How to Train Your Rescue Dog to Play

Easy
1-3 Weeks
Fun

Introduction

He’s been nothing but cute and adorable since you got him. You’re not sure about his past but you’ve got enough love for your rescue dog to make up for anything. While he is getting more relaxed and comfortable around you, he’s still got quite a way to go. You take out toys to try and encourage him to play around with you, but he remains timid and shy. He’s not interested in tug of war, or fetch. It’s the same when you’re on walks. You try and throw balls and frisbees but he just looks up at you, puzzled. 

You’re not quite sure what to do, but you know training him to play at the very least will be good exercise. Not only is it a fantastic way to blow off steam, but it will also be a great bonding experience. 

Defining Tasks

The good news is, bringing the playful side out of your dog out will just take time and perseverance. You need to gradually let his walls come down by motivating him with tasty treats and irresistible toys. If you can make him feel safe and play games where he feels in control, you’ll soon have him tumbling around with you. If he’s a puppy it will be easiest. He’ll be full of energy, more trusting and keen to learn. You could see results in just several days. If he’s older and more nervous then you may need to invest two or three weeks into training.

Succeed with this training and you’ll have a great way to keep him happy and jolly. You’ll also be able to give him a decent amount of exercise, that sees him dozing at your feet in the evenings. 

Getting Started

Before you get to work you’ll need to gather a few bits. You’ll need a decent array of toys. You’ll need tennis balls, a football, frisbees, and some food puzzles. The brighter colored and more enticing they look the better. You’ll also need a generous supply of tasty treats.

Try and find 10 minutes each day to commit to training. Some training can be done on your daily walk, and some can be done in a quiet space at home, away from valuable TVs that might get broken.

Once you’ve got all that, you’re ready to get to work!

The Gentle Encouragement Method

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Step
1
Food puzzles
Before you can train him to play properly, you need to get him familiar with toys in his own space. That means giving him a toy for him to play around without you getting involved. A food puzzle is a great first toy. He can play with it on his own and he’ll be entertained for hours.
Step
2
Toys in his bed
Now leave a couple of toys in his bed in the evenings. You want him to feel like they belong to him. Plus, if they smell like him they’ll feel even more like part of his territory. This will all make him feel more comfortable when it comes to playing with them.
Step
3
Tug of war
Now spend a few minutes a day gently playing with the toys. Encourage him to put it one his mouth and then pull on it. A game of tug of war is a great bonding experience. Make sure you always let him win, though. If he loses he’ll quickly give up trying.
Step
4
Reward
Reward him with treats throughout play. You need to make him feel as relaxed and happy as possible. If he thinks he’ll get a tasty reward for playing, he’ll soon be jumping out of his bed in search of a playmate.
Step
5
Keep it fun
Always keep it light hearted. That means talking in a high pitched and animated voice. It means stroking him, cuddling him and letting him be in charge when you play. If you do this each day he’ll feel more and more at ease, and increasingly eager to play.
Recommend training method?

The Management Method

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Step
1
Choose accordingly
If he’s nervous and shy, you need to find a game that he wants to play. You can skip half the battle if you find a game that his breed may naturally enjoy playing anyway. Retrievers, for example, will naturally enjoy playing fetch. Terriers would be good candidates for tug of war.
Step
2
Toy appeal
To get him initially interested in the toys, put a bit of food on them. Spreading a little bit of peanut butter will do the trick. He’ll then be drawn to it anyway and associate toys with tasty rewards.
Step
3
Get involved
Wait for him to feel comfortable with the toys himself, then slowly get involved yourself. You can roll a ball towards him, or shake a toy in front of him. Just make sure it’s on his terms. Eventually he’ll relax and get involved, just be patient.
Step
4
Frisbee
Most dogs will love chasing brightly colored frisbees. So, when you’re out on a walk, wipe some food on it and then dangle it in front of his face. Really get him excited and worked up, then throw it while he’s watching. If he doesn’t show initial interest, charge after it with him. If he sees you running, he’ll quickly take flight himself.
Step
5
Short stints
Only play for a few minutes each day to start with. You want play time to be something he looks forward to, so don’t over indulge him. Then as the days pass you can play for longer and longer. Once he’s totally relaxed you can leave the toys out for him to pick them up whenever he wants.
Recommend training method?

The Soccer Method

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Step
1
Head outside
Take him outside into the yard or to a local field. Make sure you have a soccer under your arm and a pocket full of treats. Soccer is a great game to get him playing. He has the space to run around which will make him feel safe, plus the pressure isn’t all on him.
Step
2
Kick it in his direction
Kick the ball gently towards him. If he doesn’t naturally touch it, encourage him to. You can do that by running towards it, pointing at it and talking in an animated voice. Dogs mirror their owner's behavior so if he sees you excited he’ll soon feel the same way.
Step
3
Reward
As soon as he touches the ball, give him a tasty treat and shower him in attention. Really make him feel on top of the world. The greater the reward, the more eager he’ll be to play again.
Step
4
Practice
Always keep it light hearted and play around for a few minutes each day to start with. Once he’s got the hang of it and he’s enjoying it, you can play for longer and longer. Not only will it be great exercise, but he’ll be having a fantastic time with his owner.
Step
5
Lose the treats
When he’s comfortable and happy playing, you can slowly cut out the treats. He no longer needs a tasty incentive, he’s excited enough just playing around with you. Once he’s comfortable with soccer, you’ll find he’ll be keen to play with any toy, especially if it’s a ball!
Recommend training method?

