Archive for February, 2010

Dogs who won’t play

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Recently I was presented with an interesting question from a fellow rescuer about dogs who won’t play with toys, and whether or not work to release toys would encourage play. Many dogs who are rescued come from backgrounds that we are not necessarily made aware of, and in some situations they won’t engage in any play. Play is an important part of a dog’s life, and particularly his rehabilitation in rescue. Work to release toys are helpful because they contain food, which can often help a dog to be interested in the toy. They are a common type of toy, and normally come in the form of Kongs™, Tricky Treats™ or Orbeez™.
There are a few variables that precipitate this type of refusal to play, and these sometimes need to be addressed before any toy, including work to release, will be appealing. The same dog who is feeling too uncomfortable to play may be equally uncomfortable taking food or treats. Before making the investment, see if the dog will take a treat while in the same environment in which he is refusing to play. Often, depending on the background, a rescue dog may feel too vulnerable in front of people or other dogs to relax enough to play or take food. This is usually a fear based behaviour, which would lead us into another realm of discussion. Essentially, you’d have to address the fearfullness before
introducing activities that require the dog to be happy and relaxed.

It is also important to consider when that dog is ‘working’. Dogs are serious about their jobs, and you will find this more prevalent with guarding breeds, terriers and herding breeds, but always try to consider what your breed’s ‘job’ is, and try to apply it to this theory. All dogs tend to be more apprehensive in newer environments (like a new foster home) or in a multi-dog household. Guarders (such as Rottweilers, Dobermans, Boxers) are trying to assess what needs to be protected (primarily themselves in a new situation) and where potential dangers may arise. Terriers and herders are trying to find out where the ‘prey’ or next movement may come from. In both cases, in newer environments, these dogs will be intensely focused on their job, and not so interested in play. This is where you would want to reduce the room size, or ‘area of interest’ for the dog, and try to keep yourself relaxed and ignore his working behaviour until he realizes that there is nothing to ‘work on’ and no reward for the work, and then try to initiate play. This would be once he is relaxed enough to lie down, or approach you for affection. Your own relaxed behaviour while carrying on simple activities without looking at the door, other dogs or interacting with other people will indicate to the dog that you are not concerned with any danger, prey or chase, and he has no reason to work during that time. Try to warn any other members of your household when you are working in a closed room with your dog, otherwise the demonstration of a person entering the room, his guarding or herding response (even raised ears and a stiffened body) followed by your asking the person to leave indicates to the dog that at any point he may need to be ‘working’, and also reinforces his behaviour because his body language followed by your instruction resulted in the ‘problem person’ going away – he believes that he has done his job. This will contradict your efforts to have the dog take some time off.
Once he is relaxed, offer him the toy in a calm manner and close to the ground (objects higher than his head may appear threatening) and allow him to approach the toy. If you are able to get the dog to sniff the toy, or even take it his mouth, praise praise praise!! Remember that even a simple action of pawing at the toy deserves a “Good boy” and an excited pat on the back! This way he knows that the behaviour you are looking for is interest in the toy, and the behaviour of guarding or herding is NOT what you want from him and therefore goes unrewarded.

The third thing to consider for a dog who won’t play is what drives him. Dogs are driven by one of three things – once they have completed a behaviour, they will deem success from their owner by either getting a treat, a toy or praise. Try to determine what makes that dog most excited, and that is what drives him. If toys seem to be last on the list, but food is first, then a Work to Release toy would be the best thing to entice him to play.

Take it slow – if you start out with a Kong and peanut butter, reward him even if all he does is lick at it without actually playing with it. Then slowly work up to games like retrieve, tug or hide and seek. After some practice, you can even begin to name this behaviour by saying ‘playtime!’ and taking out the toy, as this will help even more to peak interest and excitement. Try to keep your sessions short and minimize frustration – dogs are very sensitive to failure, and if they don’t understand at first, or sense your frustration with the lack of play, they’ll pick up on that and begin associating toys with bad feelings.
There are many considerations to make when a dog won’t play, but these are some good indicators as to what may be going on. A trainer or behaviourist can also be very helpful in determining the root causes of a dog who won’t play, but in most cases, patience, understanding and a little time to get used to new ideas is all that’s needed. Don’t forget about the “Mr. Serious” types – some dogs are just born to be thinkers and not players, and find their greatest happiness from just a rub on the bum!
Erica Garven
The Dog’s Assistant


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