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Dog Play Styles

 Reviewed 30 October 2017 share-a-picture Or go to discussion?join-the-discussion dogphoto

==> Dog Play Styles? Why?

Know your dog - Have more FUN!

Dog Play Styles

With dog play styles I don't mean this, no

dog play style

Prior to the next Periodical on Dog Games, we should first cover the Play Styles that are typical for German Shepherd Dogs. This Periodical will hopefully help you to determine your own dog's predominant play style, and which play styles your dog uses in which situation.

When you better understand your dog's behavior and preferences during Play, you will find it much easier and more rewarding to have FUN with your dog, much more often! Then your dog will have more FUN too, yeah! smile

tug for everyoneSo, let's briefly go through some key dog play styles relevant for German Shepherds, and why this is helpful. Let's start with some important general points:


1Note that your dog's ultimate play style may not become apparent before age 2 years - when the adult dog's temperament reveals itself. Puppies that may appear say boisterous now can be reserved as adult dog - eg due to lack of comprehensive socialization as a puppy.

This is a widespread mistake made by too many dog owners: "My puppy is sooo sociable, he plays with everyone!" - Yes, all healthy puppies do that. No surprise here. But this doesn't mean the pup is well-socialized, it only means the pup is healthy: (s)he is playful - all healthy puppies are playful!

You got an adult dog?

When puppies aren't immediately and comprehensively socialized (because "the puppy is sooo sociable already!"), they all present significant dog problems later as adult dog - whether or not adopted from a prior owner or shelter. We get an endless inflow of socialization-induced problems here on our site. sad

One cannot determine before age 8 months the earliest if a puppy is well-socialized. Many adult dogs 2 years of age and older are left with shelters, and the reason given is: "Oh dear! This dog has issues!" - No, he just wasn't socialized as a puppy, because the owner thought: "My puppy is sooo sociable"...

2Make sure you don't deduce your dog's general play style from specific situations which are only temporary:

  • dog feels weak or ill
  • subtle injury unnoticed by us
  • dog knows (s)he is in another dog's territory
  • dog feels insecure for whatever reason
  • dog is hungry or dehydrated
  • dog is constipated or has a bladder infection
  • dog is in pain
  • dog wants to stay close to owner for protection
  • etc.

In all of these situations, the dog will not behave in its normal way. Thus, we cannot draw conclusions from behavior in such situations.

3Note that every dog of course features multiple play styles, one at a time. The 'richer' your dog is (in terms of play styles), the more FUN your dog will have - regardless of the situation and environment (ie the less bored the dog is in general)! smile

A LOT is down to comprehensive socialization as a puppy, as shown in the Puppy Development Guide - Puppy 101. The other major factor is the dog's genetic heritage, because the basic predisposition for play styles is inherited (but we can shape it, that's why we first need this Periodical).

4I am not aware of any such studies, but common sense suggests that dogs that can adopt all play styles obviously have more FUN than dogs that can only adopt one or two play styles (flexibility pays off, always, for dogs too).

And the dogs that have more FUN are healthier and live longer. Another reason why comprehensive socialization as a puppy is sooo important.

5The more you play with your dog, the more FUN you have with your dog. The more FUN you have with your dog, the better your relationship with your dog. The better your relationship with your dog, the less likely that (s)he will ever end up in a shelter (say when you move house, or when you join a new sports club).

dog play volleyball

Are dog play styles used among dogs equivalent to dog play styles when dogs play with us? Not necessarily, but to keep the Periodicals now shorter, we may here assume they are. Should I ever find the time to publish a book on this, I'll show the differences and more detail.

Now, what are the most prevalent German Shepherd Dog Play Styles?

I don't know all GSDs and I don't know your GSD, so take this as always: as my opinion (which may for your dog be inadequate).

The Guardian

Some GSDs prefer the role of the Guardian even during playtime (outside playtime the role of Guardian is normal for GSDs, it's the standard German Shepherd role). Pat Miller calls these dogs Cheerleaders (see her great book Play With Your Dog).

How to notice this play style? Watch your GSD: Is (s)he often rather watching other dogs playing and getting involved more like a manager or referee, or does (s)he seek permanent active involvement, not wanting to miss a second of active play?

tug for everyoneNote that Guardians do have FUN too, and loads of it. Oh, there just popped a great analogy into my head, so I better let it out: Compare this role to the many (husbands typically) who prefer watching say football or icehockey matches on TV - instead of turning the music on and dancing with their wife. These guys certainly have FUN too (often loud), barking for every goal, pass, foul etc - like Guardian dogs bark along when watching other dogs playing. It is very similar, seems to be a great analogy indeed. smile

What games to play with Guardian dogs? Everything (a list of dog games follows in the next Periodical), but in particular: If you can, play with at least one more family member (or friend, neighbor, colleague, housemate, whatever). These dogs have most FUN when they play with several people at the same time. While one-to-ones certainly are FUN too, if you can, bring a playmate along and between you two (or more people) say, throw a Soft floppy disc or kick a Chuckit Kick-Fetch ball or whatever.

