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Have you ever watched an old Rin Tin Tin or Lassie episode on TV where the doggie star pretends to be dead during a climactic scene? Just as the bad guy is about to get away or hurt somebody, our hero leaps up, coming back to life. He jumps onto the back of the bad guy, forcing him to the ground, and saves the day!
'Play dead' is a fun command! The more dramatic it is the funnier it can be. It can also pull a lot of heartstrings when a dog on TV does this command and pretends to be injured or dead. A fun spin on this trick is to use another word or phrase in place of "play dead", such as "go to sleep" or "Bang!".
Expect 'play dead' to take between three and six weeks to train. If your dog feels insecure while he is on his back or rolling, then expect this command to take a bit longer to teach because you will need to go slower, to get him comfortable with rolling and holding the position.
If your buddy does not like being touched, has ever shown any form of aggression, or seems stressed or afraid when you begin to teach this, then do not use 'The Flip Method' because that method will require you to move your dog and position him. That method is best used for dogs who enjoy being touched and are very comfortable being handled.
If you choose to use 'The Lure Method', then be sure to let your dog know when he is making progress and be patient with him. Most dogs will not roll onto their backs the first time that you lure them with a treat, which is why this method is broken down into smaller steps. If your pup does not progress quite as far as a step in the method describes, then praise him and reward him for whatever amount of progress he does make, and then practice it until he can do it completely.
'The Capture Method' will work best if your dog tends to roll onto his back on his own frequently. If your dog never offers this position on his own, then choose either 'The Lure Method' or 'The Flip Method' instead.
Be patient while teaching this. Your dog might feel vulnerable while he is on his back and uncertain about rolling over. Stay encouraging and give him plenty of time and practice to get used to the new position and movement. Also, make sure that you practice this on a soft surface such as a rug, carpeting, a mat, or grass. Your pup might refuse to do this trick altogether if the surface is hard. After all, nobody, including your dog, likes to lie on something hard, especially when your spine, ribs, and shoulders are getting rubbed and bumped constantly.
To get started you will need lots of small, easy to eat treats that your pup loves. You will also need a soft surface, such as a rug, carpeting, a mat, or grass, to practice this on. Your dog will need to know the 'down' command, and you will need patience, gentleness, persistence, a positive attitude, and good timing. If you are using 'The Flip Method', then your dog will also need to be completely comfortable with being moved and touched, and you will need enough strength and dexterity to be able to gently move him onto his back. If you are using 'The Capture Method', then you will also need a treat pouch or a small Ziploc bag to place your treats into and to attach to yourself or place into your pocket. You will also need attentiveness, to notice when your dog is lying on his back.
The Lure Method
To begin, tell your dog "Down". When he is lying down, tell him "Play dead", and hold a treat to the front of his nose and slowly move the treat from the front of him toward his right shoulder. When he swings his hips out to the right while in the 'down' position, praise him and give him the treat.
Lure onto side
After your dog's hips and legs are swung out to his right, so that he is laying on his side just a bit, then grab another treat and move that treat slowly from the front of your dog's nose toward the right side of his chest, and tell him "Play dead". When he lies on his left side while following the treat, praise him and give him the treat. If your pup gets up at any point or moves out of the position, then simply repeat luring him into the correct position with a treat.
Start the roll
When your pup is on his side, then tell him to 'play dead', and place a treat in front of his nose and then slowly move the treat from his nose toward the right side of his chest and past his chest. As soon as he begins to roll a little bit to follow the treat, praise him and give him the treat. Repeat this a few times until he is comfortable rolling a little bit.
Lure onto back
When your pup is comfortable rolling a little bit, then tell him "Play dead", and move the treat slowly from the front of his nose toward the right side of his chest and past his chest. Hold the treat a few inches past his chest so that he has to roll onto his back to reach it. If he begins to flip all the way over, then place your arm gently on the other side of his body to stabilize him. As soon as he is on his back, praise him and give him the treat. Tell him "OK" as soon as he finishes his treat, and move out of the way to allow him to get up if he wants to.
Repeat luring your Shepherd onto his back until he can hold the position without depending on your arm to keep him from flipping. As he improves, gradually increase the amount of time that he stays there by delaying your "OK" command, and by giving him another treat every two seconds that he stays there. Do this until he can hold the 'play dead' position for a full minute.
When your pup can hold the position for a full minute, then begin to gradually give the command from farther and farther away. Start by moving away only a couple of inches before you give the command, and then gradually add distance as he improves. Do this until you can give him the command while you are standing up, and he will lie down and roll onto his back to 'play dead' and will hold it for several seconds until you say "OK".
The Flip Method
Get set up
To begin, go to a calm location with a padded floor, such as a rug, carpeting, grass, or a mat. Grab lots of treats that your dog loves, that are easy to eat, and set them nearby where you can reach them but your Shepherd cannot not eat them. Next, call Fido over to you.
