If you’ve been following my blog, then you know I’m a huge advocate of playing with dogs regardless of your sport or personal interests.

I also know that many people are a bit stuck.  Stuck on where to begin.  Stuck on how to progress. Good at one type of play (maybe with toys) but mystified by another type (often personal play).

Starting Dec. 1st, 2013,  I’ll be teaching a class on this topic; if you’re struggling then maybe it can help you.  Registration for this class is now open.  Gold and Silver spots have already filled but you’ll learn tons at Bronze level and heck…it’s only $65 to read all of the lectures and watch all of the videos (about 65 of them at last count).  Plus you’ll watch the Gold students as they submit their videos and recieve feeback in the forums.  You’ll be a silent observer:).

To help you understand what the class will cover, the rest of this blog is the first lecture from the class. I hope to see many of you there!

Lecture #1: Three primary types of play (Toy, Personal and Food Play) 

The topic of play is vitally important to me.  My goal in this class is to give you very detailed and specific information – to provide mechanical, mental, and emotional skills that set a stage where excellent play can flourish.

Good play should not be measured by which techniques you choose to use; all forms of play can be useful and helpful.  Good play should be measured by the amount of enjoyment it generates between you and your dog.  If specific techniques generate energy, engagement, enthusiasm and stress relief, then they are the “right” technique for your team.  There are many different ways to play with toys, food, and physical interaction to appeal to the greatest range of dogs possible.

Play will give you another way to appreciate your canine friend.  It will allow you to do the same things with your dog that people like to do with each other (play games, share food and interact personally).  It takes your relationship with your dog to another level!

Do you absolutely have to play with your dog in order to be an effective trainer?  No, but you are limiting your options if you don’t take advantage of the many forms of play that are available to you.  Play can elevate your training in ways you never imagined.

The more play skills you are able to develop, the greater your chances for developing a  training program that will be highly enjoyable for both of you.  Each type of play brings different benefits to your work and to your relationship, and therefore are worthy of your attention.

Let’s look at the three types of play that will be covered in this class:

Toy Play:

Few topics have created more argument, confusion and anxiety between trainers than discussions of playing tug with their performance dogs.  It is hard to overstate what a good game of tug can do for you in terms of increasing intensity and focus for work in your dog.   Dogs that enjoy tug bring very high levels of energy, enthusiasm, and joy to the game – all of which can be used to motivate and refine performance work for that dog.  This is most obvious when the dog begs the trainer to play – and refuses to be denied.  These dogs often teach their trainers how to play rather than the reverse.  They are highly forgiving of play errors on the trainer’s part because the game is so important to them.  Dogs bred from working lines or for working sports (IPO, herding, terriers, sporting dogs, and so on) can be very powerful and persistent in their games of tug.  It is not a coincidence that these dogs make up a high percentage of dogs at the top performance levels in IPO, agility and obedience.

On the other hand, there are some dogs that are low in innate toy interest, or are simply lower energy dogs altogether.  Sometimes trainers who have limited experience with these less driven dogs are highly judgmental of those teams that have not learned to play, leading to significant pressure to MAKE the dog play. These trainers seem to suggest that if the dog cannot play then the owner is at fault – they simply haven’t tried hard enough.  Furthermore, the implication is that the dog cannot succeed in performance competition without this skill, so the pressure mounts on the owner to make it happen.

If you MAKE your dog do something that he doesn’t really want to do, you’ll have exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.  Best case scenario:  the dog learns to find joy in the game in spite of the methods used to teach it.  Worst case scenario:  the dog develops anxiety at the sight of the trainer or a toy.  Regardless, there is simply no reason to approach any activity involving your dog with this type of preexisting pressure.  Rarely does a stressed out and pressured trainer produce a confident and happily playing dog.

On the other hand, if trainers lack the mechanical skills to make tug a rewarding activity for their dogs then they will struggle to make interactive toy play fun regardless of how much the dogs might want to play.

Good tug play is a mechanical skill.  Good tug is also an emotional and interactive skill.  If you do not make a point of investing yourself in the game, then you will lose the benefits of the relationship building aspects of toy play.  Ideally the dog learns to love to play tug.  Then the dog begins to associate you with this fabulous game, adding value to your smile, movements and personal interactions with your dog.  This side effect of classically conditioning YOU with the fun of the game is huge, especially if you plan to compete in sports where you will not have access to your external motivators for long periods of time.

