Play Health Check

by | Feb 13, 2024

collie running with pleasure

When we view food or play as only a reward we fall into the mindset of “what can I get the dog to do for this”?

It would not be healthy for a dog to view any food or play as “what do I need to do to earn this?”

Instead when we look at play or food delivery as an ACTIVITY we share the same mindset as the dog: is there pleasure to be experienced? Will they enjoy this? Does the food give them pleasure by the taste or the activity of us delivering breakfast in bed, or perhaps a chase down or a short search? Or does food just stop them feeling hungry?

Does tossing that toy or making it grunt and squeak or seeing it fly in the air give them pleasure?

The dog will be seeking repetition to gain more and better rewards, more pleasure and time spent together.

We should not view these activities: games or food delivery as currency for our agenda or as a means to manipulate the dog.

The pleasure is often the interaction, the learning, the way of moving. Play or deliver food for the pleasure, not something that we just do to get something in return, but because it also gives us pleasure to enjoy this activity with the dog.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

The activities that bring connection, learning and wellness for both you and the dog, but first we may need an Activity Health check:

1. Does this activity give the dog PLEASURE ?

Is the dog is getting pleasure from this activity and what does that look like?

Do we see that pleasure change?

Be careful of assuming that pleasure is dependent on arousal. We can enjoy an activity without arousal: through learning a new way of moving and the feeling that movement elicits. This is particular pertinent to dogs that are creatures of movement not only as a language but also for pure pleasure. The activity enjoyment can be experienced through connection, being part of a team, doing something together.

Food delivery and anticipation will change through repetition as the dog become sated: not every piece will deliver the same pleasure.

Does the dog desire more and are they seeking repetitions without hesitation?

This is good evidence that the dog is experiencing pleasure and enjoyment but if we see hesitation or we need to cheer-lead the dog into repetition, then we need to listen to what we are seeing. The activity may be more pleasure for us that it is for the dog. Retrieve is an excellent example of this: the speed to go out to capture should be similar as the speed of return for more opportunities.

Is this observed pleasure always the same?

The dog may be aging, tired, getting full, need a drink or becoming stressed. Before every repetition or continuation we should be looking for changes that tells us how the dog feels: how well they are, their safety and sense security and comfort and desire for more.

Remember: it is not about making the activity fun but finding the fun in the activity.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

2. Does this activity have a clear beginning?

Do we have a sequence that tells the dog this activity is starting?

Is the information non-ambiguous: when that toy is in your hand: the activity has begun, when you go that place: the activity is on, when you say that word: you give your full attention to the activity.

Equally is the dog able to ask for that activity or does it always follow your agenda and timetable? How can they ask?

Is the dog clear about what is going to be happening?

Have you set the rules and are they clear in your own mind before you begin? Where is the boundary that stops the dog-brain overwhelming person safety? What rules stop the person-seeking-entertainment from compromising the dog’s welfare and safety?

3. Does the activity have a clear ending?

goodness me if you have a Border collies here, this is critical !

Is the dog clear about what finishing looks like?

Does this mean a clear change in your behaviour and energy level? Are there specific words or a closing down sequence?

If the dog does not know when to end what does this look like?

This is the dog that is unsure because someone has said “Aww, just one more then”.

Be clear, be consistent, be fair.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

4. Are we overstimulating?

Is there potential to change the energy levels of this activity?

Do we inadvertently ramp it up or get over excited ourselves? This can easily influence the dog and we both get carried away. In every activity there are opportunities for learning and we can develop the skills of changing our energy, calming down is a skill that needs to be practised or increasing our focal point to ignore external influences.

Could we increase the energy and arousal, is this dependant on what we do or simply the activity itself?

Will the dog naturally tire or naturally get fitter? Does the dog need additional challenges and stimulation as they become more skilled.

Energy and arousal are connected but not the same thing. Energy is closer to effort required and will reduce with fatigue or stress.
Arousal will be at different levels: some arousal may be beneficial, it may be caused by uncertainty or stress and it may go beyond the dog’s ability to control it.

Arousal, or getting frenetic or going OTT  does not equate to pleasure.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

5. Does the dog feel safe and is protected from injury?

Is this is a physically demanding activity: are we protecting our dogs from overdoing it?  

Sliding and turning badly on an unsuitable floor. Using unused muscles or undeveloped balance or proprioceptive skills. Is the dog in conflict with movement that stimulates predatory responses that can overwhelm caution: chase, leap, grab bite, body slam, kill shaking.

Do the participants trust each other and the environment?

A dog will often play with such intensity and dedication that they are unable to consider their own safety.

A person may be over aware of judgement and observation from others. This can also influence a dog that may become the prey-object of intense focus from other dogs.

 One bad experience associated with an activity can sour it for life.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

6. What learning is happening?

Person be awake, be very observant and continually asking question. Keep your head on the job.

