top of page

The Importance of Play. When Food Doesn't Cut the Mustard

If there was one bit of advice I'd offer to any new dog owner, it would be to play more with your puppy. Simple, right? Maybe, but I'd recommend you also hire a trainer to show you how. The same way you'd hire a football coach to teach your kid how to play and ultimately enjoy the game.


The Importance of Play
14year old border collie Tory initiating a game

Positive reinforcement isn't a new concept. It's been around for a long time. However, it's really not understood very well. If you ask most people that share their lives with a dog what it means they'll likely tell you it's something along the lines of 'giving your dog a treat when they sit'. This is like explaining algebra as 'numbers turning into letters'. That's a very simplistic view on it.

Positive reinforcement has become a bit of a redundant word in the dog training world. It's almost been thrown about so much that its meaning, to a lot of people, has changed. It doesn't necessarily mean a good or 'positive' thing and it happens all the time - even when we are not involved.

If your dog chases a rabbit and then on all your subsequent walks she buggers off to find and chase more rabbits, that's positive reinforcement.

Blind dog playing with toy
Deaf & Blind Adira is ALWAYS up for a game

The addition of something that increases the likelihood of a behaviour is how I would define it. Food can be used in a reinforcement based training plan, but what I think is often overlooked is the ability to use play as a reinforcer, too.

The Importance of Play

I often tell people if your dogs running off to play with other dogs, they're not looking for a picnic so don't try to offer them one if they come back. Food is not on their mind. Doing something physical is.

Whenever we foster a puppy we focus a lot on playing with them. We know they are going to bite things so we make sure to give them plenty of opportunities to bite and play with tug toys. Instead of waiting for them to find things that are fun to play with, we create fun things for them early on.

Playing for your dog is like what sport is for us humans. There are many sports and there are many ways to play with dogs. Some people would rather kick a ball than run carrying it. Similarly, some dogs will like to bite and parade things and others will just like the chase. So we have to modify how we play with each and every dog.

Chesapeake Bay Retriever playing tug
Elvis is just learning how much fun tug can be!

We need to figure out what it is that the individual dog we are working with REALLY wants to do. If you keep asking a dog that likes to possess and parade their toys to drop or give you the toy, you're going to ruin the fun VERY quickly.

We need to build value in the interactive game with us. To be able to do that we need to really pay attention to what it is the dog is enjoying about the playing by how they respond to different parts of the game. We can also observe how our dogs like to play with others. Are they mouthy? Do they like the chase? Are they quite timid and keep a distance? All these small things will help you develop a game your dog really likes to play with you.

Most importantly it's not about winning or losing. It's about voluntary cooperation. It should be viewed like a dance rather than a sparring match. You do your thing and they do their thing - whatever the thing is they like to do. Take their lead here, not vice versa.

Here's a video example of how to play tug -

And here's a video of how to teach your enthusiastic player how to let go! -

Let them show you how they'd like to play and then adapt for them. I guarantee you will have much more success and fun if you do.

What aspect of the game does your dog most enjoy? Share with us in the comments section below!


Related Posts

See All


My dog likes to steal my slipper take it outside and drop it then stands there waiting for me to come and pick it up.

He stole my daughters bra when she came to stay went out and shook it about and when I went out to get it he was wearing it around his neck… he looked so funny 😂


My dog just looks at me when I throw a stick, as if to say, "get it yourself"! 😃

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
bottom of page