Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Granting myself a license to play

This journey of discovery is allowing me to discover that some things are NOT what I thought I knew they were.

How’s that for a convoluted sentence?

My dog is not all that excited about playing with me if there isn’t a toy involved.

This was a bit of a smack in the face. Phoenix is so insane about play with his toys, I figured it wouldn’t be any big deal to play with me when a toy was not in the picture. We’ve done a little no-toy play now and again but I’ve never tried to use it to any extent as a reward for a training session.

Which is sad, now that I stop and think about it. He’s always had tons of toys and we play tug and fetch and hide-and-go-seek with them. He’ll engage to tug just about anywhere and I thought THIS was play. It
is, and it builds wonderful energy that can carry over into our training, but wouldn’t it be awesome if he thought I was just as cool as a tug or a ball on a rope?

We went outside to train at home last night (between thunderstorms — I swear I should be building an ark in my spare time) and I decided to use ME as the reward a much higher percentage of the time versus letting him grab a toy and bring it to me to tug or chase.

Phoenix was quite lukewarm about this plan. He would bounce and do nose-touches when I asked. He would do the tricks I asked for. He chased me all over the yard when I ran. But the minute the interaction stopped, he either wanted to go to get a toy or he found something else to look at, sniff, etc.

This was totally not what I expected and definitely not what I wanted.

I wouldn’t say he doesn’t WANT to play with me. It’s more like he doesn’t know HOW, so he doesn’t find it all that rewarding and he doesn’t stay engaged with that “What’s next?” look in his eye.

While I’m disappointed that I’ve clearly missed connecting with him on a level that presents ME as the best thing available, it’s a good thing to finally come to terms with it and be able to start fixing this hole in our relationship and competitive foundation.

We’ll work at it. Sounds funny, doesn’t it, to work at playing? But since it’s not coming easily to either of us right now, it will take a bit of effort.

What else is new?


  1. Im not sure I understand. you said, "He would bounce and do nose-touches when I asked. He would do the tricks I asked for. He chased me all over the yard when I ran. But the minute the interaction stopped, he either wanted to go to get a toy or he found something else to look at, sniff, etc." It sounds like he interacted with you while you were interacting with him. Did you still want him to interact even when you arent asking him for that?

  2. I am really enjoying reading about your journey with Phoenix. Thank you for sharing with us! Sophie and Phoenix sound very much alike.

  3. Diana - I would like to be able to pause and catch my breath between activities and have him stay connected, not instantly "check out." Very frustrating after my last two velcro dogs who thought (for no apparent reason) that I hung the sun and moon! He's not being deliberately naughty, he just doesn't value play with me very highly. Yet. ( :

  4. Play hard to get perhaps... Then Phoenix might value the play more?

  5. Crate games maybe for those times you want to catch your breath or set up for the next exercise? I do know exactly what you mean though as my GSD actually demands my attention and while sometimes it can be a bit over the top all he cares about is working with me whereas my Mali girl who is a delight and a good worker can become bored and I have to work harder to keep her attention. What has always helped me is I rarely use a bait bag when training the food comes from my pockets because I always have pockets even in the ring (they don't know there isn't food in those pockets at all times!) I also use having food or toys outside of the area I am training and we run to go get those outside of the ring while training just like we do when they finish competing in a trial run.

  6. Your journey is fascinating to read. I'm in a similar spot with a dog I work; playing with toys is easy. Trying to get off the toys and onto "me" is a huge struggle with this girl. I now have two working sessions a day; one for the work where I still use her toys with varying levels of generosity - always with heavy involvement on my part. A second lesson (in a different location) is strictly to work on our interactive play skills. I discovered that she can't play with me (yet) on the training yard because she's so much more interested in working and earning a ball. Repeatedly substituting myself before she wants me doesn't' make sense - can't use a motivator unless the dog finds it motivating. I am making progress, so hope the play is soon motivating enough that I can use it as a reward for her work.
    Recently I found that adding a table and running around it caused her to play chase with me; something I had been unable to get before.
    best of luck with your journey.