Play training can give you bumps, bruises, nicks, accidental bites, and many injuries. We all try to avoid those injuries, but the more active you are the more you will be injured. I looked like a domestic abuse case when I started this with my girl, Shana. My legs and arms were bruised all the time, because I was doing some pretty physical tug and other sessions. I was also making some pretty hilarious mistakes. One time I thought it was a good idea to have Shana through my legs with my back towards her for her tug. She hit my like I imagine a line backer would, and I was on the ground on my back immediately. Ouch!
Starting play training is not as fun as you might think it is. Patience and a slow start are what can be expected, but it has been totally worth it to me and it is very fun for the both of us. Play training can be used from low key pet training to highly competitive dog sports to dogs that have very important jobs (police k9s, service dogs, search and rescue dogs et). Also you will make mistakes learning any new method of dog training. It is possible to do this wrong and get the exact opposite result. Many people think that just because this is R+ (positive reinforcement) based, that you can not make a mistake, harm yourself, or harm the dog. Dog training is a lot more detail orientated, when you do a good job, than most dog owners understand. Don't be afraid to start, but just be aware.
- Decide on an activity that your dog or puppy can start with no prerequisites (ie a well trained stay, out, leave it, and so on). So this could be ball, flirt pole, chase games, hide and seek games, and so on. If your dog or puppy obviously likes something, start with that. You may also have to entice your dog or puppy to play.
- If you need something for that activity like a food or a toy, be sure it is only available for training sessions.
- You will probably also need a leash 6' or long line, something to attach to the dog and leash (harnesses are a favorite), and your activity thing (food, ball, tug, flirt pole). This keeps the dog from leaving the room or yard. If you are starting tug, it helps keep a really strong dog from pulling you over if you brace and step on the leash.
- In the beginning, you will not be giving any training commands (or not many anyway, there may be a reason too). You are building the engagement and fun with your dog. The goal is to start the game with your dog and play together. This energy will later be converted into training or behavior modification, but right now it is just about the fun.
- Food is usually recommended as the thing to start with for many reasons, and I will probably do a blog on this at some point. You can use food for chase games. Chase games usually involve the dog following your hand, which becomes it's own positioning skill later on. Also hide and seek is fun and easy to do with food. When I have a dog without a stay, I simply put them in an enclosed room. This usually does not require a leash. Keep it easy at first until your dog understands what the "Where" or "Find it" verbal prompt means through repetition and consistency.
- Toys can be trickier to start. There may be reasons you want to start with toys. Later on, I will post a blog on how you can make mistakes with toys and food. Toys are the ones that can get you into trouble if you start there.
- Be very gentle when starting with play training a puppy. Puppies are babies, and they are not fully developed until 2 years or older. Growth plates are new and still developing. You do not want to do a repeated activity with your puppy that will injure them. Also, when playing with a puppy, they are not as tuff as they look. Rough play can turn a puppy off of playing to train. Remember the goal is to get THE PUPPY to enjoy the game.
- End the game with the dog or puppy still wanting more. If you tire them out each time, it will reduce their motivation for play and engagement. Remember, you are going to use this to train your dog something later. You can also just play with your dog with other things after or before training. This play training is towards a very important goals. You are building that every time this thing comes out your dog gets excited. It probably won't happen right away. You have to thoughtfully nurture and grow it over time. Three minutes or less would not be an unusual time to start with. If you do accidentally tire your dog or puppy out, take note of that time and have the next session be shorter.
So if your dog has behavioral problems such as resource guarding, please see a professional dog trainer to deal with those AND perhaps start you well on play training sooner or later. A fearful dog with no biting tendencies is going to be tough to start this. You may want to see a professional trainer about how to build that dog's confidence up first, so it is easier for you to start later. As always be careful, thoughtful, and responsible when handling your dog and exposing them to public. Other than that, go have fun with your dog!
This video expands on the ideas of how to handle your toy or food rewards: