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Play, Don’t Train

Play, Don’t Train

By Angelica Steinker, M.Ed., C.D.B.C, CAP2

Are your clients less motivated then you would like them to be? Stop telling them to train their dogs, and start telling them to play. It is often much easier to get them to be consistent when they are having fun. Are you feeling a little bored with your own dog’s training? Stop training, and start playing!

According to Dr. Pamela Reid, author of Excelerated Learning, play is a powerful way of altering a dog’s emotional state (personal communcation). Almost all of us desire a dog that is fun, affectionate, and playful. Play is the ticket to a happy dog and more fun in your own life. Many behavior problems can be rapidly resolved using play-training, and clients can get faster results. A win/win situation!

There are several reasons why play is a powerful way to teach your dog behaviors. When rewarding a dog with play, you can make the reward last as long as you want. This is a tremendous advantage. The dog doesn’t get full! Maybe tired, but not full.

Rewarding with play can make training self–control quick and easy. While playing with your dog, you can stop all movement and cue the dog to sit. After the dog sits, you can give the release cue and ask the dog to play again. This is a great way to practice sit, and teach the dog self-control at the same time. Politely sitting and holding that position gets the game started again.

A dog that knows how to play can usually be more easily counter-conditioned to ignore stimuli that she is fearful of. Play can be a very valuable tool in teaching a dog substitute behaviors: rather than barking and lunging at the other dog, you instead give me eye contact, and then I click and we play.

Playing rather than training is an easy sell, both the dog and the client have fun. Playing is often more reinforcing to clients than simply dispensing a cookie for a behavior. I admit this isn’t scientific, but our clients that play with their dogs report an increase in fun and bonding with their dogs.


Safety First

Use common sense, if the client’s dog is fearful or in any way presents aggressive then do not attempt playing with the dog. Fear is the bases for most aggression, so playing with a fearful dog is very effective in terms of modifying the fear, but is an advanced training skill. If you are not experienced working with fearful or aggressive dogs then you will want to pass on play training.

Clients rely on us to assess their dogs. I recommend only playing with dogs that you know well otherwise modifying all games for safety.

Not all the ideas for games I present may be recommended for all dogs or owners. All games should be on cue, so that the owner can clearly signal the start and end of the game. Do not play a game or recommend that clients play a game, if both the dog and persons will not be safe.


If the Dog Won’t Play

Assess why the dog does not play. There are three common reasons why a dog will not play. In some cases, the dog did not learn how to play as a puppy. Puppy mill dogs, pet store dogs, abused, and neglected dogs may never have learned to play, which is tremendously sad. Depending on the genetic makeup of the dog, on the dog’s resilience, and on the perseverance of the owner, it can take months but it will be worth all the effort. If the dog takes food, then simply pairing food with targeting a toy is a great start. From there you can shape the dog to pick up the toy, hold it, carry it, shake it, “kill” it, and so on.

The second reason can be that the owner doesn’t know how to play. This is also challenging, but usually fixable. Begin with helping the client to relax and get in a silly mood. Making jokes and kidding around can help loosen clients up. Read the person and adjust to what they need you to be, so you can help them get where they need to be. Observe your client as much as you observe the dog you are training. Once you have created a window of opportunity, expose the client to some fun games that can be played with the dog. Show the practicality of the games so the client can be sold on how fast play-training works and how powerful it is.

Often the easiest problem to fix is when the dog has just never been asked to play. I recently worked with a client who insisted her dog would not tug. Within literally seconds I had the dog tugging. The dog was very tug motivated but the owner had never been shown how to play tug with a dog. All her attempts at shoving the toy at the dog, or limply dangling it in front of the dog, got her a big yawn. My attitude was silly and my face one big smile, and within minutes the dog was a permanent member of Tuggers Anonymous.


If the Client Won’t Play

Just as we shape dog behavior, it is important to shape client behavior. If the client isn’t very fun in how she is playing, find the good things about their attempts at play, and reward them. Build the playing behavior just like you build a behavior chain in a dog.

If the client is resistant to play with the dog, model playful behavior: grab a toy, play with the dog, and then demonstrate how willing the dog is to work for you. Explain that this is the power of play and it is an ideal way to establish a reinforcement history very rapidly.

Just as we shape dog behavior, it is important to shape client behavior.

