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How to Train Your Rescue Dog to Play

How to Train Your Rescue Dog to Play
Easy difficulty iconEasy
Time icon1-3 Weeks
Fun training category iconFun

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. 

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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. 

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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!

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The Gentle Encouragement Method

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Management Method

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Soccer Method

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Written by James Barra

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 11/29/2017, edited: 01/08/2021

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Magic and Val

Dog breed icon

Papillons

Dog age icon

11

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Question

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I got my two dogs from breeders who retired them from making babies. Their personalities are completely different. Magic is a calm lover and Val is fierce little Dynamo but neither of them knows how to play. I've tried to get them interested in toys and games, even tricks but Val doesn't seem to have a spark for learning and Magic's just not interested. However I can tell they are both bored and I can't do a lot of physical stuff with him because of my recent disability, and they each guard territory/food so it's hard to play together. Help me ignite some fun for them! Please?

Nov. 2, 2023

Magic and Val's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

Hello, If they are food motivated I would try puzzle toys and treat feeders such as a kong wobble, but I would separate them with a baby gate or two different closed off rooms. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Nov. 29, 2023

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Chelsea

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terrier

Dog age icon

6 Years

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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.

Jan. 3, 2022

Chelsea's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 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

Jan. 3, 2022


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