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How to Play With Your Dog

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

==> Ever thought about this?

How to play in a training-beneficial way, and why!

How to Play With Your Dog

This Periodical will be short. Not that this topic isn't worth more (it certainly is!) but certain things have happened (or rather still not happened) which taught me we have to do things differently if we want to survive. More in an informal blog post at some point.

Dog PlayFirst, if you are wondering: "Why play at all? I myself have no fun in life, why should my dog?"

Because: Research has shown that Play, not obedience(!), is what teaches dogs from puppyhood onwards how to interact well socially. The same is true for children: Parents who play a lot with their kids have been found to have the best life-long relationship with their children. Interesting, isn't it? Something to remember!

Second, if you are wondering: "But why can't I just play with my dog the way I want..??"

Oh sure, you can!! There is no need to make a science out of dog play - although there is such thing. wink

It's just that, if you play with your dog out of the blue, without reflecting on the impact your Play has on your dog, then it's likely that your Play negatively impacts on your dog.

"What?? Really? Isn't Play pure joy for my dog? How can Play possibly impact my dog negatively?"

Well, that's what this short MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL is about.

Dog Play RightBecause: There actually is a right way to play with your dog - but also numerous wrong ways. Indeed, the majority of dog owners play so badly with their dog that they create behavior problems in their dog! You'll see in a moment what I mean.

Any videos? I searched for videos "How to play with your dog" because the plan was to show you ... well ... obviously, how to play with your dog. This page came up - according to almighty Google (youtube is Google) those are the most relevant videos on this topic "How to play with your dog". Thus I watched them, to see which video to feature here!

Dog Play video

No. Since I can't shoot one myself, I can't really show you a video (but Dan can, of course). All the ones that I watched on the page linked above, I can't even recommend to myself to watch again. I feel, they should be titled: "How not to play with your dog"! - In other words: Unsuitable. They don't set a good example.

So, what do we do? What we always do! Let's learn from ... ... dogs themselves, that's always best anyway. smile

Here's a video how dogs instigate play amongst each other:

Now let's watch the video again, but with my notes:

For some reason, the notes aren't all clearly visible:

  • Chocolate dog wants to play
  • "I'll invite this black dog" ('black' dog for us)
  • Rear-end sniff: build trust
  • Dog on the left understands Play invitation so much better! THIS dog would love to play!
  • But chocolate dog only interested in black dog
  • "Hmm, black dog doesn't understand me, I'll signal groveling"
  • Black dog: "Nah, I'm not interested in you" (he's owner-focused)
  • Chocolate dog: "I really want to get to know you..."
  • "You smell like you'd be a great play partner"
  • Black dog: "Man, you are persistent, aren't you?"
  • Chocolate dog: "Yes, I've been trying for ages to show you that I really wanna play with you"
  • Former dog on left now joining from front: "Hey black dog, don't you grasp he wants to play with you??"
  • Black dog: "Okay okay, let's see (sniff) what he's like"
  • Chocolate dog: "I think, now he understood me!" smile
  • Black dog: "Ah, you wanna play with me, hm?"
  • "Sorry, I have some behavior deficits" [of course, he won't say that, but he has]
  • Chocolate dog: "He got it!!!"
  • [3 sec Play]
  • Black dog: "But I am the leader here, clear?"
  • Chocolate dog: "Well, I just wanna PLAY"
  • [3 sec more Play]
  • ** (see later note)
  • Black dog: "What's that supposed to mean now??"
  • "I said, I am the leader here, so don't get on top of me!"
  • "Or I'll turn away and we stop!"
  • Chocolate dog: "No, don't. Look, I go low, then I go up - that's PLAY like!"
  • Black dog: "Not with me! I don't like that Play..."
  • Chocolate dog: "Ohh, come on... Please!"
  • [He knows now, he's got one last chance to convince the play-handicapped dog...]
  • But black dog thinking: "Man! He's annoying. Doesn't he notice I don't wanna play?!"
  • [Getting ready to make his point clear...]
  • [Chocolate dog realizes that black dog's decision is final!]
  • Chocolate dog: "Okay, okay! I'm leaving you alone!"
  • [Chocolate dog trying his luck on another play partner...]

Believe it or not: Just watching the videos, choosing the 'best' one, editing and commenting it, converting and implementing it here ... took me over a dayyy! That's why I leave everything video to Doggy Dan, who's a million times better with live dog training!

