enjoy doing? Then think about, how can you insert yourself into that? Better yet, how can you then think about harnessing the power of that play to get your dog to offer you something first?

Finally, my Spring challenge to you is this- find a way of playing with your dog that makes them wiggle with joy, really develop and make it solid at home and then start taking it out into increasingly more challenging areas and see what happens! Get playful 😊 

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