The popular saying holds true for play skills, too. For a while as I wanted to prevent Java’s wrist from swelling I didn’t dare to play much with her. I was afraid that movements from side to side and quick turns as she’s chasing the toy would put too much stress on her wrist. The vet told us that we should be careful with that wrist for four months and during this time we almost completely stopped using toys in training, only food, which is Java’s favorite anyway.
What happened? The same thing that happens to all dogs with whom their handlers only use their very best reinforcer – Java’s love for toys diminished and so did her play skills. She was still very happy to play outside (dogs can have different rankings of reinforcers depending on location), but not so much at home. If I initiated play in the living room she would grab the toy and tug halfheartedly and hope that treats are going to appear soon.
The solution for a dog who doesn’t like to play is simple: play more! Very short and fun sessions, ending in what dog likes the most. This is what worked for Java:
- Playing before each food training session, therefore transferring value from food to play.
- Occasionally reward the best play with food which I don’t have on me at the beginning, so the reward is a surprise. This is not the same as teaching play as a trick. I am just following what she already enjoys (play) with what she enjoys even more (food), as a surprise. Who doesn’t like a nice surprise? 🙂
- Playing with two balls, teasing her.
- Lots of toy chasing. This is the type of play she likes the most.
- Restrains to a toy in which I pretend to race her. She gets VERY intense, speeds like a bullet and her turn back with the toy is just amazing. She would make a great Flyball dog.
- She loves surprise downs and sits in the middle of Two Toy Game and she’s pretty darn good at them, too. Yes, playing becomes higher value if she has to work for the toy 🙂
I don’t have many rules as we play, but I do expect her to play with which ever toy I offer even though there might be more exciting toys within her reach. This rule is important to me, because it means that she is willing to ignore distractions while playing. In this case the distraction is a better toy than I have, some other day it could be treats in the grass or another handler playing with her dog nearby.
Here is a clip in which we’re brushing up on Play With My Toy and just building up the value of toy play:
It took a few sessions for her to stop hoping that I will play with The Beaver if she carries him around long enough. Now she will drop The Beaver immediately as I reach out for the other toy, even if it’s just old fleece.