One of our trainers recently worked with a retriever that had been forcefully trained by the previous dog trainer the client had hired and fired. The client noted that the dog would not come to the previous trainer when she called him to her. Our trainer had the dog begging her to give her a cue within minutes. Simply by playing with the dog. Showing the dog that an offered behavior will be reinforced with play. With those kinds of results, it was easy to sell the client on click and play training.


What to Play


Tug! Tug is my all-time favorite play training game. For anyone who has not read Jean Donaldson’s great book the Culture Clash, it has been scientifically proven that tug does not cause aggression (Borchelt, et al.). If a dog with a stable temperament and growls while playing tug, that is usually a play growl. Make your own play growl noises and join in on the fun! Obviously be careful with dogs that have resource guarding issues.

To play tug, evaluate what type of toy movement is enticing to the dog you are playing with. Does this dog like slow toy movements? Does this dog like fast toy movements? Does this dog show interest if you move the toy back and forth? What gets the dog’s curiosity going? Entice. Observe. When playing tug, it is critical that the dog has the impression that he could conceivably grab the toy and get a hold on it. If the dog has no hope of being able to get the toy, the game may be over before it ever got started.

When you play tug it is ideal to move backwards so the dog is moving into you most of the time. There are a couple of reasons for this. Moving backwards makes the tug toy a little harder to get which can be a fun challenge to the dog, and it keeps the dog moving toward you, which is generally a good idea. Think of the recall.

Tease and entice by backing up, but always making it possible for her to grab the toy.

Once the dog grabs hold of the toy, resist the temptation to shove the toy into the dog’s mouth to try to get her to grab harder or intensify the play. Instead tease and entice by backing up but always making it possible for her to grab the toy.

Clearly it is not a good idea to have an elderly lady tug with her Irish Wolfhound, or to pull teeth out of a puppy’s mouth when he is too young to have such pressure on his mouth, but aside from these few exceptions, tug is a great game that can help you help clients attain their training goals.


Fetch! Playing fetch is a great way to keep dogs fit and to keep adolescent dogs out of trouble. Twenty minutes of fetch a day can sometimes make the difference between being euthanized at animal control or staying in a home. Almost all breeds require daily exercise. Teaching your clients to teach their dogs to fetch cannot only help save lives, it can tremendously improve the quality of the dog’s life. Play fetch for life!


Find It

Find it! “Find it” is a great mind activating game for a rainy day. If a client is less mobile it is a fun way for the client to play with their dog. “Find it” can be played by both toy and food motivated dogs quickly and easily. If the dog really enjoys the game, it can be used to reward desired behaviors. Find out what the dog likes and then use it to play. Be a fun detective!


Play, Don’t Train

So, you have your clients tugging, fetching, and hiding. Now what? Use these games to train. Pair the new games with your clicker. Tugging is an excellent reward for coming when called. Start at a short distance, have the owner hide the toy (no prompting please), call come, and then click and play! Any part of the dog’s recall can be clicked: the first step, the half way mark, or the last part. Just choose one part of the recall and click it and reward with tug. As the dog catches on to the game, increase the distance of the recall. Watch the dogs recall at light speed! Wear shin guards, and keep the business cards of a good chiropractor handy.

Playing fetch is a great way to train and proof sit, down, and stand cues. Ask your dog to sit, then throw the toy, then release her to it. Ask your dog to down, pretend to throw the toy several times, then click and feed her steak.


Author’s Note

These recommendations for “games” should be administered only to sound dogs; not those with even a hint of instability. Certainly any dog with an unknown background, or one with problems with reactivity, aggression, lack of confidence, etc. should be treated with extreme caution.


More Games To Play

Raspberries. With or without skin contact. Zoomie loves it if you blow a raspberry on his face. No matter where I am I can always make a raspberry even without making skin contact and therefore reward him or elicit a playful mood. Sit! Down! Release, raspberry!

My Min Pin Turbo, a rescue, loves shoelaces. Lucky me, I am usually wearing shoelaces so I have a toy no matter where I go. Turbo is also obsessed with hair scrunchies, and tugs on them like a crazy fiend, so that is another one that is handy. When I got Turbo, who was dumped for barking too much and being too hyper—the precise job description of a Min Pin—he would not play.

One of my favorite games is simply shoving and grabbing at my dogs. Many dogs with a good opposition reflex (or balancing reflex) really love this game. The truth is dogs, friends, and clients invent new games every day. Join us!


A version of this article was originally published in the APDT Chronicle of the Dog.

