Thinking About Play

Updated: May 14, 2020

Play is for learning, whether you intend it or not, learning is always happening.

The following is based on learning from Kay Laurence and has been used to provoke thinking and discussion before Clare Teaching Dogs Play Workshops.

What is Play?

  • Play is functional. It has a purpose for that individual dog or group of dogs. The purpose may be an internal private experience or a group bonding activity.

  • Play is for learning, whether you intend it or not, learning is always happening. Be thoughtful about what you are teaching.

Is Play always Fun?

There is no doubt that play can be fun for both dogs and people but when people and dogs play with different motivations the outcome isn’t always a positive experience.

For example fitness and connection can be our motivation. We may choose the game of ‘tug’ to achieve this but the dog is motivated to win the toy at all costs. The person is equally determined to win. The constant determination of the person not to let the dog win combined with the determination of the dog not to let go can leave both parties frustrated, exhausted and injured.

Can Play be Abusive or Coercive?

With the best of intentions we often ask dogs to play games they aren’t designed for e.g. collies aren’t designed to chase and catch sheep, only control the movement of the flock, continually asking them to ‘kill’ the tug toy can easily tip them into becoming over aroused.

Physically a dog may not be designed for the game we would like to play.

In their natural state dogs would only have a 2% successful kill rate for each stalk – chase combination. This would usually feed and satisfy them. Dogs are at their maximum arousal when killing. Between each unsuccessful stalk – chase there would often be a period of browsing for the next opportunity. Following a successful stalk – chase – kill there would be a period of rest. Games that go on too long or are repeated many times in a session can leave a dog over stimulated pushing them far beyond the behaviour that nature intended.

Their bodies can be injured as the endorphins in the brain block urgent pain messages.

Breed Modal Action Patterns (MAPs) are satisfying and desirable. Thoughtful games that meet breed needs and stimulate these MAPs leave a dog wanting more and wanting to do it again. These games can form an important part in a rehabilitation programme and build strong bonds between people and dogs. The desire to play the game, with you can also force a dog to abandon their natural caution, forcing them into conditions that they would not have chosen in a less aroused state.

Choosing a Toy

As you tidy away your dog toys, begin to assess their function for your dog e.g.

Who decides what is a 'dog toy'?

  • Toy for tugging

  • Toy for running

  • Toy for catching

  • Toy for carrying

  • Toy for chewing

  • Toy for comfort

Who decides on the function of a toy – the manufacture, you, your dog? My dogs choose lots of 'toys' that have never been advertised as 'toys for dogs'.

Risk Assessment for Play

Learning is always happening.

Before we begin to play with a dog we need a plan – in my classes and sessions the primary goal is to avoid injury of person or dog.

Before playing with your dog, ask the following:

  • What is the risk of injury?

  • What injuries have you or others received?

  • What injuries have other dogs received?

Here are some examples that I have come across in my career.


  • Joint pain from tug games

  • Bites

  • Broken limbs from falls

  • Sprains from tripping over the dog


  • Spinal injuries from twisting to catch

  • Repetitive strain injuries from chasing a ball

  • Neck and jaw injuries from over-enthusiastic tugging

  • Broken limbs from chasing

As you play ask yourself

  • What learning will happen?

  • Is this the learning that you intended to happen?

Examples of learning outcomes you may not have intended

  • Dog learns they can outrun you and you are too slow to catch them

  • Once the dog has the toy in the mouth, you can’t get it

  • If the toy is dropped 6 feet away, you will walk to it, pick it up and deliver it again

  • If they bite you they get the toy

  • If they keep hold of the tug, you will keep the game going

  • If they put their feet on you they can get more purchase on the tug toy

  • If they take the toy down to the ground, they can tear it up

Play can be enriching, build a deep connection between you and your dog, teach your dog so many essential life skills and with a little extra thought, care and planning it is a truly enriching experience. Enjoy your play.

During Covid-19 restrictions video consultations are available.

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