Some dogs are born loving toys. Cuba is one of these dogs, he loves to play with virtually any toy. Part of this is likely due to early socialization history – since he came home, he’s had a gajillion toys to play with and we play with them every day (well, not all of them every day). On the other hand, Mokie never really was a big toy freak – Chows in general are not known for being toy hounds. My angel Saint, Monte, also didn’t really know what to do with a toy when he came here; how would he have when he spent his first 18 months of life tied to a rope outside, alone?
Yet Mokie now fetches and tugs. She’s an especially great water retriever and would happily chase sticks into the water for hours (months?) straight. Before we lost Monte, he loved a rousing game of tug and played with a wide variety of puzzle toys. Cuba, born with a silver Kong in his mouth, will play with anything – a leather gardening glove, a new mop head, you name it.
Historically, the view of dog behavior has been, “if he doesn’t do x, there’s nothing you can do about it. Get a new dog that likes to do x.” X, in this case, may mean: come when called, walk politely even in the presence of distractions, play with toys, play with other dogs, etc. Luckily for dogs and their people, this view is changing. We’ve all seen videos of amazing dogs doing amazing things – service work for disabled individuals, trick dogs who are able to walk on their front paws, detection and law enforcement dogs performing tasks which keep the public safe, etc. Rest assured – NONE of these dogs come knowing how to do these things. All of these dogs are trained, quite extensively. If we can train dogs to do such varied and complex tasks, we can certainly teach a dog to enjoy play.
One of the most common questions any positive reinforcement trainer will receive from his or her clients is, “Yeah, but when can we wean off the treats?!” You can begin weaning off treats sooner if you spend the time to build value in other things (which may, ironically, involve the use of more treats which are already usually quite valuable to dogs). All of these types of play (and more!) can be taught:
- playing with a Kong
- enjoying a chew toy
- problem-solving puzzles like Nina Ottosson toys
Many dogs even with socially impoverished behavioral histories can be taught to enjoy play with other dogs as well.
It may take time to teach your dog to enjoy these things. I have a friend who lives with a puppy mill rescue who is very fearful and reactive. Dogs, like people, don’t really want to play when they’re terrified. He is a senior dog and they have been working together for years. Being a puppy mill rescue, he obviously didn’t have a great early socialization history – toys are scary! Picking things up in your mouth? TERRIFYING! She had been working with this dog for years and accomplished many great things, including a veritable roomful of ribbons from the Rally titles they earned together. And yet, just in the last year, he began retrieving for the first time. Just in the last few weeks, he began tugging for the first time. When I spoke with her about these events, it was not surprising to me that she was nearly as excited by these events as she was when they brought home each of those lovely Rally titles. That her dog is starting to play with her signifies many things – an increase in confidence in himself, an increased trust in her as his handler, a light-heartedness not often seen in a senior puppy mill rescue.
True, these behaviors, at this point, are maintained by food reinforcement. I doubt it would take very much work to condition these behaviors to the point where they are self-reinforcing; where the value of the treats is transferred to the value of the game.
There is great value in teaching your dog to play. Again, it will improve your relationship with your dog, give you both great mental and physical exercise, and allow you to expand your reinforcement options. Perhaps most important of all, it’s fun! We’ll talk more about play tomorrow and discuss some resources where you can learn more.