Is the game purely for the dog's benefit or could the dog think it's you that wants to play and they facilitate the game?
The latter isn't quite as backward as it sounds. If in the dog's experience you throw a ball dropped at your feet, then it may appear to the dog that you want to play. They then help you out by chasing after the ball to bring it back again. Indeed, life with a dog can be a tale of unintended consequences when we accidentally reward behaviors and unwittingly train the dog to repeat this behavior. The dog thinks we like to play and we reward this action by giving them attention.
Signs a Dog Thinks You Want to Play
Once you learn to recognize a play bow, it is obvious and you'll keep spotting it between dogs playing in the park, as well as your own dog inviting you to throw the ball.
The dog adopts a posture with the rear end in the air and their front quarters pressed to the ground. So, their chest rests on the floor but their rump is held high. The tail is almost certainly held stiffly erect or waves madly with excitement. Often, the dog pants and will make mock lunging movements at the same time as making soft, playful yips or woofs.
But the fun doesn't stop there because the dog then makes head weaving movements as if about to dart to the left or the right. This elaborate play bow behavior is learned in puppyhood and continues through into adult life. It's a safe way for one dog to signal to another dog that they mean them no harm and a game of chase would be fun. It's a sort of doggy code for saying all they want to do is play, so how about it?
- Head tilting
- Wag tail
- Ears up
- Play bowing
- Bringing a toy and dropping it at your feet
- General excitement and high energy levels
- Woofing whilst making weaving movements with the body
- Making eye contact whilst vigorously wagging the tail
A History of Reward-Based Training
A puppy learns how to negotiate the world around them by understanding a giant game of consequences. So when puppy does action A and result B happens, they link the two things together.
Whether or not the dog repeats the action depends on whether the outcome was pleasant or unpleasant. If the puppy prods a wasp with a paw and gets stung, this is unpleasant and the puppy learns wasps make bad playmates. If, however, the puppy prods a ball which then bounces away downhill, the puppy learns that balls are excellent fun.
Similarly, if the dog brings you a ball and you then throw it, the dog learns that people like to throw balls. It just so happens that dogs love chasing balls, which makes for a pleasant pastime. Who's to know if the dog is playing ball because they enjoy it or because they think you like to throw the ball and are rewarding your actions by playing along!
The Science of Reward-Based Training
The other side of the coin is when an action is rewarded. An example of this is the dog that learns that when they bark at people passing on the sidewalk, they go away. (It doesn't matter that they were passing by anyway, in the dog's mind, the barking facilitated their leaving). Thus barking is rewarded by the action the dog wants (people leaving the dog's territory). This is how dogs learn to bark and the habit can be difficult to stop as it is self-rewarding.
Training a Dog to Play
These dogs often don't understand the concept of playing and have to be taught how to do so. This needs to be done using the principles of reward-based training and encouraging the dog when they make small steps forward.
For some dogs, even approaching a toy without being afraid is a huge thing. So never force a dog to play or overwhelm them with toys or attention, as this will do just that and make them more reserved and fearful, not less.
Start by introducing a simple toy, such as a ball. Leave it near the dog to see their reaction. Should they sniff it, then praise them enthusiastically. Let them see that the ball is no danger to them. For some dogs, it's necessary to make the ball more attractive so that they pluck up the courage to investigate. Smearing the ball with peanut butter is one way of doing this. Then praise the dog when they sniff and lick the ball.
The next step is to tap the ball with a finger to show the dog that it can be made to roll along. Speak to the dog in a happy, excited voice to keep their interest. It can help to simply roll the ball along the floor, from one hand to the other, whilst making excited noises. This gives the dog the idea that rolling the ball is fun and nothing to be afraid of.
If the dog plucks up courage and then paws at the ball or goes to intercept it, give them lots of praise to encourage this new behavior.
Slowly, over time, you build the dog's confidence and help them to understand that games with balls are fun and that they gets lots of lovely attention for taking part.
How to React to Your Dog Thinking You Want to Play:
If the dog enjoys the activity as well, engage in the game!
Realize that you are likely rewarding the dog for initiating play.