Just ensure that no one mocks your dog (like the dog is made running all the time, but never gets the disc/ball or whatever!). Guardian dogs don't want to be teased, they want to have FUN too! Make sure your kids respect that (since kids love to tease dogs).

The Chaser

play chase

Some GSDs prefer the role of the Chaser during playtime. This may be the second most common standard German Shepherd role.

How to notice this play style? Watch your GSD: Is (s)he motivating other dogs (or you) to run away, and then runs after them (or you)?

Motivating other dogs to run away? How? Eg letting them or you have the stick or whatever, and then doing say the 'every-two-seconds dance' that signals "Run!" (front feet lifting off the ground every few seconds as to give the playmate an advantage in getting away).

What games to play with Chaser dogs? Everything, but in particular: Throw or kick something far away, or toss something in the air, or (if your dog enjoys being in the water?) toss a Hurley or similar floating item into the water (if safe both physically and chemically!).

Of course you can also include another human playmate again. Here you see why toys like Soft floppy disc and Chuckit Kick-Fetch ball are so great for GSDs: they make most German Shepherds happy, because the dog can guard the players or chase the object.

The Puller/Hauler

tug alongIn Pat's great book Play With Your Dog and some other references it's called Tuggers, for dogs in general. For GSDs however I am not sure if you agree with Tugger?

How to notice this play style? To tug as in tug-of-war (where you aim to pull stronger than the other person or dog) is not really what these GSDs like to do (GSDs in general I mean, yours may be different). GSDs in general rather pull (haul?) someone or something away. This is in their genes: Pulling sheep away from danger or pulling it back towards the herd. For GSDs it's not about strength, it's about gaining distance, safety.

In other words: With many German Shepherds, when they play tug their goal is not to be 'the stronger one' (what boys want to be), but 'the one who pulls furthest' (I don't know, do girls do that?). Could we say like a hauler? They too have a clear destination and know the route - just like a GSD.

What games to play with Pull dogs? wink

Everything, but in particular: Yes, that omnipresent tug-of-war, but for prolonged tugging Fresh-N-Floss and Tuffy's Ultimate may be insufficient, then you need the strongest tug toy.

However: You may (hopefully) have noticed that your (adult!) GSD tries to gain distance when pulling you or another dog? This pull behavior is different to the tug behavior of say a Terrier, Pitbull, Great Dane etc - who will stay pretty much on the spot and hold with strength, rather than drag you away with skill, in a specific way.

You can actually use this for games too (if you have several dogs or meet dogs at the park): Who can pull over the greatest distance? More so: Who pulls whereto?

Example: If you stay facing a wall, fence, or whatever, then a Pitbull, Rottweiler, Terrier & Co will be surprised when (s)he suddenly bangs the butt against the wall, fence, or whatever and can't go back further (you'll notice a short break, like the dog is thinking "the game is ended!?"). Conversely, a German Shepherd will have planned a route where to pull you, (s)he will change direction before banging into the wall, fence, or whatever, where (s)he can't pull any further!

Most German Shepherds place more focus on skill when they pull. Many other dog breeds place more focus on strength. This doesn't mean that a GSD won't demonstrate strength to win a tug-of-war - (s)he will. But that's not all for this dog. Accordingly during playtime, winning through strength does not end the FUN for a GSD. Your GSD will likely have FUN until (s)he dragged you or another dog where (s)he wants you or the dog to be. smile

Great FUN to play with these dogs is also: If you have, place a potato sack or similar at one end of a large open space, and another sack say 5 meters next to it. Walk your GSD over to the other end of the field/garden/yard, and show your dog the destination (some dogs will understand immediately what to do, others need some patience and practice).

Now go back to start, signal your dog START, and see who's fastest in dragging the potato sack across the open space! Once your dog gets the hang of it, you'll likely want to grab the sack and carry it over, or you may not stand a chance when you try to drag it over. wink

Again, more dog games in the next Periodical.

The Solitaire

SolitaireThe Solitaire (or Self-Player) is the last common GSD play style I want to mention here. These are the dogs that can turn play into FUN and exercise all by themselves!

