Solving Problems in Play with Your Dog

Author: Bella (proHOUND Co-Founder)

I’ve been very frank about my play journey with Nina. She is a working type GSD and therefore has genetic possession. I am enough of a softy to have felt hurt when she would take a toy and go out of her way to enjoy it away from me. Dropping a toy on cue was out of the question and I worried I’d never be able to play cooperatively with her. 



I took advice from a few people (these will be mentioned below) and worked VERY HARD to make play about me rather than possessing the object. 



Many, many very short play sessions over a few months were the key rather than trying to persuade her to play with me and attempting to fight genetics for 20 mins at a time. 



Quite a lot of it didn’t even look like play either. It does now though!



Perhaps the most surprising element of the work I did to achieve all this is the fact I did NOT try to quash or eliminate Nina’s natural, genetic possession. 



Before I start, I need to clarify that all of the tips I give will need to be tweaked to the individual dog. This is really just an account of what worked for me! 



  • Stop trying to prevent your dog from doing what they were bred to do
    Nina is bred to do IGP, a sport of 3 phases, one of which is bite work. She has deep grips and is possessive. She is going to want to possess items. Your springer spaniel is going to want to retrieve things; your sighthound is going to have prey drive. The trick is to channel those traits into cooperative games. 
    I’ll add that (for a while at least) your play may not be neatly divided into the games we all know and love. Fetch & tug may take different forms for a while. 


  • Teach your dog that Drop is a good thing
    Does ‘drop’ always mean the game is over or you take the toy away? That might explain why drop is a problem. Think about your dog’s association with the cue – what happens when they’ve dropped? 
    I recommended teaching drop by swapping. 
    I also benefited from marking & rewarding whenever Nina voluntarily dropped, even if it was accidental or didn’t seem like a conscious decision. 
    Now we’re at a great place in our playing, ‘drop’ to Nina occasionally means I’m having the toy (I rarely take a toy from her with no ‘payment’ – she is still only a baby), it sometimes means the game is continued it and often means I’m going to immediately give back the toy or release her on to it. I’ve built value in the game and I’ve built trust that I am not all about taking (in fact I rarely take as I said), so she is happy to drop. Her association of dropping on command is overall very good. 


  • Always have another toy of equal value
    I managed to teach Nina two ball fetch which I eventually reduced to one ball once she understood what was going to happen (she even brings the ball up to me and drops it so I can throw it again now!) by immediately producing another toy of equal value every time she had the one I’d thrown. It produced a ‘she always has another one/something better’ mindset and eliminates the potential conflict trying to take the toy away so you can throw it again (remember, they may not realise you only want it back to throw again) 


  • The more you tug it away, the more the dog will want to hang on!
    Tug didn’t work for us for ages. Think about it – the more I pulled and pulled, the more Nina had to work to keep it. She was then reluctant to give it up because it cost so much effort to keep it. Tug wasn’t a cooperative game; we were in competition. 
    How did I change this? 
    Lead on (so they can’t sod off with the toy!); let the dog possess. Let the dog be around you possessing the toy. The major step is to arouse your dog’s natural prey and chase instincts by occasionally grabbing the toy for a brief second. Always let them win. Build their confidence – a tiny little grab is all they’ll experience then they can keep it! Every single time. Super easy. It becomes fun this way. They may start to hover near you for you to grab the toy (Nina does this; she may never force herself or the toy into my hand for me to play but hovering near is good enough for me); they may start to display playful body language. 
    You can then start to incorporate Drop into this messing around together – make sure you release the dog back onto the toy/give the toy back a lot. 


  • Have you tried personal play?
    Lots of dogs love roughhousing! Maybe this is a good way to boost your relationship whilst you work on playing with toys. 


You will hopefully eventually be able to take a toy out and just play together in a relaxed state of mind! 
Please bear in mind though that it is very hard to explain what I did in writing and this article is about Nina’s individual journey. The tips may not suit every dog. Feel free to contact me to discuss other problems in play, such as lack of desire or overexcitement for example. 


Here is my list of resources: 


@paws.andreflect on Instagram is a great account to follow for play
Ivan Balabanov is a fantastic dog trainer in this respect too – I haven’t actually bought any of his videos but people rave about Chase & Catch!
I had a private lesson about play with @revk9training and another with our RSP @scott__k9 (Instagram)
Leerburg’s tug videos are great too


To be honest, my main tip is to make tiny tweaks and see what works for you. Your body language and the way you ‘lure’ your dog is crucial. 
I offer weekly virtual play skills sessions as well! 


Hope these help! 


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