This is Practice, learning will be happening whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not.

They will be getting better, faster, more skilled: at what?

Are they learning physical ways of moving and using their bodies?

Is this beneficial for that individual?

Are they learning our cues and body language?

Have they discovered you cannot run as fast as them? Or that you wimp out when they run into you? Or that you cannot end the game?

Are they learning anticipation?

Oh gosh yes. They will be studying and remembering your movement and sequences in fine detail.

Are they learning we are very poor at this and they can beat us hands down or we are a soft touch and give up easily?

Are they learning that we demand too much, too soon or too often?

Hmmmm ….. be one step ahead

7. Does this activity stimulate predatory responses?

Are we aware of this; can we see it ?

Is this what gives the dog the greatest pleasure and does not cause us trouble in the future? Will we be able to manage the awakened predator?

If they are developing better bite skills and are we channelling this safely?

If they are developing herding skills have we planned where and how they will use this?

If they are becoming better hunters can we ensure the safety and wellbeing of potential prey?

What are the stimulus?

Knowing the stimulus for any predatory responses is key to keeping the dog safe from inappropriate application.  

Is the dog managing their predatory behaviours?

Are we able to use this activity to build control and awareness?

Dogs are predators and will find pleasure in predatory activities. It is our responsibility to ensure this is well managed and channelled appropriately.

Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.

The process of planning and analysing the activity whether we call it Play, Training, Work or Games is key to building more understanding. We can then adapt the activity for the benefit of the dog perhaps to build a skill, build resilience or build our relationship through sharing enjoyable activities together.

No activity should be at the cost of one of the partners for the pleasure of the other. Whether this is too many retrieves, too much power in the bite and grab, energetic body slams or over exhaustion.

Not an activity where one partner puts in all the effort for the entertainment of the other.

Every one of these point to check apply equally to all activities you share with the dog. Whether you label this a game, or just play, or drill practice or shaping games. They are all activities with common elements and similar topography:

For all participants:

  • Clear understanding of what will be happening
  • A clear beginning and end to the activity.
  • Rules of engagement that encompass safety and wellness
  • A healthy range of different activities that enhance the relationship and connection.
  • A continual awareness that learning is always happening and will benefit from guidance.
Training is something that is done TO the dog. Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.



Build the Learning

Lifelong skills built in activities and play. A dog that is curious, confident, resilient with a natural enthusiasm for learning.

rewards skills

Learn about the fascinating landscape of rewards and how to make them the centre of your training and relationship.

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Key Reading

In praise of naughty dogs

.. a desire for solutions to problems that weren’t problems until someone else outside of the relationship suggested they were.

When we train a dog it grows

Most training starts from necessity. Management is a necessity but it usually benefits all parties by a reduction of conflict. Are they expanding their skills to benefit us or for their benefit?

And Why Can’t He Refuse?

I bristle at the insistence that a dog will assent to any request we make if they understand what we’re asking and if the rewards we offer are of sufficient value

The Fade-in Protocol

Even though today we are surrounded by many available protocols for teaching with positive reinforcement, there is still a persistence that a dog should be set-up to make an error. An error is simply the difference between my expectation and the dog’s response. No more “distractions”, but faded-in environments.

The Value of Experience

The non-experienced, or current generation of imposters, have attended a course, read a book, got a certificate and have yet to gain experience to deepen their knowledge or understanding of the subject, protocol, method …

Don’t Let Them Learn

Becoming aware that we share our lives with premier learners, dogs, is about saving you frustration, despair, anxiety and endless hours further down the road.

Chasm opening up?

The more I see “sit, down, come, stay heel” as the essential basics the more I am moving further away from the general view of living with dogs.

No room for mechanics

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner

Think carefully

We cannot presume a cue is a reinforcer unless we can shape a new behaviour using that cue as the marker. Read carefully. Think carefully. Consider multiple perspectives. Sometimes it seems easier to let someone else do the thinking for you and just copy, but we need to become thoughtful trainers.

It’s Not Training

A carefully planned learning pathway, paced to suit that particular learner for their life ahead.

Top Training

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.

Cue Seeking

Being an active learner and seeking opportunities for more rewards

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

Stop doing that ….

Can we teach an effective Cease That Behaviour? Absolutely. We can teach that positively, without harm, and we should teach them the skills of stopping that and doing this instead.

Duration or is it Breakfast in Bed?

Teaching duration has become a very muddied understanding or what it is and how to teach it. This is partly due to how we use words that are the same but have entirely different meanings.

Reasons to use a clicker

The concept of “being a clicker trainer” is always going to lead to argument and misunderstanding because it cannot exist alongside the science and technology. It is a “fakery” of our time. The clicker itself is a simple tool that when used in conjunction with technology provides clarity and understanding in teaching.


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