How to notice this play style? Give your dog a toy and leave the dog alone (if safe - better observe from a distance) to see if (s)he has FUN. Chew toys don't count, any dog will chew without a playmate - thankfully, ha! smile

Speaking of it, I believe that dogs don't even consider pure chewing as play, I believe that many dogs pick up their chew toy to strengthen their gums and polish their teeth when otherwise they would feel totally bored (they feel too much bored anyway)! Dogs hate boredom, and they get too much of that.

Proof for this "What do dogs think?" hypothesis? Wait for your dog to look really happy and excited when chewing his/her favorite chew toy. Then offer your dog to go for a walk (assuming (s)he doesn't hate walks, say because you often tear the dog down the road on a tight leash, I hope you don't). I bet most dogs happily accept any offer what to do, other than chewing, if only it mitigates their boredom.

What games to play with Solitaire dogs? Nothing to play with them, because Solitaire dogs can play alone. Okay but, what can we give them to play with? Sometimes nothing may be needed. For example, I've seen dogs having FUN on their own for an hour or more while catching falling snowflakes! - Sadly though, last week I've seen a GSD trying to catch its own tail, and I stopped watching after 5 min(!) because I couldn't bear watching this any longer: Tail-chasing is a genetic fault that breeders should have eliminated decades ago, but sadly they haven't.

Okay but often of course we have to give our dog something to play with on its own. Yes, then you could give your dog the Varsity Ball* (you don't need to permanently observe this one), and if your dog has FUN with it for an hour or more on end, without needing you or another dog as playmate, then your dog is a Solitaire, someone who can play alone and have FUN.

Many GSDs can do that, but not all. Once so far I got a complaint from someone who bought the Varsity Ball, and his dog didn't want to play with it - strangely though, not even when tossed around by the owner, not sure why, but can have multiple reasons.

* Note: I just saw that Amazon currently charges more for the Varsity Ball than VarsityPets themselves. You have no idea how often I have changed this link over the past years! But I can't look through hundreds of pages on our site each time Amazon and VarsityPets come out differently! So, if you wish to order the Varsity Ball please check for yourself who has the better overall deal at the time of your order.

dog play styleObviously, aspiring dog owners who work a lot but not from home (they can't look after their dog during the day) should choose a dog that is known to be a great Solitaire (and a great Guardian if there is another pet at home, oh and not a shredder, a dog who loves to shred toys to pieces).

How do you know? Well, although you can't determine the Play Style for a puppy, you can still get a puppy: Watch the pup's father and mother. If both are Solitaires, you can be pretty sure the puppy will be too (and here, as an exception, even if you cut short on socialization).

Remember that every dog of course features multiple play styles, one at a time. The more, the merrier.

Why? Because, a dog that feels comfortable with various play styles in its own behavior is likely to be more tolerant with other dogs and people when they exhibit unusual play styles (= when they behave 'strange' during playtime), see the last Periodical How to Play With Your Dog.

This is particularly relevant when you have children because, from a dog's viewpoint, children often play very 'strange'. For Families with children the best dog is one that 'speaks every play language' (thus is super-tolerant).



  • Every dog (not only GSD) has its own predominant play style
  • It's helpful for dog owners to know their dog's predominant play style:
    • You can better adapt to your dog
    • You have much more FUN with your dog (and your dog has too!)
    • You can avoid dog fights
    • You get an idea which dog to add to the family (should you want to)
    • You know which other play styles to nurture, such that your dog becomes 'richer' (more sociable and more tolerant)
  • A German Shepherd's predominant play style is probably that of Guardian, because that's what has been bred into German Shepherds
  • Other common play styles of GSDs are: Chaser, Puller, Solitaire (but there are more)
  • Some top toys for the play styles of GSDs are the Soft floppy disc, the Chuckit Kick-Fetch ball, and for longer tugging the strongest tug toy or for short tugs Tuffy's Ultimate is great. And of course the Varsity Ball.
  • Busy dog owners should get a dog that's good at Solitaire (or good as Solitaire?)
  • Families should get a dog that is a master in as many play styles as possible (is safer for the kids!)
  • Although play styles are partly inherited, early comprehensive socialization from puppyhood onwards can make up for most, if not all, deficiencies
  • In other words, think of it this way: All dogs are different, and if you play with your dog in a way that your dog LOVES, it's highly likely that you two have much more FUN
  • The more FUN you have with your dog, the less likely that you give up on your dog when problems arise (that's our goal achieved)!
  • For much more detail on dog play styles (and of course tons of play ideas) see Pat Miller's great book Play With Your Dog

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