The Dreaded "Keep Away" Game

Updated: Oct 3, 2018

Picture the scene. You are outside with your dog playing with her favorite toy. You toss the toy, your dog runs happily after it, picks up the toy and begins runs circles around you, victoriously displaying her toy but refusing to bring it back to you. You call her name and move closer to her, but she runs the other direction!

Your dog is playing the “keep away” game! You feel the frustration level inside of you growing and begin to get a more gruff tone when calling her. When you do finally catch her you, take the toy from her, put her leash on and head inside or back to the car.

What is the message that your dog learned in that scenario? Do you think they will want to bring you their toy the next time? Very unlikely.

So, how do we fix this?

I have been in this situation and yes, it can be frustrating! When my Malinois was very young she began to play the “keep away” game. I had to think about what I did to cause this to occur and what I needed to do to prevent it from continuing. I thought back on our play sessions and realized there was something I was doing that likely contributed to this occurring – I got complacent in my recall training (it was going really well and frankly I got a little lazy) AND I created a situation where she felt I was going to take the toy from her and end the game.

There are a number of ways to fix the “Keep Away” game, but I have found three very easy things you can do to help your dog change his mindset about bringing the toy back to you.

  • LONG LINE - First, it is really important not to allow your dog to reward himself for not coming to you when you call him. By having a long drag line on your dog when you are playing, you have taken away the option of your dog choosing to ignore you and not bring the toy back to you. And yes, even in your own fenced in back yard, to prevent your dog from self-rewarding with a behavior you don’t want, keep a long drag line on your dog while playing and training. You want to teach that coming to you and bringing you the toy is highly rewardable and thus increasing the behavior you do want. When you do need to pick up the line, run the other direction – away from your dog! Yes, you read that correctly – run the opposite direction of your dog while you are happily saying his name. He will want to chase you and catch up to you! Yes, it is a pain, but, until your dog has learned to bring the toy back to you every time, you need to have a way to reel him in.

  • LET HER WIN! – Many times dogs don’t want to bring the toy back because they think you are just going to take it away from them. When your dog brings the toy back do one of two things: one, let her hang onto the toy while you engage in a game of tug, then let go of the toy while she still has it in her mouth and let her win! Repeat this a couple of times, then trade for food or another toy (or if they know “out, give, drop” say that) and then immediately reward them for giving it up by allowing them to play with the toy again.

The second way to play this is once she brings the toy back, don’t even try to reach for it. Talk to her, jump around a bit, trot backwards causing her to want to push the toy to you more and encourage you to play with her. Then, tug with her a bit and let go and begin to talk to her, move around facing her, again causing her to want to engage with you. This not only builds a lot of confidence in your dog but it changes her mindset from “don’t take it” to “play with me, mom”.

  • CHANGE THE END GAME! – If every time you want to end the game, you take the toy from your dog and either load them up in the car or bring them back in the house and ignore them because you have other things you need to do, or you put them immediately in a crate, what message is your dog learning? That bringing the toy to you ends the game AND, in their mind, an unpleasant thing occurs. Of course, we can’t continue to play the game forever, and, our dogs do need to learn there is a time to stop, but how can set it up so giving up the toy and ending that game doesn’t equal something negative?

One thing you can do is allow your dog to carry their toy back to the car or to the back door from the yard while trotting along with your dog and singing their praises. Allowing them to carry their toy after you are done playing removes them from the play area before they have to give up their toy. Verbally praising them while you are heading back to the car or your house keeps the energy positive and helps build confidence in your dog.

Also, once they do release their toy, spend a little time engaging with and verbally praising your dog. Separate the retrieve game from giving up the toy and then add in some praise for releasing the toy. You can even do some fun obedience or tricks, reward them for that and then completely end the play session.

By teaching our dogs that there is value in not only bringing the toy back to us but actively engaging with us, and, not allowing them to self-reward by ignoring us, we are changing their mindset of the game to a more positive and rewarding experience!

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