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How to Use Play as a Reward

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Let’s play!

Have you ever wanted to reward your dog for a job well done, but didn't have food treats with you? Consider playing with your dog to reinforce good behavior! Not everyone wants to spend life storing food in pockets. (Have you ever found a pocket full of food after it has gone through the laundry? It’s not pretty, I can tell you that!)

Woman running happily with her dog

Instead of being a slave to food treats in my pocket, I introduce my dogs to “real-life rewards.” Occasionally, play takes the place of food as payment for a job well done. My dogs find the opportunity to chase a ball, to chase me, or to have me chase them even more fun—and unexpected—than food.

Dogs, like humans, play long after they have “grown up.” I think that’s one of the many reasons we get along so well with our canine friends. Play is just as much fun for us as it is for our dogs. Just the one-on-one attention your dog gets from you during a play session can be as reinforcing as the play itself—and can contribute to a strong relationship between you and your dog.

Benefits of play

Aside from sheer enjoyment, there are other benefits from using play as a reinforcer. Start with convenience: when you have a few games you can play with your dog, you always have a way to reinforce your dog’s behavior. Some games require a toy (fetch, tug), but other games don’t require anything but you and your dog. Even a game of fetch can be played with just about anything that’s around—a stick, your glove, your car keys. Anything your dog can pick up safely is a possibility!

Another benefit of using play is the increase in the variety of your reinforcers. With more options, you can mix it up for your dog. Sometimes the reinforcer is a yummy treat; another time the reinforcer is a quick game of chase. Keep your dog guessing—sometimes the surprise is the reinforcer! If you’re teaching your dog a behavior that needs to be quick and snappy (heeling, for instance), play is the perfect reinforcer because it can rev up your dog and speed up the behavior.

One of the most important benefits of using play as a reinforcer is that it helps strengthen the relationship between you and your dog.

One of the most important benefits of using play as a reinforcer is that it helps strengthen the relationship between you and your dog. Play is fun, and involves both you and the dog. It makes you a team. Finding a game that you and your dog enjoy and then using that game as a reinforcer increases your value to your dog and helps your dog enjoy you more. With a deepening relationship, every interaction between you and your dog is more fun and more rewarding. With play, you can create a dynamic that will enrich not only your training, but your lives together!

Types of play

In addition to the games mentioned already, tug and fetch, there are other games you can play with your dog. I categorize play into two types—interactive play and passive play. Interactive play requires that you and the dog are equally engaged in the play. Examples of interactive play include tug, chase, being chased, and other running or moving games. In interactive play, you are part of the game.

I think of passive play as something that I start, but I’m not really an integral part of the play. Fetch is an example of passive play. I’m needed to throw the toy, but then the dog takes over and is the primary player of the game. I just make the toy come alive. My dog, Nemo, enjoys a passive version of the chase game. I “sneak off” (so that he can see me) and hide behind an evergreen in our backyard. My sneaking off is Nemo’s cue to “stalk” me. Once I jump out from behind the evergreen and “scare” him, he runs around the yard, feinting left and right, as if he’s being chased by imaginary dogs. Occasionally, I’ll need to jump out and “scare” him again if he slows, but for the most part Nemo’s out there running in the yard.

In this game, I’m merely the catalyst to get the behavior going. But from Nemo’s point of view, I’m pretty darn valuable to him and the game. That viewpoint will help take our training further than if I simply dispense treats as reinforcers.

Finding and fostering play preferences

video platform video management video solutions video player

Using a game of tug as a reward.
(Video courtesy of Debbie Martin).

Some dogs are natural retrievers—fetch is their game of choice. Other dogs like to chase or be chased. Still other dogs like physical play—roughhousing is fun for them. To determine what play your dog enjoys naturally, watch your dog when he’s with other dogs. Does he like to body slam and wrestle with his doggie friends? Chances are he might like to do the same with you. Does he chase other dogs? Does he like it when other dogs chase him? See if you can engage your dog in these same kinds of games.

Maybe your dog loves the water? Find a water-worthy toy and get him involved in play in his element. Does your dog go crazy for squeaky toys? Buy several toys with different squeakers (there are toys that “squeak” grunts!) and see which type of squeak your dog likes the most.