The Sharing Game


By Angelica Steinker, M.Ed., PCBC-A, AABP-DBCT, CDBC, CAP2

Please note that if your dogs have a history of fighting, do not play the sharing game without the guidance of a professional. Safety is always first if you have any inkling your dogs may even become tense then play the sharing game with a barrier only. If dogs display any tension, breath holding, freezing, barking, lunging, growling or biting at the other dog stop the sharing game session and contact your trainer. 

Teaching two dogs to share food or toys helps prevent aggression and promotes harmony in your dog family.  To play the sharing game, ask both dogs to sit, then feed one dog and immediately feed the second dog.  Please note that if the dogs have a history of showing signs of stress or tension you must at least separate the two dogs via a baby gate. Alternately if you have more than two dogs you need to play the games with each set of two dogs.


In the picture to the left, the two dogs pictured live in the same home and do not have a history of growling, nipping, lunging or fighting over resources.  You can see that the owner is preparing to feed one of the dogs a treat as the other dog patiently waits.  This game teaches dogs that dog A getting a treat predicts dog B will get a treat and vice versa.  In behavior terms, you are respondently conditioning the dogs that the presence of the other dog is actually a good thing and means it is more likely that both dogs will get treats!

If the two dogs had a history of resource guarding from each other, both dogs would be on leash and either held by two assistants, allowing the person feeding to move back and forth between the two dogs.  If necessary you can even have two people, one feeding each dog machine gun style to start with. This creates what is called behavioral momentum and can help jump start success. Gradually over time, the distance between the two dogs is decreased, but only if the dogs body language is showing signs of joy.

 If you have played the sharing game with food, you want to make sure to also play it with toys.  Dogs don’t automatically transfer learning from one context to another. The toy sharing game is played exactly the same way except that instead of food, the toy is toggled back and forth between the two dogs.

Toy Sharing Game

Again you start with leashes or baby gates if needed and using two toys to start with may be helpful. Keep the play very calm at first to help set the dogs up for success.  Very gradually begin increasing the intensity and the duration of the play. Be sure to change only one variable at a time, first intensity and then duration before adding both intensity and duration. When you do add intensity and duration go back to half of the duration you have been doing previously.

Physical Touch Sharing Game

Likewise, you can also teach dogs to share human affection.  As before, toggle back and forth between the two dogs, first petting dog A and then dog B and so on. 

Chew Toy Sharing Games

Remember that dogs may also have trouble sharing things like chew toys. If this is the case you can have one person hold one chewy for dog A and a second person holds a chewy for dog B. Over time, as long as the dogs are displaying body language consistent with relaxation and joy you can decrease the distance between the dogs.

Training Tips for Sharing Games

Sharing game training needs to be broken down into TINY steps.  This has several purposes:

  1. It keeps the dog sub threshold, meaning the dog is displaying body language consistent with being happy and relaxed. 
  2. It makes the process seem ridiculously easy to the dogs which instills joy in the dog.
  3. It empowers the dog to control the process via their signs of stress.  If they show even mild stress, you immediately make it easier. If they are happy, you make it a tiny bit harder.
  4. Remember the fastest way to do it, is the slowest. you move thru the approximations, training steps, quickly.  If you push, and the dogs get tense, you lose. 
  5. When not training avoid any triggers! The only time the dogs are exposed to each other and any resource that may trigger guarding is when you are having a fun training session. 
  6. Before you do training sessions, be sure the dogs are exercised.  Using a toy like a flirt pole to wear both dogs out prior to a sharing game session is an ideal approach.
  7. Keep the training sessions short and happy!

At left is a flirt pole by Squishy Face which can help you take the edge off dog’s prior to a training session. Note, that flirt poles should only be used with one dog at a time. They often trigger excitement which can inadvertently lead to a dog fight. Also if two dogs play with this toy at the same time they may violently slam into each other causing injury.



Please let me hear how your sharing game training goes. Let’s share our adventures playing sharing games!

Download a PDF handout of this post here

Laser Pointers & Our Dogs: Are They Really Having Fun?


By Beth Napolitano, CPDT

Many of us are familiar with the red or green beam of light from laser pointers that may be useful during presentations to direct the attention of an audience. Perhaps even as a toy for our cats who seem to love chasing that little beam of light? Sometimes these laser pointers are also used as a toy for our dogs. There are many videos online of dogs running around in circles chasing the light from a laser pointer and often people are heard laughing in the background.

But are our dogs and cats really having fun chasing a light they can never “catch”?  More importantly, are laser pointers even safe for them?