** Did you notice how much the other dogs are these two dogs' audience?

When dogs observe other dogs playing, they do this:

  • because nature makes them learn more subtleties of dog play (this is subconscious watching - nature's survival of the fittest: those who can't distinguish play from fight die soon!)
  • and because they'd either like to join the Play (if not scared) or they prefer to stay aside safely (both is the conscious watching, visible through tail movements)

dog play audience

Since dog language is body language, I guess all dogs observe other dogs' play far more thoroughly than most dog owners ever observe their dog playing. You can ask yourself this: Which body signal does your dog use most often to instigate play? Eg play bow, play slap, tongue flick, paw swipe, shoulder paw, shake off, caper, rollover, etc - and that was only about instigating play!

While we as dog owners can be widely unconcerned about dog play behavior and play language, if our dog doesn't or didn't get a chance to learn the play language then (s)he's pretty much at risk of being injured in a future dog fight. That's why all (non-traumatized) dogs observe other dogs' play far more thoroughly than we observe their play.

Back to the video above: Already this simple video demonstrates some core components of Play:

  • Invitation (solicit play)
  • Trust (cooperation and competition)
  • Communication (signaling)
  • Fairness (self-handicapping)
  • Reciprocation (role reversal)
  • Tolerance (gross motor skill)
  • Apology (for accidents)
  • Forgiveness (for apology)

Note that this is based on my today's knowledge, I will give all of this more thought and observation and then at some point I will hopefully have the time to publish a book on Dog Play - Right Way. smile *

* Edit: I won't do that - the workload is in no way justifiable - the sales of all my present books together(!) are so shockingly low that I rather waste my time on something other than writing that book! sad

Wondering how low? All 19 books together earned last month $54.17. Obviously that can't keep this site running. cry

But I have much more for you now, without another book loss:

The subsequent points refer primarily to adult dogs. You may or may not know from the Puppy Development Guide f that for puppies a lot of specifics around puppy play need to be taken into account - see the chapter Controlled Play-Fighting (which I may soon even further extend on, I am only hesitating because that book is already 'too big').

1Although the above video was about dogs playing with each other, when we play with our dog, we should of course incorporate these play components into our own play language. Nonetheless, as human beings (who, on top of that, aim to be the accepted Pack leader), we need to consider additional points as follows.

2Dogs that have not been well socialized (why not?) lack skill in one or more of these play components. This can lead to dog fights and injuries without bad intention. Therefore this is the next point we should incorporate into our Play, such that while we play we can train the dog to make up for any lack of dog play behavior skill.


If you notice that your dog lacks play language skill, then obviously don't let any children play with your dog without supervision. Conversely, well-socialized dogs will safely apply the same morals to human play that they apply to dog play. (Dog morals? Oh yes! More about that in another Periodical)

4For German Shepherds, during play training particular focus should be laid on Fairness incl. self-handicapping, because otherwise the weight alone of an adult GSD could accidentally injure us. - Obviously, for say Chihuahua owners self-handicapping wouldn't be that much of an issue. wink

5If you have children in the house, Tolerance for gross motor skill is essential too. Kids are often less precise in their motor skill when they play (or even when they don't play, ha!). You can't risk that in such case where your child makes a movement too far or too fast, your German Shepherd might consider that as an aggressive act. Or, equally dangerous, that (s)he might have an uninhibited bite reflex.

Now I don't have more of these shiny numbers, so let's start a new list. The following points are of different substance anyway:

1Remember that, to become and remain the accepted Pack leader, we must always call our dog to us to play (positives: call the dog). Conversely, when our dog starts the Play, we will not play because this would give our dog the impression that (s)he controls when we play (and possibly even what) - thus it would increase the conflict the dog is experiencing in the Pack (and as dog lovers we don't want our dog to suffer more). It is not necessary to see this as black-or-white as it may sound: When you consciously observe your dog, you will likely notice which response of yours is adequate in which situation.

2Because we have called our dog, we must provide a GREAT experience. This is black-or-white, because if we don't provide a GREAT experience each time we call our dog to us, then soon the Recall will no longer work reliably. Thus, at least for the first few seconds, we will not reprimand our dog in any way if (s)he doesn't play or behave the way we want - so that we avoid any negative experience when our dog was coming when called (like we want it to be)!


Remember that when our dog plays, (s)he is already mentally hyper (on a high energy level). Thus we should not use Rewards that stimulate our dog any further (done wrong by so many professional dog trainers!). In particular we use no Praise, no Food Treats, and no Affection like Head-stroking or Back-stroking. In fact, no Stimulants at all, only use Sedatives (for more see the Dog Training Toolkit f).

4Also crucial is that we are always in control of all Play, particularly Play-fighting! We start, we redirect, we interrupt, and we stop all Play when we want. Not like a dictator(!) but like a benevolent trainer: to guide our dog to play in a socially acceptable way.