Move onto side
Tell Fido "down", and then when he is lying down, gently push his hips toward the left, so that he lies on his left hip and swings his legs out to his right side. When he does this, praise him and give him a treat. Only use this method if your dog enjoys being touched, has never shown any form of aggression, and does not seem at all stressed about being moved.
When your dog's leg are swung out to his right side, then tell him "Play dead", and gently press on his right shoulder to encourage him to lay completely on his side. When he moves onto his side, then praise him and give him a treat. If he moves out of the position, then simply repeat the process, giving him a treat every time that he lays on his side, until he stays on his side when you tell him to "Play Dead" and move him. To encourage him to stay in that position you can also feed him an additional treat every four seconds that he stays on his side, until you move onto the next step.
When Fido is lying on his side, then hold his back two legs together with on hand, wherever it seems most comfortable for him, and hold his front two legs together with your other hand. While you do this, praise him, then let go of his legs, and give him a treat. Repeat this until he seems completely relaxed when you hold his legs together.
When your buddy is completely relaxed while you are holding his legs, then hold his back legs together with one hand, and his front legs together with your other hand, tell him "play dead", and gently roll him halfway onto his back, and then roll him back onto his side again. Praise him as you roll him, and then give him a treat when he is lying on his side again. If this makes him nervous, then go slower and only move him slightly until he gets used to the sensation. Repeat the roll until he is completely relaxed when you roll him.
Roll all the way
When your pup is completely relaxed when you partially roll him onto his back, then tell him "play dead", and gently roll him all the way onto his back. When he is on his back, praise him, let go of his legs, and feed him a treat. If he moves out of the position as soon as you let go of his legs, do not worry about it. Feed him the treat in whatever position he is in then. If he remains on his back, then feed him the treat and feed him an additional treat every two seconds that he remains there, for up to ten seconds. Do this until you tell him "OK" and encourage him to get up.
Repeat telling your dog to 'play dead', gently rolling your pup onto his back, praising him, letting go of him, and then feeding him a treat. Do this until you can tell him 'play dead' and he will lie on his side and then roll onto his back on his own.
Show him off!
When Fido will roll onto his back when you tell him to play dead then he has learned the trick! To increase the amount of time that he does the trick for, feed him several easy to eat, small treats, one after another, while he is on his back. Do this for up to ten seconds, then tell him "OK" and stop feeding him. If he gets up before you say "OK" then stop feeding him the treats. When he begins to hold the command for longer in order to receive more treats, then increase the amount of time between each reward by a couple of seconds. Continue to increase the amount of time between rewards as he improves until he can hold the command for one minute and only receive one treat at the end of the one minute. Indicate to him when he can get up by telling him "OK" at the end of the trick, and then stop feeding him treats. Now, go show off his trick to friends!
The Capture Method
Place several small, soft treats, that your pup loves into a treat pouch attached to yourself, or into a small Ziploc bag in your pocket. Watch your dog carefully.
Say "roll over"
Whenever your dog rolls onto his back, tell him "play dead" in a calm voice, and then calmly walk over to him, praise him, and give him a treat. Try to praise him and reward him while he is still on his back if you can. Make sure that the treats are small and soft so that he will not choke on them.
Catch him in the act
Try to catch your dog lying on his back as many times as possible over the next several weeks. When you have caught him doing it at least thirty times, then test whether or not he knows the command.
When you have caught your pup lying on his back at least thirty times, then call him over to yourself in a calm location while you are standing on a soft surface such as a rug. Tell him "Play dead", and wait ten seconds to see if he will obey. If he does not roll onto his back, then repeat the command and waiting up to five times. As soon as he rolls onto his back, praise him and give him three treats, one at a time. After he has done the command several times, then go back to only giving him one treat every time that he performs it.
If your buddy does not roll onto his back when you tell him to 'play dead' any of the five times, then go back to catching him doing it on his own, until you have caught him doing it at least fifteen more times. After the fifteen times, call him over and test him again. Repeat this until he will roll onto his back when you tell him to play dead. You can also try testing this on different surfaces if he is struggling, since he might not want to roll onto his back if the surface is too hard or moves too much.
Practice, practice, practice!
When your pup will roll onto his back when you tell him to play dead, then begin to tell him "OK" after you have given him his treat, to communicate to him that he can get up now. As he improves, increase the amount of time that he spends on his back before you tell him "OK" by giving him another treat every two seconds that he stays on his back. Gradually space out the treat rewards as he improves and can hold the command for longer. Do this until he can stay on his back for one minute before being released with your "OK" command. Congratulations! Your dog can 'play dead' now.
By Caitlin Crittenden
Published: 04/26/2018, edited: 01/08/2021