Ask the Trainer | Teaching your dog to play is all fun and games |

Ask the Trainer | Teaching your dog to play is all fun and games

Carla Brown
Special to the Sun

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — The highlight of my week is puppy class. It’s hard not to smile while watching the puppy play sessions. They wrestle, play-bite, and chase each other with utter abandon!

Puppy play can seem rough and little scary to the uninitiated, so in class I narrate the play and re-organize the play groups if necessary. This is a learning experience for the humans as much as it is for the pups. I want the puppy parents to understand what normal play looks like. Puppies learn valuable lessons by playing; more assertive pups learn to take turns, while submissive ones practice asserting themselves. They also learn to control how hard they bite (called bite-inhibition). Puppies who play are likely to be friendlier and more well-adjusted as adults.

I often see adult dogs who have either forgotten how to play or never learned. After they learn a few fun tricks or how to fetch a ball, their eyes light up.

Playing with your dog can strengthen your relationship, and as an added bonus you can train while you play!

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Games can be a fun way to teach leadership and control, however there are good games and bad games. In most cases, it just takes a minor adjustment to change a bad game into a good one.

Bad Game No. 1: Catch me if you can. You reach to put a leash on your dog and he runs the other direction. When you chase him, the game is on!

The Good Alternative: Hide and seek. Hide behind a wall or tree and wait until he looks for you. You want him to succeed, so make it easy at first.

Bad Game No. 2: Tug of war for keeps. Your dog wrestles a toy from you and runs off with it. This often turns into Game No. 1.

The Good Alternative: Tug of War on your terms. You make the rules! Invite him to “take it,” “tug,” and “drop it.” When you are done playing, put the toy away.

Bad Game No. 3: Throw the ball. Your dog pushes his ball at you, staring and ordering you to “throw it!” Once you do, he gets the ball but then dances around and won’t give it back.

The Good Alternative: Fetch. You bring the ball and invite a controlled game of “fetch.” You ask him to “sit” and “wait,” then tell him to “get it” as you throw the ball. On his way back, you say “bring it” and have him “drop it” into your hand.

Bad Game No. 4: Wrestling and play fighting. This encourages jumping up, mouthing, biting and chasing.

Good Alternatives: Tricks and mind games. Exercise your dog’s mind by teaching him to shake, roll-over, play dead or spin.

In addition to games you can play at home, new types of organized dog sports are constantly being created. Rally-O is a fun sport where dogs must perform certain tasks to score points. Fly-ball and agility are great for high energy dogs like terriers and herding breeds. Find something you both enjoy and have fun!

Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at


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