How to Train Your Dog to Play Dead
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Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks!
Training is a great way to bond with your dog and help them feel secure. Teaching a new trick also challenges your dog's mind and encourages mental agility. As well as being super cute, the 'Play Dead' trick gives you both a goal to work towards. With regular twice daily training sessions, teaching such a command helps prevents boredom and provides valuable mental stimulation for the dog.
Indeed, teaching a fun trick has a more serious side. When you're in a high stress situation, such as visiting the vet clinic, instead of petting an anxious dog (which rewards and reinforces their fear) ask the dog to perform a trick. The idea is giving the dog an action to do will take their mind of their anxiety. Not only that, but seeing you aren't worried and consider performing tricks an appropriate thing to do, sends out an affirming message to the dog that there's no need for concern. While this may sound strange to us, to the dog it makes perfect sense and it works.
This classic trick involves the owner making a gun shape with their hand, aiming it at the dog and using a cue word such as "Bang." The dog then rolls over and lies very still on their side, until released from the command by the owner. But if you would prefer a more peaceful trick, then teach "Sleepy time", where you place your hands with the palms together in a makeshift pillow.
Teaching a trick isn't just about entertaining people, fun as this is, but about having the dog listen to an owner and obey the commands. Whereas playing dead is a fun command, it has hidden benefits in that it requires you to teach regularly and your dog to have a good level of discipline, both of which are hugely beneficial.
But please remember that training should always be fun. If your dog is slow on the uptake or seems confused, then take things more slowly. When necessary, break the trick down into small segments and only when the dog has mastered one step should you move onto the next. And always end the session on a high, with an easy command the dog can do. Then lavish the dog with praise.
This is a complex trick. Some dogs will master the movement in one step, while others need the action broken down into smaller pieces. Whichever method suits your dog, always encourage and reward the dog for the parts they do correctly, rather than punish mistakes. For this you'll need:
A rug or mat so the dog is comfortable lying down and rolling over
Treats with which to lure and reward the dog
A clicker, should you decide to use one to mark correct actions
A logical approach to breaking down the elements of the trick.
Also, you'll need to decide on a verbal cue, such as "Bang" or "Sleep", plus an appropriate hand signal. When you start training, do so in a quiet place with few distractions. Then, once the dog has mastered things you can practice in different environments with distractions present until he has the trick off pat.
The Progressive Method
The down position
Have the dog go to a 'Down' position. If your dog is not familiar with this, you'll need to teach 'Down' first.
Encourage the dog to lie over
With the dog in a down position, place a hand on one of the dog's shoulders and gently encourage him to lie over. Once lying on his side, stroke and pet him, helping him to relax.
Stay in a lie position
Now have the dog stay lying on their side while you stand up.
Label the action
With the dog staying on their side on, label the action with the appropriate command such as "Bang" or "Sleep", and use your hand signal. Then praise and reward the dog.
Draw it all together
Use the cue word and encourage the dog to go down, lie, and stay, then label the behavior as again as "Bang" or "Sleep." Repeat this and the dog learns to anticipate what's required and lie over.
The Lure to Roll Over Method
Start in the 'Down' position
Have your dog go into a down-stay on his mat.
Use a treat lure
Hold a treat by his nose and then travel the treat along his neck and shoulder such that he has to fold his neck and is easily rolled over. If he doesn't roll himself onto a side, try repositioning the treat until this happens.
Label the action
As the dog rolls onto his side to get the treat, label the behavior with a cue word, such as 'Bang' or 'Sleep', and add a hand signal
Practice, practice, practice
Once the dog is fluently rolling over to follow the treat, try fading out use of the treat and just get him to follow your hand. To do this, don't have a treat every go but every other go, so that he's unsure if you have a treat or not.
Try without the treat
Once the dog is less dependent on the treat, only give an occasional reward, plus expect him to respond to the cue word and hand signal, without luring with a treat.
The Train by Coincidence Method
Wait for the dog to relax
This is a good method to use on the fly and train the dog on an ad hoc basis when the situation arises. Take advantage of the dog already being relaxed in a down or lying position. Stroke and fuss him.
Encourage the dog to roll over
With the dog in a relaxed down position, stroke him until he offers to roll over and show his belly. Continue to stroke and praise him.
Give the 'Bang-Stay' command
With the dog relaxed on his side or back, label the action and ask him to stay, by saying "Bang Stay" and using the hand signal.
If the dog raises his head, gently rest it back on the floor and repeat 'Bang' in a quiet but happy voice.
Stand and move away
Now try standing up and moving away, using the command 'Bang' if the dog goes to move. Once you are satisfied, then clap your hands to release the dog and give a reward. Now practice until he anticipates what "Bang" means and offers the action on request.
By Amy Caldwell
Published: 10/06/2017, edited: 01/08/2021
Training Questions and Answers
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0 found helpful
I have taught my dog to play dead but I have to give him a nudge for him to lay down and sometimes when I try to give him a nudge he tries to be me so can you help me teach him just by saying play dead
July 2, 2020
Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer
1133 Dog owners recommended
Hello Ashley, Check out the video linked below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMRRLUyAIyw Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
July 6, 2020