If your dog doesn’t seem to like any particular game or toy, there are toys with little pockets you can put food into. Lure your dog into interacting with a toy to jumpstart play.

We have Labrador retrievers, but not all of them find retrieving fun. Retrieving is pretty low on Lily’s list of fun things. She would much rather chase something than retrieve it. For Lily, I’ve put a toy on a string and I whip it around—left and right, up in the air, over her head, under her belly. She loves it! You may need to go beyond what’s normal and typical for your dog’s “breed” to find out exactly what your dog likes.

Once you determine your dog’s play preferences, make a concerted effort to work play into your daily interactions with your dog.

Once you determine your dog’s play preferences, make a concerted effort to work play into your daily interactions with your dog. Spend a few minutes initiating play with your dog. Grab the tug toy, swish it around on the floor a few times, and encourage your dog to pick it up and begin tugging. When your dog does this, praise him, tug gently, and watch his reactions. Ideally, you’ll see excitement and enjoyment of the game.

Keep your initial play sessions short and fun. Keep the game at an appropriate level, too. If the dog escalates out of control (in the tug example, if the dog starts to re-grip the toy and his teeth touch your hands, or if he shakes the toy so hard that it’s difficult to maintain your grip), simply drop the toy and walk away from the game.

For dogs developing their play skills, keep your play at a level where the dog’s efforts are rewarded, not punished. For instance, if your dog is just beginning to enjoy fetch, throw the toy a short distance, not 40 yards away. Just like training, you want to keep your rate of reinforcement high. Keep the dog engaged in the game and having fun. If a dog has to run 100 yards to pick up a tennis ball and he’s also just learning to enjoy fetch, you could destroy that preference for fetch by asking for too much effort too soon in the learning phase.

Choosing the right toys

Girl playing with a chase it and mastiffs

Dogs having fun with the Chase-It.

When you know your dog’s play preferences, next comes the fun part: shopping for toys! There are so many toys on the market, you are sure to find one that fits your dog’s preferences. If your dog likes to chase things, take a look at toys like Kong Tails. There lots of little fabric flaps to whisk around on the floor for your dog to chase, Or, try the Chase-It—a stick-like pole with a sturdy rope to which you can attach just about any toy. Whip the Chase-It back and forth or up and down, and your dog will be hooked!

If your dog loves the water, look for bright, floating toys that you can toss into the surf. Kong makes several types of water toys, including floating versions of the Kong. For example, Aqua Kong has a rope at the end (for easy tossing) and is filled with a buoyant material to make it float.

Most bumper toys are water-worthy and fun for your dog to retrieve. If you have tennis balls around the house, they float well, too! If your dog is just learning to fetch, attach those toys to a River Rope, in case your dog decides not to fetch the toy. With a River Rope you can pull the toy back in easily, without having to go into the water yourself. The rope also keeps the toy from going downstream or out with the tide!

If squeaking is what your dog is after, your options are almost limitless. Check out the Kong toys that have squeakers built in (my dogs’ favorites!), like the Air KONG Squeaker or the Wubba. Check out toys that grunt, like Loopies, too. Some dogs find the odd-sounding noise irresistible!

Top choice = you!

Don’t forget that the opportunity to play with you can be the most rewarding activity of all!

Don’t forget that the opportunity to play with you can be the most rewarding activity of all! Run from your dog, and see if he follows you. Give chase after your dog; my dogs seem to enjoy this game most of all. That one is a win-win choice—we’re having fun together and we’re both getting exercise!

Working play into your daily interactions with your dog is valuable for a myriad of reasons. First of all, it’s impossible to measure the fun! Fun is an effective reinforcer in training, too, whether you are training basic manners or more advanced skills and tricks. Don’t forget that amazing side effect of playing with your dog—your relationship with your dog gets better and better.

Now get out there and play with your dog!

Related Products

KONG Tails
KONG Tails
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Loopies Talking Toys
$10.98 - $13.95
About the author
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Laurie Luck, KPA CTP, and a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, is the founder of Smart Dog University. She has been involved with many pet dog trainer certification initiatives, all based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge. Laurie also participates in service dog training, and she and her Tango are a pet-therapy team. Through her work with dogs and owners, Laurie has developed many happy canine and human friendships.

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