5We adapt the play training to our dog's age, health, fitness, energy level, and interest (eg we stop immediately when our dog loses interest). Plus, obviously, we don't play with our GSD at all up until a full hour after a meal, or right before a scheduled potty walk, or when our dog shows any sign of weakness or illness (GSDs are subtle with this, so we need to be particularly considerate).

Again, I don't have more of these shiny numbers, so let's start another list. This one is a 'step list':

1Call your dog to you to play - and provide a GREAT experience for a start.


2When you play anything where your dog gets agitated (likely: physical exercise; unlikely: peaceful puzzle toys f), then that's perfect for your play training: Every now and then, signal STOP (or whatever consistent command you choose), and only continue Play (after say 5 to 10 seconds) when you are clearly still in control of your dog (despite the dog being agitated).


When you play anything where your dog's open mouth comes close to you or even touches your skin (whether or not with teeth contact!), consider if you have a good situation to say "Outch" or whatever as part of your Bite Inhibition Training. If yes, then immediately thereafter signal STOP or whatever, and have a noticeably longer play break than the one described in step 2 - so that your dog notices "I was too harsh, needa be more careful with my play buddy".

4When you demonstrate to your dog that (s)he 'injured' you, motivate your dog to comfort you in your 'pain' during the play break (just snivel a bit) before you continue playing. Conversely, when your dog didn't 'injure' you, you need not play that theater, but then ask your dog to either freeze (STAY) during the play break or to lie down (DOWN) - until you continue to play (obviously never force your dog to lie down after heavy exercise: to taper off is necessary health-wise, for dogs too).

5When your dog does not immediately stop all action when you say or signal it, then completely ignore your dog up until at least a minute after (s)he finally stopped. Exactly the way you know from Ignoring Attention Seeking f, like it happens in the litter during Litter Socialization as well.

Let's now stop here, because I said this Periodical would be 'short'.



  • Although every 5-year-old can play with your dog, Google proves that even many professional dog trainers cannot play in a training-beneficial way.
  • To play with your dog in a training-beneficial way can (or should?) integrate any or all of the following (and more):
    • Without any extra effort, we use the Play to strengthen our role as accepted Pack leader
    • Thereby we reduce the conflict our dog is experiencing in its Pack - thus we also lower our dog's overall stress level, and hence prolong our dog's life!
    • We use frequent play breaks to ensure we are always in control of all Play! Obviously, this is far more important for any form of agitated Play than say, when we play with our dog with puzzle toys f
    • We use apparent or supposed play 'injuries' to strengthen the bonding with our dog, and to train our dog's morals (values like Fairness, Tolerance, Apology, Forgiveness, etc - see above)
    • We use situations of mouth involvement (eg tug-of-war f or play-fighting) to train Bite Inhibition
    • We use Play to help our dog make up for any weakness in dog play behavior (eg because of incomplete socialization)
    • We use Play to train our dog's play language skill (signaling intent)
    • We use Play to strenghten the Recall (see above: only play when you called your dog to you, and then provide a GREAT play experience)
    • We use Play to improve our own skill to fine-tune our dog's energy level (see also Energy Tools in the Dog Training Toolkit f)
    • We use Play to improve our own skill in using the right Rewards at the right time (in the right situation)!
    • We adapt our Play to strengthen our dog's senses and motor skill in areas of weakness, and to remove our dog's disposition to aggression in situations of discomfort
    • We use Play to learn our dog's unique way to play (how does (s)he instigate play, how does (s)he signal role reversal, how does (s)he self-handicap, etc), such that we can better predict play dynamics when our dog plays with other dogs
    • Remember that the ability to (partly) predict our dog's behavior is a key component of Behavior Training our dog
    • etc!
  • When next time you consciously watch your dog playing with other dogs (you should indeed encourage this), then try to detect your dog's unique play language, and make use of your insights when you next play with your dog (and particularly when your children play with your dog!)
  • Remember that Play (not obedience!) is the key situation where dogs learn social skills, ie how to behave, both during Play and outside Play!
  • Dogs that were taken away from the litter too early (before week 8), typically lack essential components of dog play behavior
  • In that case our comprehensive socialization must pay particular attention to all situations of Play (dog-dog play, and dog-human play, particularly dog-children play)
  • Because when our dog lacks play skill, the risk to sustain an injury is multiplied: in such case, dog play can easily (unintentionally) escalate into a dog fight!
  • In Pat Miller's great book Play with your dog f you not only find tons of ideas what to play with your dog but also more details on How to play with your dog

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