Value for Personal Play

I've been asked about how I've built up the value of personal play in my dog's training.  Considering that is all Vito is going to be working for in his obedience training experiment play has to be very well developed!

Every dog enjoys some type of play.  If you're stuck on what your dog may like, watch them play with another dog or watch how they play with a toy.  In general most play behaviors are boiled down sequences of their predatory behaviors.  Examples of play include
- Chase games.  Either you initiate brief chase with the dog or the dog chases you.  The corgi LOVES being chased and I usually go into a brief stalk mode and then cue him I'm going to getcha!  Vito is not a big fan of me chasing him and not really into chasing me.  He does like it when I walk backwards though and let him push towards me!
- Chasing hands.  Little dogs especially love spider hands!
- Light pushes.  And I mean light, unless your dog is super pushy you don't want to be physically causing the dog to move backwards when you push!  Experiment with where your dog likes to be touched, I find pressure on the chest to be a great one for many dogs, sometimes the shoulder, and sometimes butt tags.
- Oppositional reflex games.  Just like pushes tap into the dog's natural desire to push back, physically holding the dog back from something helps to build drive towards it.  I can progress this from initial restrains to food/toys to restrain the dog from a hand touch or even just from getting to the rest of my body.
- Weird nosies.  Some dogs like trills, some quacking!  I usually make a "schoom" noise if I'm trying to build excitement after a push or a hold
- Jumping up on me.  Dogs love getting closer to our face!
- Butt rubs.  Not really "play" but for some dogs it can be very motivating!
- Lying on the ground and letting them attack you!  Not easy to do in a training session, but well worth it!

And then there are a lot of play behaviors that I teach to the dogs.  They're usually tricks that involve movement but are ones dogs wouldn't naturally do. Things such as
- lifting the front feet off the ground to do a hand touch
- jumping all 4 feet in the air
- jumping over your leg
- spins
- and for some dogs jumping up on the handler needs to be re-taught.
- anything the dog just loves doing.  For Lance rollovers are high on the list, high fives are ok too.

For these taught behaviors I initially reward with a lot of food/toys.  The dog does what I cue, and then I reward with an external motivator.  As the dog progresses in their training, past the shaping stage, I start to ask for a play behavior every time before I hand over the food/toy.  The play behaviors start to become strongly conditioned as being fun and since they are movement based a lot of dogs start discovering that they are just plain fun to do.  For most dogs it isn't long before I fade out the external reward that comes after and just throw in play.  I tell my students that anytime they feel the urge to feed their dog, throw in a play behavior half of the time.  That immediately cuts down their rate of food/toy reinforcement in half and the dogs end up looking even happier and more in drive than they were before!  I often go from work-brief play-and straight back to work before the dog even realizes that I didn't give them another reward.  Heeling is great for adding play to the mix as it's so easy to flow in and out of!

If you are struggling with play behaviors start outside of training sessions. You can't use something as a reward if your dog doesn't value it at all!  Practice at times the dog isn't expecting any food and you may initially need to involve the use of toys in order to get your dog used to the games.  It's ok to even let the dog hold the toy while you play without ever touching the toy!  Especially if your dog is prone to playing with their teeth, holding the toy gives them an outlet while they figure out what you're trying to do!

Some people will find their dogs enjoy personal play so much that they start getting higher arousal in their training sessions.  More barking, possibly nipping, and a more difficult time thinking.  For many of these dogs I would first practice the dog being able to move from arousal into doing a simple behavior that I've cued.  Teach them how to think through the craziness.  You will have to start very slow and gradually work up to higher and higher arousal.

Only when your dog has a brain even when excited will you have to look at your play and see if there is any way in modifying it so that you don't get the barking or nipping that comes along with it.  It might mean the same play with just 1-2 second duration and straight back to work, or it might mean just the tiniest first hint of the play behavior without having to go all the way through it.  In practice you could keep doing whatever play the dog likes and then in trials limit yourself to certain pieces.  I think it is a very rare dog that wouldn't benefit from just the tiniest release into play in between exercises at a trial.

Sue  – ( November 3, 2015 at 8:40 AM )  

I am the one that needs to learn how to play. This gives me a good idea of what I need to do.

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