Most of the dogs who compete in AKC performance events (agility, rally, and obedience) fall somewhere in the middle.  The trainer states that their dog cannot or will not play, but these dogs WILL play if presented with the game in a positive and interactive manner by a trainer with good mechanical skills.  They have the genetic capacity to play, and to truly enjoy the game, but they require some help to recognize how much fun interactive toy play can be for them.   A trainer that understands the subtleties of play, or who is naturally inclined toward it, can often bring this playfulness to the surface where it can be used to significantly enhance time spent working or training together.

While these “middle of the road” dogs don’t always express the intensity and commitment shown by the “natural players”, many of them WILL develop a love of toy play which can surpass their interest in food as a motivator.  This alone makes interactive toy play a game worthy of attention.  Even if a dog does not reach this level of commitment (preferring food to toys) there is still significant value to toy play as an addition to food in training – making it well worth the effort.


What is it?

Personal play is play that occurs between you and your dog – and nothing else. There are no toys, balls, or food to provide a focal point.  All of the interaction occurs directly between the two of you.  This skill is difficult to master because each dog is a unique individual, requiring careful attention and study to know how best to engage; there is no formula or shortcut.

Puppies tend to take to personal play extremely easily.  The easiest way to learn this skill is to practice with a puppy, and then take on your adult dogs.  Like humans, dogs can lose the skills of play if they do not practice them as they mature.  This does not mean you cannot bring the interest back but you’ll have to work harder and more thoughtfully to bring out your dog’s playful side.

Why we do it

Personal play has a tremendous range of benefits for both the dog and trainer. Teams engaged in personal play almost always generate a good deal of shared energy.  Rather than a dog leaping and jumping alone, the team is leaping and jumping together!  This energy is highly usable and trainer focused; an excellent physical, mental and emotional state for the dog to be in when training.

Personal play relieves stress.  When a team is engaged with each other, smiling and laughing, it’s hard to be nervous.  When a team that can normally play well is unable to do so, it is also an excellent barometer of distress.  It is possible that something needs to be done to help the dog (or trainer!) feel more comfortable in that given environment.

Because personal play is so individualized, trainers must watch their dogs carefully to have a sense of what works.  If a specific sound causes a dog to “smile” and cock his head sideways, listening, then the owner must make a mental note that this is a possible play trigger for that specific dog.  Trainers that appreciate personal play spend a good deal of time simply studying their dogs, watching interactions with children, strangers, and other dogs.  This time spent watching your dog is excellent both for general relationship building and also for finding the keys to engage your dog’s playfulness.

Personal play encourages natural focus.  When a dog is not sure what you are going to do next, he tends to pay attention, simply because you are interesting.

One of my favorite uses of personal play is to reduce the use of ‘classic’ food and object based rewards.  This is particularly valuable if you participate in dog sports where routines can be long and the opportunities for food or toy play do not exist in competition

Because personal play has no rules beyond enjoyment, the sky is the limit in terms of what you can think up that might work for your dog.  Some dogs love to play “foot” games where you reach out and pretend to grab their feet (or take hold very gently).  Some dogs enjoy light pushing and shoving.  Other dogs do not want to be touched, but they love to come towards you and into your space.  Because personal play is so customizable, trainers can spends months or years learning how to best engage their dogs – an enjoyable process for those of us who really value our canine relationships.

play vs. praise/approval:

Play is energizing and praise is soothing – both build your relationship with your dog.  Both are very important but for different reasons!  Praise and approval tells your dog that you are there for support and that you enjoy her company.  Praise in the form of stroking, belly rubs, massages, and hugging is wonderful for your relationship.

Even more important, the ability to praise your dog and express your personal approval often needs to come before a dog will be relaxed enough to play with a person.  Play takes more than a dog who is interested in engaging; it takes trust.  Just as people rarely “let loose” and play with people that they do not have a relationship with, the same is true for dogs.

Never discount the value of praise and personal approval.  Indeed, I would suggest that many people start their “relationship through play” journey by taking a hard look at how they praise their dogs and express approval, beyond handing over a cookie.  If you cannot praise, you will truly struggle to play.


What is it?

Let’s start by considering each word independently:  “food” and “play”, and discuss what each brings to the table for dog training.


