Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Go play

Today I’m writing about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: playing with my dog. These are just random thoughts and observations. I’m not even sure I have an actual point to make, except that play is powerful and I’m very glad Phoenix has helped me understand that.

Over the years, I’ve gone from thinking play was not very important in the overall scheme of dog training to developing a new understanding of how much it can enhance my relationship with my dog. Oh sure, I’ve always taken the dogs out in the yard and thrown a ball for them but until the last six months with Phoenix, I didn’t tap into play to enhance our obedience work.

For the purpose of this post, “play” means interaction between dog and handler, with both focusing exclusively on one another. It can happen with or without a toy or even with food. It is certainly “play” to take 3 dogs and a tennis ball out to a field and let them chase each other while you throw the ball, but that is dogs playing with one another, not you. You are part of the fun but mostly in the capacity as the ball launcher, since the real fun is taking place wherever the ball lands and gets grabbed.

As an instructor, I’ve found that many students equate “play” to “tug” and are instantly turned off if they do not have a tuggy dog. This is unfortunate because there are lot of ways to play with your dog and not all of them involve tugging.

Often, proponents of tugging have dogs that they can control without much effort, either because the dog is small/soft or the person is big/strong. It’s one thing to tug with a 25 pound sheltie. It’s another to tug with a 55 pound malinois. Not only are the dogs’ physical make-ups much different, their mental approach to playing tug may be drastically different as well. For a short person (me) to tug in a safe and rewarding fashion with a powerful dog (Phoenix), I had to learn some skills beyond just “offer the toy and hang on.” (I did that for a long time and the problem was that I couldn’t hang on and the game usually deteriorated from there.)

If you have a dog who has always played easily and naturally and you’ve encouraged it, it can be hard to understand working with a dog who seems to have no natural interest in play. Many of us who have had non-players in the past started early with new puppies to make sure we laid the groundwork for a lifetime of play. Puppies play readily. Encourage it. Nurture it. Build on it.

For adult dogs who are tentative about play, most can grow to enjoy at least one or two forms of it if encouraged with an approach that doesn’t overwhelm the dog. The owner has to be willing to experiment with different ideas and give the dog a reasonable amount of time to realize what he’s doing can be fun. We’ve all seen the student who dangles a toy in front of the dog’s face, wiggles it a few times while the dog looks bored and says, “See, he won’t play with me!” If the owner wants badly enough for the dog to play tug, he or she will be successful in teaching the dog to tug. If not, the team would be better off exploring other avenues of play.

Non-tugging play includes moving games (chase, tag, push and shove and a combination of all 3) and food games (chase the food, chase me to get the food, find the hidden food, leap up to get the food). Notice all of these include some kind of movement, most of it on the handler’s part. There is no stationary (bump on a log) food delivery.

The energy generated during play can be a double edged sword - it’s very fun for the dog but it requires the handler to MOVE. Many handlers choose not to play because they either have physical limitations or they just don't want to make the effort. You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to play with your dog but you do need to move.

I admit to sometimes choosing not to play tug games with Phoenix during a training session because I am physically not up to it that day. He is a very demanding dog (the Farmer says he is bossy) and I need to be on my game to play his. Tugging with him is akin to fighting with animated cinder blocks and while I enjoy it, there are days when I just am not up to it. On those days we play other games instead.

Tugging aside, I’ve noticed 5 kind of dogs when it comes to play (there are probably more). There is no right or wrong in this list, simply observations.

1) The dog who does not know how to play because his owner uses food rewards exclusively.

2) The dog who would play but the owner overwhelms the dog, making play not fun.

3) The dog who has initiated play with his owner but has been discouraged so often that he doesn’t try any more.

4) The dog who loves to play but is physically strong and his style of play is not fun for the owner.

5) The dog who loves to play but easily escalates “over threshold,” resulting in behavior that is not fun for the owner.

At one time or another, I have shared my life with all of these dogs. They have taught me both the power of food and the power of play. There is no absolute wrong or right when it comes to training rewards and relationship building. There are just some things that work better than others, depending on the dog/human dynamic. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

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