4 Tips for Engaging Your New Rescue Dog in Play

Play is important to your dog’s well-being, but not all rescues arrive ready to engage.

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Play is vital for so many animals, and dogs are no exception. What happens, however, if your new rescue dog feels shut down or anxious in his new home, perhaps due to neglect during the important puppy development stages or other reasons? How can we get a shy or shut-down dog interested in play?

Here are some tips that I’ve developed not only in my decade as a trainer but also as the owner of two Border Collies who were nearly feral from lack of proper puppy socialization when I rescued them:

1. Go slowly

Please never try to force a dog to play. Let a new dog — from a shelter or anywhere else — explore her new environment on her own terms. Encourage her to explore by hiding yumo food treats in each room and in the backyard. You may have to help her “find” the first few treats, but imagine what is happening in the canine mind as she goes into each new space. I imagine the dog might be thinking: “WOW. I love this place!! It’s warm, comfortable, and for some reason there is chicken in ALL of the rooms!”

2. Move onto Play Town

Once you see that your dog feels comfortable (it takes as long as it takes as dogs are individuals), then you can move onto Play Town. Introduce play when your dog is a bit hungry just to tip the scales in the favor of play. Try small actions at first. For example, gently roll a tennis ball across the floor instead of going outside and throwing it around like a human tornado. Try adding squeaky toys. If your dog shies away from the squeak, muffle it under a towel and then throw a yumo morsel to your dog just after the squeak.

You could also introduce these new objects while sitting on the ground next to your new friend and not hovering above him. Alternatively, you could put a bunch of fun toys on the living room floor, and then walk away to observe what the dog goes from afar and to praise if you see she is exploring.

Woman playing with dog by Shutterstock.
Woman playing with dog by Shutterstock.

3. Join the fun

Once your dog indicates that he is interested in chasing a ball or exploring a squeaky toy, then it’s time to add some human energy to the game. I like getting feather-like cat toys on a string to entice a shy dog to chase the feathers. You have shown the dog that you are a sane and reliable human, so now see if you can really engage the dog in play with you. I often initiate the game of chase, where the dog chases me instead of the other way around. Add your own enthusiasm and joy to any game and see where it takes you both — we know that emotions can be contagious across species.

4. Keep play sessions short

You want to quit the game while your dog is still interested. Don’t just mindlessly throw the ball in your backyard for an hour. GET INVOLVED in the play itself. Dogs can remind us that we humans need and enjoy playing as well.

Play is crucial for dogs in so many ways, but one of the most important is that play can be considered an “incompatible” behavior, meaning it is hard to be fearful, anxious, or aggressive and also be playing. Playing can help the dog understand that he is safe to move about, explore, and even enjoy his new surroundings. The crucial thing here is to not force the dog to play. Go at the dog’s pace and be gentle, patient, and very, very interesting to your dog.

You can learn more about the importance of play to your canine best friend in my new book, The Midnight Dog Walkers: Positive Training and Practical Advice for Living with Reactive and Aggressive Dogs now at Amazon and in bookstores nationwide in May.

Top photo: Man playing with Border Collie by Shutterstock.

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Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA

Annie Phenix is a Colorado-based professional writer and dog trainer. She is the Trainer in Residence for Dogster.com and she writes a column for Dogster Magazine and other publications. She is the author of a Spring 2016 book, titled The Midnight Dog Walkers (I-5 Publishing).

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