Why play? What is games-based dog training?

What is play? Since we’re talking about dogs, you’re probably thinking of the classics: fetch, tugging, rough housing… But that’s not really what I mean when I talk about play. In fact, I very rarely throw a ball.

Play for me is not so much an activity, but more of a concept. It’s something you do WITH someone. Think about it, you could very well replace your arm with a tennis ball machine and your dog would likely keep fetching. That’s not the kind of play we use in our dog training classes.

For me, the most important aspect of play is that it is a mutual activity: it requires engagement, a connection between the players, the choice for all players to engage in—or disengage from—play. When we play, we do not take ourselves too seriously. Play has to be fun, yet it requires rules. It should feel predictable and safe, yet allow you to practice for “real” life. Structured play is an educational tool that gives the learner and the teacher the same amount of control over the experience.

Yet in dog training, play is often as much an obedience exercise as learning “commands.” Your dog won’t bring the ball back? He’s being stubborn. Your dog won’t let go of the tug? He’s being “dominant.” You must “make him” bring it back, make him let go, never let him win. Now where is the fun in that? You can force your dog to fetch, but you can’t force her to want to come back to you. We play because we want to.

You know when you’re truly playing because it makes you feel good. Play is an emotional experience. It also happens to be our brain’s favorite way to learn new things. The main objective of games-based dog training is for you and your dog to enjoy learning.

Practically any dog-owning struggle can be transformed using a games-based approach. We use play to teach real-life skills—from recall to being calm in the face of distractions—and to learn how to cope with challenges such as reactivity or fearfulness. When learning is fun, so is using what you’ve learned. So that when you need the skills you have learned on the playground out in the real world, your dog will be happy to play the game of life with you.

Let’s go have some fun!