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Chelsea
terrier
6 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Chelsea
terrier
6 Years

Chelsea is a rescue. The vet estimates her to be about 6 years old. She has been spayed and has put on weight. I've had her for about 6 months and I am struggling to train her to play / be more active. I'm concerned that she is bored especially when I'm working. Need help to train her to play.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1123 Dog owners recommended

Hello Adeline, Check out the video I have linked below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8Z0EOHPNfI I would also try feeding pup pup of their meal kibble in a kong wobble or puzzle toy if pup is really food motivated. The food added to the toy can help build interest in toys. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Mumsi
mongrel
14 Years
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Question
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Mumsi
mongrel
14 Years

i took her in ten years go with her puppies, off the street. Except for 1, all got adopted, and the last pup who was with us, died a couple of months ago. Initially they were in the yard, and then became complete indoor dogs. Mumsi herself is a very tolerant dog, never dominated her pup. She had to go from being a cat killer to a dog that cats cuddle with, and i think that that process made her lose interest in stuff. She never knew about toys, but she was active. however,learning to behave as an indoor dog turned her into a dog that just sits. and since her pup died, she doesn't even bark at the doorbell any more. And it makes me sad to see her sleeping away her days. i have toys left from previous dogs, i had even bought some new toys, but nothing. She loves people, and constant petting.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1123 Dog owners recommended

Hello Mitali, I would actually speak with your vet about her and what they think she is capable of. At 14 its very likely that her lack of enthusiasm and energy are due to age and her not having the energy to stay awake or react to the door anymore. Think of someone in their 90s, that's about the age she is at for a dog. That person is probably more content to sit and talk with you and rest, than do active things anymore. It simply requires too much energy. I would focus the most on what she does enjoy in life and fill her life with those things. Does she have favorite treats? Enjoy affection, sitting on the couch and snuggling during a movie, or having you talk with her? Any treats you do give I would make them easy for her, so she doesn't have to expend extra energy. You might find she enjoys something like a lick mat with some plain liver paste (make sure what you put on it is dog safe and easy to digest. Ask your vet if in doubt). Opposed to toys that require more work like bones or kongs. Think easy activities where she doesn't have to expend a lot of energy or stay awake too long. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Summer
Crossbreed
8 Months
0 found helpful
Question
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Summer
Crossbreed
8 Months

Summer is a Romanian rescue dog who is very nervous. We need games that will be suitable for her which will make her want to play with us and also independently.

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
257 Dog owners recommended

Hi there! I am going to give you some tips that will build her overall confidence. It is likely with practice and some mild changes, his behaviors will start to resolve themselves over the next few months. So patience is key! There are several methods you can use to improve your fearful dog´s confidence. As far as her ears, she may be keeping them flat because she is so timid. Hopefully with building her confidence, her ears will stand up also. 1. Work on obedience training. Daily obedience work, even when it is only for a short time, provides submissive dogs with a lot of confidence. Family members are proud of dogs that perform on command and dogs pick up on this feeling. If the obedience training is harsh, though, a submissive dog will just get worse. Find a positive reinforcement and reward-based training class in your area. If the trainer works with a discipline-based system, it is not appropriate for a submissive dog. 2. Socialize your dog as much as possible to make them adaptable. The sensitive socialization period for your dog ended when she was a puppy, about 15 weeks of age, but she can still be socialized as an older dog, it is just going to take a lot more work. To socialize your dog, take her out as much as possible, let her meet new people, let her meet your friends dogs (if they are friendly with other dogs), and let her run free at the dog park so that she will meet new dogs. (Some dogs will be too nervous to play at the dog park so this phase may only come later.) 3. Give your dog a job or get her involved in a canine sport. Most dogs are not able to "work", however, so in order to give them an activity to build their confidence, it is a good idea to get them involved in one of the canine sports. Flyball, agility, Frisbee, dock diving, and other activities may be available in your area. 4. Use counter-conditioning techniques to help her overcome fear. This is the best but also the hardest (for you!) of the methods available to treat a submissive dog. For each thing that your dog is afraid of, you have to train her to have a pleasant feeling. When a dog is no longer afraid of the situation, he is confident and no longer going to be submissive. If you decide to try to build her confidence through counter-conditioning, the first thing you have to identify is the trigger. What is stimulating your dog to be so submissive? If she is only afraid of one thing it is easier to train her; unfortunately, most submissive dogs are afraid of almost everything. Spend some time with your dog to become familiar with her fears. The next step is to teach him that the scary thing is actually a good thing. When she is exposed to the scary object, give her a tasty treat and let her relax around the object without any pressure. The final step in counter-conditioning your dog to face her fears is to expose her and not provide a treat or even notice that he is being exposed. If you need more help on using counter-conditioning, the animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell has a book that I have found to be useful. The techniques are great and will help your dog develop confidence but as with most behavior modification, takes patience and persistence. Please let me know if you have additional questions. Thanks for writing in!

