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Using Play as a Reinforcer

Have you ever wanted to reward your dog for a job well done, but didn't have food treats with you? Consider playing with your dog to reinforce good behavior! Using play as a reinforcer is convenient – it doesn’t require anything but you and your dog. It adds variety to your training routine, and also helps strengthen your relationship. Here, Karen Pryor Faculty Member Laurie Luck offers these suggestions for finding your dog’s play preferences.

Finding and fostering play preferences

 Some dogs are natural retrievers—fetch is their game of choice. Other dogs like to chase or be chased. Still other dogs like physical play—roughhousing is fun for them. To determine what play your dog enjoys naturally, watch your dog when he’s with other dogs. Does he like to body slam and wrestle with his doggie friends? Chances are he might like to do the same with you. Does he chase other dogs? Does he like it when other dogs chase him? See if you can engage your dog in these same kinds of games.

Maybe your dog loves the water? Find a water-worthy toy and get him involved in play in his element. Does your dog go crazy for squeaky toys? Buy several toys with different squeakers (there are toys that “squeak” grunts!) and see which type of squeak your dog likes the most.

If your dog doesn’t seem to like any particular game or toy, there are toys with little pockets you can put food into. Lure your dog into interacting with a toy to jumpstart play.

When you know your dog’s play preferences, next comes the fun part: shopping for toys! There are so many toys on the market, you are sure to find one that fits your dog’s preferences. If your dog likes to chase things, take a look at toys like the Kong Ball or Planet Dog Fetch Ball.   

If your dog loves the water, look for bright, floating toys that you can toss into the surf such as the Gripple and the Bobb. Or, for fun both in and out of the water, try a ring toy such as the LED Floating Ring Mini. If your dog is just learning to fetch, attach those toys to a River Rope, in case your dog decides not to fetch the toy. With a River Rope you can pull the toy back in easily, without having to go into the water yourself. The rope also keeps the toy from going downstream or out with the tide!

If squeaking is what your dog is after, your options are almost limitless. Check out the Kong toys that have squeakers built in (my dogs’ favorites!), like the Kong Air Dog SqueakAir Buoy. If your dog likes to chase things and enjoys squeakers, toys like the Kong Jumbler Ball can be very enticing!

Top Choice = You

Don’t forget that the opportunity to play with you can be the most rewarding activity of all! Run from your dog, and see if he follows you. Give chase after your dog; my dogs seem to enjoy this game most of all. That one is a win-win choice—we’re having fun together and we’re both getting exercise!

Working play into your daily interactions with your dog is valuable for a myriad of reasons. First of all, it’s impossible to measure the fun! Fun is an effective reinforcer in training, too, whether you are training basic manners or more advanced skills and tricks. Don’t forget that amazing side effect of playing with your dog—your relationship with your dog gets better and better.

Now get out there and play with your dog!