Food is a primary motivator for all organisms.  It is the most innately powerful choice of reward for many (but not all) dogs.  Food drive is closely linked to survival of the newborn and very young puppy.  The successful puppy aggressively seeks out the source of food (mom) and competes against their litter mates to survive.  A puppy with low food drive is not likely to survive.  As a result, even after thousands of years of domestication, most dogs have at least a minimal level of food drive which we can then harness for performance work. At this time food is the most popular motivator for many performance trainers


For our purposes, I’m going to define play as interactive (play between dog and handler), enjoyable, and requiring movement, energy and focus. “Food play”, therefore, combines the elements of play (movement, energy, focus and fun) with the act of eating (primary reinforcer and highly motivating for most dogs). Using food does NOT mean you are using food play.  It takes conscious choice and effort to make play a part of your food use.

Why we use food play

When we combine play with food, we pull together the best traits of play with the very strong motivating value of food.

A dog that is handed a cookie may or may not express energy to get the food.  For example, a trainer that approaches her dog and places a piece of food in his mouth is not playing with her dog, but she is using food in training. The dog is eating without putting out effort to get the food.  There is no motion, interaction, or “fun” involved, but he will still enjoy the food.  This is not always a bad thing.  It might be exactly the right approach for training that dog to do a particular task, but it is NOT food play.

On the other hand, a dog that runs across the yard at full speed to chase down a trainer with a cookie is showing many qualities that we associate with play in performance training.  The dog is engaged with the trainer and moving with speed, energy and focus towards the goal.  This dog and trainer are engaging in food play.  The trainer has become more than a simple cookie dispenser.

Food play builds interest in food as a reinforcer because it combines food with prey and hunt interests.  For example, when a piece of food is tossed away from the dog, the dog “chases” the food in order to eat it.  The chase is a clear aspect of predatory behavior and is intrinsically motivating for most dogs.  If a piece of food is placed under a sofa cushion where a dog must sniff it out in order to eat it, we can see the behavior of a dog that is using his nose (hunting) to get that piece of food.  If a dog chases his trainer and then leaps high into the air to grab the food, the dog is interacting closely with the trainer in play to get that cookie.

Handing over a cookie is certainly satisfying on a basic level for a dog, but engaging in play behaviors to eat builds the “fun” into your interactions and training.  Using one’s body – running, chasing, leaping — is fun for dogs.  And for people too!

Food play can make each piece of food much more valuable, due to the energy and interaction that each piece requires. Rather than food being an event which takes just seconds to complete (into the mouth and down the hatch), each piece can take twenty or thirty seconds from the start of the ‘reward marker’ until it is totally consumed.  This entire period is part of the reinforcer and adds great value to the food reward itself.

Food play encourages stronger and more direct dog trainer interactions.  It is close to impossible not to get personally involved when food is used in a highly active manner.

Best uses of food play

Food play is an excellent way to build love of work and trainer interaction in puppies.  Most puppies have strong food drives.  By using the food in play you are building in interaction and relationship with the trainer.  The dog learns that it is more than food; it is also about the game.  Later we will call this game “work.”  Food play is one of the first games most puppies will play with their trainers.

Food play brings energy to work for dogs of all ages.  It is very difficult for a dog to chase you for food and not put out energy.  This energy can then be channeled back into work.

The more you play games with food, the more you will build value in the food itself. When a dog has to work hard for a bit of cookie, that cookie develops value both for itself (yum!) and for the process that led to it (effort and energy!)  In this way, you build effort, energy and food desire simultaneously.

Food play is also an excellent choice for dogs that simply do not value (or have not yet learned to value) toy play.  The games that your dog comes to enjoy with food can be transitioned into the same games with toys.  Using food play in training is a good option while you work on teaching your dog to interact with toys, since one should never try to teach behaviors using a motivator that your dog does not actually want.  Teach the dog to love toys, but in the meantime, train with food play if that is your dog’s clearest interest.

Food play guarantees that you will get actively involved with your dog.  Use food play to develop your working relationship with your dog.  As with so many aspects of “play”, we use food play in training to have fun.  The more fun you have with your dog in training, the more both of you will look forward to your working sessions.  Dog and trainer teams that are enjoying their training are a good deal more likely to find success in dog sports and to have fun doing it!

Food play/control:  If you’re reading this and the LAST thing you want is to teach your dog is to chase food and love it even more, then you can emphasize “Control” over drive.  Let’s consider this.