According to Jennifer Coates, DVM (2017), cats can become obsessed, or constantly preoccupied to a troubling extent, when focused on chasing the beam of light from the laser pointer because it sets off the predatory sequence of stalk-pounce-kill-eat. They can also transfer this predatory behavior to chasing other sources of lights and shadows. The problem is the predatory sequence is never followed to completion since there is nothing at the end of the light to actually catch. Without having a reward for the behavior of chasing, cats can become frustrated and agitated by this game. If you still want to use a laser pointer to give your cat a chance to chase something, it’s better to use the laser light beam to direct the cat to a toy or treats so they will be rewarded for their efforts. But remember to never direct the light beam into their eyes. 

The best options are to use a kitty fishing pole or treat dispensing toys so they have a toy that satisfies their need to “catch and eat”, the human can avoid using a laser pointer at all, and the cat can avoid endless preoccupation with chasing lights.

Power, a Border Collie, displaying an anxious facial expression. To an untrained eye this may look like a smile. Note the wide eyes and the corners of his mouth pulled back and up, both are signs of anxiety.

Professional dog trainer Monica Crowley says, “I tried a laser pointer for play with my prey-driven lab mix, Dublin. While she loved it at first and was getting great exercise around the house, it left her extremely frustrated when there was nothing to “catch” once she got to the light. I tried holding the laser pointer steady and placing a high value treat when I wanted to end the game and turn the laser pointer off, but that did not satisfy her. After putting the laser pointer away, she was noticeably stressed and over-stimulated and was pacing around. It made me feel guilty that I had caused this frustration. While I had good intent, the unattainability of laser pointer play caused her stress, which is why I would never use one again and stick to other attainable games for a prey-driven dog like flirt pole use or lure coursing.” Not all dogs may respond like Dublin, but is it worth the risk?

The act of chasing a beam of light from a laser seems like a good idea to humans, because it burns off excess energy, it’s mentally stimulating, and is a game to play inside during the heat of summer or on a rainy day. Just like our cats, chasing a laser pointer’s beam triggers the dog’s prey drive. And just like our cats, according to staff (2015), our dogs not having anything to catch can lead to frustration and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) behaviors when the “prey” (light) suddenly disappears. OCD is a genetic disorder, and laser pointers can’t cause OCD, but laser games may trigger it. So, is it worth the risk?

In email communication with Dr. Soraya Juarbe-Diaz, a board certified Veterinary Behaviorist, on laser pointers and OCD behaviors in dogs, she said, 

“It’s pretty much the consensus that there is an underlying genetic predisposition present (regarding OCD behaviors)….triggers just allow the manifestation of the disorder. That is, playing with a laser toy does not cause OCD anymore than eating peanuts causes a peanut allergy. You have to have the genetic predisposition in order for the trigger, laser pointer or peanuts, to provoke the signs of symptoms. In the absence of a laser light toy as a trigger, a patient (dog) with OCD will respond to any similar stimulus: reflections, indoor or outdoor shadows, balls.”

She states she has dealt with several shelters, in the past, that used laser light toys in their cat rooms because it “streamlined the use of volunteers’ time” without resulting in an increase in stereotypical (repetitive, non-functional) behaviors. She goes on to say that in nature an animal’s attempts at hunting are not 100% successful and while that is certainly frustrating, nature itself does not support the development of OCD behaviors. Dr. Juarbe-Diaz also emphasized the difference between an animal that appears to be “focused” on their job or possibly a favorite toy versus being “obsessed”-earlier defined as being constantly preoccupied with something to a troubling extent. She states it is important to pay attention to the context of a behavior and the individual animal’s response to a trigger, like a laser pointer light beam. Dr. Juarbe-Diaz best recommendations are to use any toy in moderation, look for behaviors that indicate a problem that needs to be investigated, encourage variety in playful activities, and offer occasional rewards to maintain interest.

After a laser play session dogs may continue to look for a lightbeams to chase which might include chasing reflections from sunlight, chasing shadows, or obsessively following the light from a flashlight. Angelica Steinker, a Certified Professional Dog Behavior Consultant states that she has had many clients use laser pointers as toys, but that at times this game may have triggered unintended consequences. As a result, she recommends against laser pointer play. Several of her clients have reported that the laser chasing triggered light chasing that the dog did not exhibit prior to playing with the laser pointer. In one case laser pointer play elicited the client’s dog to dismantle the family Christmas tree– as the reflections coming off the decorations appeared as dots on the wall, that looked like the laser pointer game. When the family returned home the tree had been accidentally demolished by their dog, “ruining Christmas”.

