When I talk about personal play or interaction, I’m talking about the process of interacting with your dog without food or toys in a manner that is enjoyable for both of you, but rarely do I consider personal play a reinforcer.  So what does that mean?

A reinforcer increases behavior.

For example, you just asked your dog to perform a short stretch of heeling and it’s perfect!  So you tell your dog that was amazing, scratch his head or thump his sides, and repeat it.

What happens next?

If it’s a reinforcer, then your dog should zoom along with you and give you another good effort!  This one may or may not be as nice, but….the effort should be there.

And if it’s not a reinforcer then what might happen?

That would depend on the dog but as a general rule, each repetition will be less impressive than the last. Indeed, if the personal interaction signaled to the dog that food or toys were not going to happen, you might find the dog leaning away from your touch, in which case personal interaction has come to signal the loss of food or toys which makes it….a conditioned punisher.


So, you run out and perform this simple test and…voila!  It’s a mess!  After a few repetitions, your dog starts giving less and less effort (not a reinforcer) or actively avoids your touch (a conditioned punisher)

So should you bother with personal interaction?

Yes.  Because personal play and verbal interaction are relationship builders.  Dogs innately understand that people who talk nicely to them and pet them are friends.  (If you doubt this go hang out with four-week old puppies who have never been given food from a human hand).  Dogs seek out people who are nice regardless of the presence of food or toys, and dog/handler teams that have an interactive relationship have an easier time in the ring when no food or toys are present.

For example, my dogs enjoy interacting with my kids and greet them enthusiastically when they come home, in spite of the fact that my kids have never fed my dogs treats nor played with them with toys.   They find the interaction pleasant; a relationship builder.   My dogs will hang out with my kids if I am not home because they prefer their company to being alone or with a stranger.

So if my dogs had a choice between working with my kids or with a stranger they would choose my kids because they have a relationship. Would the work be impressive? Probably not because that generally requires reinforcers and a working relationship, which develops over time.  Here is my young son training Cisu:

Working for Approval

And in the ring, what do you have?

Whatever relationship you have developed with your dog.

If your dog avoids you when you don’t have food or toys, consider how that developed in training.  How did personal interaction come to be a punisher?

It’s possible that you only used personal interaction when no food or toys were going to follow – that’s a deadly mistake.

So what should you do now?  Condition your dog to understand that personal play or interaction PREDICTS food or toys – or possibly work if you are working on Engagement training – but take it one step at a time.

  1.  Work to find ways to interact with your dog away from training that your dog enjoys.
  2. In small doses, add that personal interaction to your training and always back it up with food or toys.
  3. Start adding a bit of work after the personal interaction but before the food or toys.
  4. Extend that process so that the dog begins to accept food, toys or personal interaction as all meaning ‘well done!’ I am pleased!  Our relationship is intact!

Even if the personal interaction NEVER becomes a reinforcer, you’re still ahead of the game.

There are ways to get in the ring with no relationship at all so you can choose one of those options if you prefer and if you are a talented trainer.  But…why?  It’s nice to interact with your dog.  It’s nice when your dog likes to interact with you.

If you want to get walked through this process in great detail, sign up for my online class “Engagement” and spend six weeks on this topic for $65.  It’s a lot to wrap your head around in a simple blog post, but I gave it a shot.