Jack Russell Terrier play with big old ball

Having fun with your dog helps create the vital human-canine bond

Structured play is a great way to work on impulse control and build focus

Appropriate, structured play is often an overlooked element of dog ownership. Play is vital for the human-canine bond, and is a great way to drain a dog’s excess energy. Additionally, regular play—which can be incorporated into your training routine—is a great way to improve engagement skills and helps your dog learn impulse control.

The Start of Play

Select a start cue such as “ready” or “lets play” to signal that a stimulating interaction is about to begin. This helps get the dog in a playful frame of mind, but also allows you to focus your dog’s attention. Make sure you are the one who chooses when play begins. When your dog is focusing on you, mark the behaviour by saying “yes” and begin a game of tug, fetch, chase, or wrestle.

Name The Games

Make sure to use verbal cues to signal your exact play intentions. Use “tug” to get the dog to pull on toys, “fetch” for retrieval, and “seek” to find hidden items. Many owners love to exclaim “I’m gonna get ya” before wrestling or playing chase. Using verbal cues helps the dog learn how to act in a play situation and strengthens behaviors.

Know Your Toys

There are loads of different toys on the market, most of which are completely useless. Go through your dog’s collection and ask yourself “what is the purpose?” of each toy. Some are meant for fetch, some for tug, some dispense rewards. Others are simply there because they appeal to our human senses. If the toy does not have a specific purpose for your dog, get rid of it. Otherwise you may be encouraging destructive chewing habits. Instead of allowing your dog to shred items, consider investing in some safe chew toys to keep their mouths occupied.

Rotate Toys And Activities

Toys can become novel to your dog. Play games and give access to some toys, and rotate different ones every few days to keep interactions interesting and engaging. Rate your dog’s favorite toys in order of preference and consider incorporating play as part of your training routine.

Settling Down after Games

It is also important to signal to the dog when playtime is over. Many dogs become hyper-stimulated during play, leading to playful biting, jumping, and nuisance barking, and need to learn how to calm down to prevent these behaviours from escalating. When play is over, simply say “game over” or “all done” while removing toys. Disengage with your dog, or leave the room (for super excitable dogs) to signal that play is over. Simply use the cue “chill out,” “settle,” or “calm down,” and stop moving: stand still and fold your arms. Your dog will soon lose interest with the lack of animation. In the exact moment your dog switches from excited to calm (they may stand still, change their breathing pattern, sit, lay down, or shake off) use your verbal “yes” marker and reward him.


Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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