The importance of play in learning

How often do you play with your dog - engaging and playing with them?

We often expect our dogs to play with their toys themselves but there is huge value in actively playing with your dog and it has been proved that it also improves their training.

Dogs are magical creatures that never really grow up, unlike their ancestors. Dogs are derived from a now extinct type of wolf; the wolves of today are also from that same ancestor, but they couldn’t be more different.

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Wolves grow up and become a functioning member of the family and are responsible for different duties depending on their sex and position within the family. All members of a wolf pack are blood relative family, and they work together as a unit.

Dogs on the other hand are perpetually juvenile and never really mature into adulthood - which is why they love to play and often behave like puppies, even when they are into their later life.

Scientists have shown that dogs that have a play session with a human following learning a new task were shown to improve their training performance over dogs that got a rest period.

They concluded that arousing and emotional situations can improve cognitive performance and the memorability of events.

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Believe it or not, learning to play with your dog is a skill, there are whole courses run to help people to learn to play and to ensure that the dog is getting exactly what we want from it.

Play is a very important aspect of your dog’s life, and it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Many dogs would prefer a play session over food when training but if you have inadvertently not played in a way that motivates your dog that could lead you to believe your dog is not keen on play.

So how do you play with your dog? The question really is more: how not to play with your dog.

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As humans we can be a bit over the top and waving the toy around in front of your dog’s face and being loud and over the top can be incredibly intimidating for a dog, especially our smaller ones.

If you are bending over the dog, then that could make the dog feel uncomfortable and therefore less likely to engage with you.

Firstly, we want our dog to think they are invincible, and to do that we need to ensure that your dog is winning more than you.

When we are over vigorous when the toy is in our dogs’ mouth and we shake it and pull it, sometimes even lifting our dogs’ legs off the ground, this can unintentionally leave our dog feeling inadequate and irrelevant to the play.

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We want to achieve an interaction with our dogs, not a competition.

To motivate our dog for the toy we need to move it in a way that makes it exciting to chase. Imitating prey is a great way, so a little movement, stop, a bit more movement with the toy on the ground and if possible, using a longer handled toy so you are not crowding the dog.

We do not want to feed the dog the toy as this could lower the value of the toy.

When your dog goes for the toy and has it in their mouth, very light resistance can encourage your dog to bite on and tug the toy, which is exactly what we want.

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For our smaller dogs especially, you can get down on the floor, for larger dogs we are not going to lean over them but away from them with our arms straight with the toy.

Any interaction from your dog, any pull during the tug game is magnified by your over reaction to being pulled around, telling our dog what a super strong dog they are.

Letting your dog drag you around in the direction they are pulling making them feel like they are invincible.

Years ago, people were told to never allow their dog to win a game of tug, or they would become dominant. I can assure you that is not and never was the case. Interactive play is a gift, there is no better feeling than your dog bringing that toy back to you because you are the game, the fun.

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In no time when you have built up your dog’s confidence and allowed them to win many games you will find, with one toy alone your dog will return again and again asking for you to interact and play the game again.

This is true interaction with your dog, they are making that choice that you are their most fun partner. There is no better feeling than being your dog’s best friend.

So what sort of toys should you play with? There are hundreds of dog toys out there, we want something that is good quality so it will not break on the first go, and something that has a long enough handle that you are not in your dogs face as you build their confidence.

I love a variety of toys but for tug of war I always go with tug-e-nuff toys as they are great quality and dogs love them.

Start to learn to play with your dog and see just how magical that feeling is.

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