Control based games allow the dog to be rewarded quickly and directly with food – after they perform a task of self control.  When self control is added within the context of a game, dogs quickly recognize that they “need” their handlers – listening and responding to cues leads to what they want – the cookie!

Control and drive building games are two sides of the same coin; the primary difference in in where the control is being supplied – if you physically hold your dog back, then you are building drive (and eroding self control).  If you ask the dog to hold themselves back through self control, then you are building impulse control – and the explosive release to the reward maintains the dog’s interest in the activity.

Which ones should you focus on?  I’d suggest that you strive for balance; as much as possible, you want a 49/51 split.  I like to see a dog that is ready and willing to spring forward at any time, but that has the ability to turn on self control as needed or desired before they “spring”.  I do not think that dogs need “one or the other”.  I believe that dogs need to be evaluated constantly as they grow and mature in both age and their work.  Select games that give you what you want more of.  If you think your adolescent male is getting a little out of hand, emphasizes self control games.  If you think your wallflower needs to let loose, emphasize drive building games.  There is a also a matter of personal choice about what we each like to see in our dogs.  I like dog closer “to the edge” so I train in a higher state of arousal – often sacrificing control.  Other handlers prefers dogs in a more thinking state – so that handler would train with a greater emphasis on a clear head and lower levels of arousal.  Both are fine.

First Written Assignment:

Having read the prior lecture, I’d like you to consider your dog for a moment and answer the following questions.  Think in terms of your dog’s behavior in a comfortable and quiet space, such as home or wherever you normally train.

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, Rate your dog’s current interest in each form of play (food, toy and personal).  Feel free to expand beyond a number.
  2. How much time have you put into playing with your personally?  With toys? With food?  Use a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “almost never” and 10 being “all the time!”  Consider each element separately.
  3. What percentage of your training time do you reward with food?  Toys? Personal play? (this may not add up to 100% if you frequently combine motivators)
  4. Review the above information.  Do you see any patterns?
  5. Does this information provide you with any goals for this class?

Homework Example (Lyra)

  1. Food interest – 5; Toy Interest – 8; Personal Play/praise – 5.  Food  and personal play interest are non-existent under many public circumstances but overall, food and personal play interest is increasing with age and experience.  Over the last couple of months I’ve been focusing on using food more in training and it’s definitely increasing her food interest.  The first time I considered Lyra’s food interest, I had her at a 3 – that was about a year ago.  Today I have her at a 5.  So..progress!  Lyra’s toy interest is high.  I’m working hard on using personal play and praise and we are slowly progressing.
  2. Food – 3; Toy – 10;  Personal Play – 6  It is not a coincidence if  you find that these numbers closely correlate to the numbers above for your dog – what we emphasize is often what grows to be the most powerful motivator.  In Lyra’s case , I emphasized toy play heavily – and I continue to do so!  I  am also also making a point of spending time on personal play.  Food play is the most challenging for me because I enjoy it the least, but I am making an effort to stick with it.
  3. Food Training – 85%; Toy training 50%; Personal Play 75%; In an “average” five minute training session, I use all three motivators . I almost always combine personal play with toy play at this time; I like what I’m seeing in terms of engagement but I try to focus more on the personal play and less on the toy (touching the dog while she holds a toy).  I do need to mention that the life motivator of “swimming in the pool” is Lyra’s most powerful motivator – the pool is used at the end of many training sessions when she does a particularly difficult exercise or works for a longer than average period of time without reinforcement and with high quality.  I also use food a good deal when we train details in the house – normally this is not food play as much as food for rewards – given to her in position.
  4. Patterns:   A few months ago, based on the patterns that I was seeing in my training, I made major changes to Lyra’s training.  I began to spend a good deal more time on both personal play and food in training – and it’s helped!  While not yet at the levels of interest that I might like, she is much stronger in both of these areas and we have not lost anything in terms of toys because that interest is already so strong and I maintain it while working on personal play.
  5. My goal for this six weeks:  continue to increase the amount of time I spend on Food training and personal Play.   I’d like to practice more personal play without the toy – but without losing the quality of her personal play when she’s holding a toy.

Review this lecture.  Think about it!  Ask questions and feel free to talk to me about what you’d like to see in your dog at the end of the class.  Tomorrow I’ll ask you to submit a baseline video and after that we’ll get to the nitty gritty details of toy play.

And we’re off!

To register for this class, go to: http://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/courses/20