Sometimes dogs sustain serious physical injuries in their attempt to catch the light. recommends using flirt poles instead, which are similar to the kitty fishing poles, or the sport of Lure Coursing where they actually get to chase and catch something. Angelica Steinker goes on to say that as a dog sport enthusiast she worries about the proper use of flirt poles, fishing pole type toys designed for chasing play. She says,

“Flipping a flirt pole through the air causing a dog to leave the ground with all four feet, is in my opinion physically dangerous. I recommend that flirt poles are used to tease the dog to run in a circle and to avoid leaping and jumping.”

Karen London, PhD (2017), states working dogs who are trained to find explosives or drugs will become frustrated if they don’t have a “find” at the end of their search. These specially trained dogs need regular successes to prevent frustration and their handlers provide practice missions where their dogs are guaranteed to discover something at the end of their search. Their handlers and trainers know that these practice missions will maintain their dogs search and find skills while also preventing psychological and behavioral problems. Without the reward at the end of the predatory behavior sequence, these dogs may transfer that sequence of behavior to similar stimuli-which is what happens when a dog has learned the behavior of chasing a laser light and they transfer that behavior to chasing other lights or shadows.

It is also important to understand the risk of permanently damaging vision when laser lights are shined directly into another’s eyes. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, or AAO, (2018) the risk of permanent damage to a human’s vision was documented in 2018 when a boy from Greece shined a laser light into his own eyes. While humans can actually look away from the laser light or even blink to interrupt the beam, an animal will not likely know to do this to protect their vision. The greater the energy output from the laser the more likely permanent damage will be. The FDA regulates laser devices and their tests have found that 60% of laser pointers are overpowered when compared to what their label indicates. Many times the FDA has discovered that full product details are missing on the laser devices and many laser lights are marketed as toys that are readily available to everyone-including toys for our dogs and cats. The typical pen sized laser pointer that requires AA or AAA batteries is likely to exceed 5 milliwatts of energy ( which is considered to be the safe limit of power) and the FDA has documented that anything over 5 milliwatts decreases the chance for a safe exposure to the laser light. While red and green laser lights are more common, it is the blue and violet laser lights that pose the greatest risk to damage vision. Currently, there is only one company (  who sells laser lights that requires a compliance test record on the devices, making it harder to sell mislabeled and over powered laser lights.

A final potential concern with any toy and also laser pointers is that they may trigger manipulation and control and at its worst, sadism. A laser pointer is extremely easy to control with minimal human effort thus to some degree disengaging the human in joint play and having the dog do all the work. This power inequity could lead to dysfunctional play and at its extreme sadism. Children should most definitely not play with dogs unsupervised and this applies even more so to laser pointer play. For any family with children the additional risk that the child may point the laser at their own or another persons eye, should also be a concern. Any dog parent reading this article truly loves their dog but can they trust their roommates, pet sitters or neighbors to share their common sense and values?

There are many great options for helping our dogs to safely expend excess energy while having fun with their humans. Some of these options include, dog sports like agility and lure coursing, trick training, dock diving and scent detection.

Check with your local force-free dog trainer or dog training school to see what is available in your area and for ideas. Before teaching your dog (or cat) to chase that laser pointer beam of light, consider the serious risks associated with these devices and safer options. We suggest erring on the side of caution and to avoid using laser pointers as a toy for any animal.



AKC staff. Laser Pointers: More Frustration than Fun?  9/25/2015. Available at:

Coates, Jennifer, DVM.  Why are Cats Obsessed with Laser Pointers?    2/20/2017. Available at:

London, Karen B., PhD. Dogs Chasing Laser Pointers: How I hate this habit!  11/2017. The Available at:

Richmond, Mardi, CPDT-KA. Understanding Canine Compulsive Disorder. 1/17/2019. Whole Dog Journal. Available at:

Soglin, Ari. Is Your Laser Pointer Dangerous Enough to Cause Eye Injury?  6/22/2018. Available at:

Why Are so Many Dogs Going Gray as Early as Age 1?

By Dr. Becker

If you’re familiar with the term “the graying of America,” you know it refers to the fact that the American population is increasingly dominated by older people. In other words, the median age of Americans is going up.

But what about the graying of America’s dogs? Have you noticed all the white muzzles out there these days? Have you been surprised to learn a very gray dog is just 5 or 6 years old? What’s going on?

Please read full article here >