Updated: Dec 10, 2019

How many times have you wanted to play with your dog, but she didn’t want to engage with you? Or you maybe you were at the park with your dog and all his focus was on everything but you. How about when you toss a toy? Does your dog willingly bring it back to so the game can continue?

Many times, the way we play can cause a breakdown in our relationship with our dog. And sometimes people are just unsure how to play with their dog and inevitably cause an issue they didn’t even realize was being created.

Here are 3 ways that how we play and/or interact with our dogs can make a difference.

1. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Many times, when we play with our dogs we always end up with the toy or prevent the dog from getting the toy thinking we are building more of a desire to push for the toy. However, this can backfire on us very quickly and may dogs will just give up trying and no longer want to play with us. It’s important to let the dog win many times. For instance, if we are using a Flirt Pole, a ball on a stick, or even just moving a tug toy around but most of the time we keep it out of our dog’s reach and they rarely get to catch it, the game is no longer fun for the dog. Creating a little bit of desire by moving the toy and keeping the dog from getting it a couple of times can build a lot of desire for the toy but we need to make sure that the dog is able to get it often, and even carry it around. This not only builds confidence in the dog but also builds trust in you and ultimately builds the relationship.

2. Here, take it!

Another common mistake that people make is trying to force a dog to play with a toy by pushing the toy into the dog’s face. When the dog turns away or steps back, the person things the dog doesn’t like toys and gives up trying to play with the dog. When really what is happening is the dog is saying, “don’t shove it at me, play with me.” Forcing a dog to take a toy is a good way to develop an avoidance issue. Not necessarily to the toy but to you. Most dogs have what we call prey drive – when something moves, they get interested in it. Their ears perk up, their body language changes, their desire to want to engage increases. Most dogs aren’t interested in “dead” toys. Moving the toy quickly taps into natural prey drive instinct. Let the dog come to the toy and build desire by moving it low to the ground and quickly back and forth a couple of times and then let your dog take hold of it. If your dog likes to tug, let them tug for a few seconds and then either let go and let them carry it or move into the dog releasing some of the resistance (but still holding the toy) and then start again.

3. Who’s engaging with whom?

This is something I see quite often. People will get ready to engage, play or train with their dog and will reach into their treat pouch or pocket, take out some food and regardless of what the dog is doing, will try to show them the food, moving their hand around trying to get their dog to pay attention to the food and distract the dog from. . . well, whatever the dog is looking at, sniffing, interested in. Which is usually anything other than their human.

In order to get our dog to listen better, respond faster, work through distractions, we need our dogs to start the game, not us. In the above scenarios, what the dog is learning is that the environment is more important and has more value than their owner and they can stay checked out and ignore the owner. Then, when the dog gets bored with what he / she is doing and decides to look at us, we get all excited and reward the dog with verbal and food reward. What has the dog just learned? That ignoring their owner is rewardable.

So, how can we either prevent this or fix this?

Teach your dog to always be the one to start the game! Why is this important? It teaches the dog that all good things come through you! It builds value in you!

Start out by having your dog inside where there are no distractions – it’s just you and your dog. The very second your dog looks to you, mark the desired behavior (beginning engagement) with either a verbal marker (YES!) or a clicker. Then, reach into your pocket, treat pouch or container of food right next to you and reward your dog. Keep the food in your pocket or pouch until you are ready to reward. The “marker” tells the dog they did something correct, the food rewards the behavior you want.

Repeat this 4-5 times, always waiting for your dog to look to you before marking and rewarding. Some dogs are very smart and learn this game very quickly! Be ready to mark and reward quickly and especially, if your dog chooses to stay engaged with you! After all, that is what we ultimately want.

After 4-5 times of marking/rewarding, give your dog a release cue – something that means they can move away, get up, the current game/exercise is done. Then start all over. Depending on the dog do 3-4 sets and the call it good. End the game with your dog wanting more! This will create more desire to play again next time and create more value in you.

As your dog gets better, move to other rooms in the house, on the front porch, on the deck, in the driveway, etc. The more your dog learns that you are more valuable than the environment, the stronger your relationship is and the better your dog will want to listen and engage with you!

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