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Question
Broch
Collie mix
18 Months
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Question
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Broch
Collie mix
18 Months

Broch (Brokh) is a rescue from Cyprus. He doesn’t know how to play with toys and only bites (nips) as if he’s playing with other dogs. I have used squeaky toys as well as food toys but he’s not interested.
It would be good if I can get him to play and enjoy toys in order that I can reward him in other training

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1123 Dog owners recommended

Hello David, Check out Zak George from the video linked below. I also recommend finding some other games that can engage pup, like puzzle toys, kong wobbles with food, toys stuffed with kibble, and training games like Round Robin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8Z0EOHPNfI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtpLvumSTzI Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Brutus
Blue Heeler
3 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Brutus
Blue Heeler
3 Years

Hi, I have a smart eager to learn dog however when he was little (roughly 2yr ago) I was playing fetch with him, which he loved. Unfortunately when the ball was thrown was too close to the vege patch with an electric fence on and sadly Brutus was zapped. Kicking myself for not checking it to be off pre playing, rue that day!!! Ever since Brutus will not play fetch, his cousin dogs do, his brothers do as well which he plays with from time to time, are all excited to play fetch, Brutus wants to but resists each time. Also he lives with his mum still ( parents dog) and she tends to mother him somewhat although at same time he is protective and alfa male.
Brutus is a fantastic swimmer, loves to play, play wrestles, listens well, affectionate, is obedient and well mannered gentle dog, just refuses to play fetch of any sort. Also think his mum is telling him not to? We have separated them on occasions to give him a chance but doesn’t seem to make any difference. We have tried endlessly to coax and play fetch, has an array of toys etc. I know it will take time and energy but think he is more than worth the effort.
I work full time but my family said they will help train Brutus also if needed.
Do you have any suggestions? Can you help?

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
257 Dog owners recommended

Hello! How unfortunate. It always seems those sorts of things happen when they are performing desirable behaviors, not jumping or barking! Dogs learn by association so as you know, he quickly associated the negative outcome with playing fetch. You may want to start completely fresh with teaching fetch. Potentially with something he has never played with before. Or some sort of treat stuffed toy. I have included steps for re-training fetch. A different/new approach may help. Step 1: Introduce the Fetch Toy Once you’ve picked out a good toy, introduce it to your dog so they start to get excited about fetch. Place the toy near you. As your dog gets close to it, click, praise, and give a treat. If they touch their nose to the toy, click, praise heavily, and give treats. Continue this process until your dog reeeally likes the toy. Step 2: Move the Fetch Toy Around Now that your dog is starting to figure out that touching the fetch toy means treats, start moving it around so they have to move to get to it. Don’t throw the toy yet, or even move it very far. Simply hold the toy in slightly different positions — at arm’s length — and encourage your dog to touch it. Each time they touch the toy, click, treat, and praise. Continue this little dance until you’re sure the behavior has stuck. Dog Catching FrisbeeStep 3: Get Your Dog to Grab the Fetch Toy Now it’s time to start rewarding your dog when they actually grab the toy with their mouth. This can take a little patience on your part. The key is to watch your dog’s behavior and reward when it starts to look like the behavior you want. Place the toy on the ground at about arm's length. If your dog moves from touching their nose to the toy and begins using their mouth, it's time to click, praise, and treat. Each time they get a little closer to biting the toy, continue to reward. If and when they pick up the toy with their mouth, act like it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen (and don’t forget to click and give treats). Remember that your dog will be looking to you for reassurance that they’re on the right track Step 4: Play Little Games of Indoor Fetch At this point, your dog should know that placing the toy in their mouth means they get a treat. The next phase is perhaps the trickiest, but you only need to follow the same method of rewarding small steps toward success. Toss the toy a few feet away from you. When they pick it up, click, treat, and praise. Continue this until they understand what they’re supposed to do. Then toss the toy and encourage your dog to bring it back to you. When they do, click, treat, and praise. Step 5: Throw the Fetch Toy Farther Once your dog has realized that they get treats when they get their toy and bring it back, start "upping the ante" by throwing the toy farther. It might help to find a hallway (which will reduce distractions) and toss the fetch toy farther and farther away. With each successful fetch, offer treats and praise, then toss the toy a little farther. Repeat as many times as necessary for your dog to understand what this fetch game is all about. Step 6: Add Some Words This part is optional. If you would like to add a marker word like “fetch,” now is the time to do so (when your dog is successfully fetching their toy). Say the word before throwing the toy, then lay it on heavy with treats and praise when they successfully fetch for you and say something like “good fetch.” Of course, it’s not necessary to say “fetch” or another similar word. By this point, your dog has probably learned to enjoy the game itself — with or without a verbal cue.

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