This question comes up a lot, so I wrote a supplemental lecture for my online Engagement class on this topic. However, since I discuss Engagement on my blog quite a bit, I am sharing the lecture here as well. I hope this provides clarification!
What is the relationship between play and engagement? Do you need play to train engagement?
To answer this question, I want you to think about the game of fetch and its relationship to the process of training a formal dumbbell retrieve.
Does a dog need to play fetch in order to learn a shaped dumbbell retrieve? No, not at all. We shape the dumbbell retrieve and reward it with something else, usually food or a toy.
But a dog who plays fetch has a definite advantage in the final dumbbell retrieve exercise because when the formal retrieve training is finished, the odds that the dog will find the activity itself rewarding (the opportunity to fetch the dumbbell) goes up dramatically.
The same is true of engagement.
Engagement training is a trained process. We shape/train it with food and toys the same way that we shape/train a retrieve.
Play is an activity that the dog enjoys for the activity itself, the same as the game of fetch.
Eventually, all of these pieces come together in both activities.
After the dog has learned a shaped retrieve they begin to enjoy the activity for its own sake if they like to fetch things – regardless of a toy or food reward. It is also common for a dog that did not enjoy the game of fetch before the dumbbell retrieve was trained to begin enjoying it after the retrieve training is completed.
And the same is true of the relationship between Play and Engagement. After the dog has lovely trained engagement, they may begin to enjoy the Play activity itself, even if they did not beforehand. And if the dog did enjoy play before you started Engagement training? That’s great too; it will get stronger as a side effect of the Engagement training.
But in the same way that a dog does not have to play fetch for fun to learn a dumbbell retrieve, a dog does not have to play with you personally to get trained through engagement. Each one feeds the other. And that’s good!