Play - Give and Take

Today I began my student's lesson with the following directive:

"Heel with your dog for two minutes without using a food or toy reward.  You may talk, play, put hands on, and make the heeling as interesting as possible.  At the end of two minutes, you may reward with food or toys, assuming the quality of work is good.  Go!".

At the end of two minutes, I saw an overwhelmed dog and an exhausted handler.  What went wrong?

In an effort to follow my direction, the handler tried to use her intensity, energy, motion, and high pitched, fast paced cheering to "pull" energy out of the dog.  Unfortunately, the end result was that she 1) overwhelmed the dog, and 2) failed to notice the subtle changes in her dog's behavior which she could have used to improve the session.

The amount of energy you give to your work must be a reflection of your dog's energy - both what he is giving and what he needs or wants to perform well.  Instead of thinking in terms of speed, quantity of noise, and erratic motion, think in terms of ENGAGEMENT.  Are you 100% engaged with your dog?  Is he responding by engaging with you?  How have you communicated that engagement?  Are you using "bursts" of intensity and energy to reward your dog's efforts, or are you frantic?

What can you do if your trainer tells you to use personal interaction to keep your dog working for you?

Ideally, your dog does SOMETHING to start the game of work.  Eye contact?  Smile at him!  Ears up?  Tell him he's a fine boy!  Wagging tail?  Admire how nicely it wags!  Strong eye contact?  Make an erratic move in your heeling that rewards him for his good focus....because he was watching he saw your quick tap on his shoulder followed by a spin to the right.  Good boy; look how your handler can't fool you!  Laugh at his efforts!  Make silly sounds!  Get slow and "stalky" in your posture, and take off running; then snap back into heeling!  Think about how adults play with children; dogs aren't so different.

Now you have a game; a dance.  The dog and the handler should be subtly shifting the balance of engagement back and forth; you offer a play move and your dog responds.  Your dog asks to play and you agree with the right amount of energy for your dog and his stage of training.  In my mind, work and play are the same, so your dog can either offer a work based behavior or a play behavior - I'm ok with both.

If you need more raw energy from your dog to get started, go ahead and use a toy or a food game to wake your partner up; then try out your play moves.  By waking your dog up first, you've made it likely that SOMETHING will happen which you can acknowledge and respond to. As a general rule, I give less as my dogs give more - I expect more and more work of a higher quality before I engage in play - but when I play, then I give a lot to the game.  100%.   It's up to me how long I play; a function of the age and developmental level of the dog, the difficulty of the work, and how I'm reading the dog on a given day.

My handler took responsibility for following my directions, but she failed to follow her dog's cues.  In her efforts to please me, she missed the effect her energy was having on her dog.  It's always ok to ignore your trainer; it's never ok to ignore your dog.

At one point in the session, the handler made little "shhhh" sounds at her dog; his ears came up and he cocked his head.  THAT was an opportunity to lower her body and cock her head back at her dog; complete with a smile and wide open eyes.  Who knows where that might have gone?  Maybe he would have offered a play bow?  Or wagged his tail a little harder?  I cannot know because she did not respond to his interest; she continued on her path.  That was a lost opportunity to engage in genuine personal play.

Over that two minutes, the handler worked harder and harder, and the dog pulled back.  In a short period of time, the dog was giving almost nothing, and the handler was miserable.  If you ever feel miserable or frantic when you play, then you need to stop; you are on the wrong path.  If your dog ever disengages or shows active avoidance behaviors like sniffing, turning away from you, leaning away, etc, then it's time to re-evaluate.

I'll admit that this particular dog brings challenges.  He has high environmental awareness and minimal food/toy drive with his handler.   He knows all the work but is not terribly motivated to perform, regardless of the tangible rewards.   We're exploring a new route - personal play - and waiting to see where it goes.  Not too far, in this first lesson.  But we talked, and the next lesson will be better.

Regardless of how you motivate your dog - food, toys, or play, you must remember that this is a game of give and take.  We give and take cues, games, and energy to bring out the best in our team. Initially it's fine for the handler to start all or most of the sessions of work, but over time the dog should be attempting to engage you as soon as he sees that work is an option.

If you can, go out and train a dog today.  Study your dog.  Watch his reactions to your movements, noises, and facial expressions.  Try hands on play and hands off play. What captures his focus?  How can you blend that into your work, to get a stronger picture?

Today, allow your dog to train you.  It's fun!


Connie Kaplan

Really interesting, I’m a new trainer who hopes to audit your class in San Diego this month. Thanks


hey, i didnt know i had a lesson with you ;) … this is a fantastic post. this is me. i have improved so very much with the play with my dog, but this blog has given me even more to use!! thank you!

Cyndy Lange

Great article. I get frantic sometimes only because I’m training a crazy-man.


A big thanks from me, too! I also saw myself in this ‘mirror’. And the lovely description of this 4legged friend…sounds like my Terv male just 2 yo who is NOW starting to feel it is OK to do things we ask of him ;) Hellos from Greece! Meg

Amy Walker

Again…fabulous post! I saw myself in this frantic trainer you were talking about.You’ve given me some great ideas to focus on! Thank you;)

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