How to Encourage Playfulness in Your Dog

Some dogs love to play, others not so much. While it’s true your dog could go his whole life never playing with you and live to a ripe-old age, his life would not be as rich as it could have been (and neither will yours as a pet parent).

Play is one of the main reasons most of us get a dog – to play, to be a friend and a companion.

Why Play is Important

There are many reasons why play time is important for all dogs.

Here are a few:

  • Keeps dogs active and therefore healthier
  • Stimulates their brain
  • Burns excess energy so they are less likely to engage in bad behaviors
  • Strengthens your bond
  • Can help with training

Play can be a key to bonding, staying healthy and letting your dog use his brain for things like problem solving. A dog that does not play, either because he was never interested or because as he got older he seemed to lose interest, is missing out on these important things in life. Plus, you are missing out on the joy of play-time with your best friend.

Ways to Encourage

Luckily, there are a lot of ways to encourage your dog to take an interest in play, whether for the first time or as a re-introduction.

First, figure what your dog likes. Examples might be:

  • Does he like food?
  • Petting?
  • Are there certain textures that he likes better than others? You can guess by the surfaces you find him lying on the most (carpet, tile, soft blanket, etc.).

Second, pay attention to when he seems to have the most energy. This would be the best time of day to try and engage in play. For some dogs that might be first thing in the morning or when you get home from work and he is all excited to see you.

Now that you know what your dog likes, you can try to incorporate those items into your new play-time (figured out in step two above). If your dog seems to have a preference for soft surfaces, buy her soft toys. If he seems to prefer hard, cool surfaces, by him hard toys—the ones that freeze might be a good choice.

Dog that like cool, hard objects (ice cubes, for example) will be more interested in toys like this, that can be frozen. Image source:
Dog that like cool, hard objects (ice cubes, for example) will be more interested in toys like this, that can be frozen. Image source:

If your dog likes food, try encouraging him to play with one of the hundreds of dog toys out there that incorporates food. You can find almost any type nowadays – from balls to tug toys and feeders where the food is hidden. All of these toys can encourage play in your dog.

Image source:
This is a soft “Tug N Treat” toy made by Genuine Dog Gear. It’s great for dogs that like soft things and food. Image source:

If your dog likes petting, you can use it as a reward for playing. So, produce a new toy (dogs are always more interested in something new) and if she shows any interest, reward her by petting. Remember, there are no rules about play, so there is no reason why your play cannot include a lot of petting!

A Few Tips

Keep toys for play time out of your dog’s reach when you are not playing with him. These are special toys he only gets when he is interacting with you. You can leave other toys out for him to have all the time.

Rotate the toys. Dogs like things that are “new.” This does not mean you need to buy your dog a new toy every week. Have a basket full of toys and just rotate them when your dog starts to lose interest. At first, you may be rotating through your toys quick, since he is still learning to enjoy play. But after a while, you may find you can keep a toy “in play” for a month before having to switch. Of course, most dogs end up with a favorite toy that they will play with over all others. When you find that toy, you’re golden!

Keep "play-time" toys separate from every day toys and rotate them to keep your dog's interest. Image source:
Keep “play-time” toys separate from every day toys and rotate them to keep your dog’s interest. Image source:

When first trying to encourage play, buy a variety of toys – different sizes, textures, colors (dogs see limited colors, so it can make a difference), sounds, etc., – until you find out what your dog likes.

Play does not have to always involve toys! If you are your dog’s favorite thing, than maybe you play by lightly wrestling (as long as your dog is appropriate with his mouth and paws). Or maybe you put your dog in stay, hide, and then release him to come find you by calling him. This is a great game that most dogs, even ones with no interest in toys, love.

And last but not least—be creative! The point of play-time is to engage your dog in some healthy activity that requires him to use his brain and bond with you. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, as long as you are accomplishing that in a safe manner.

Now go play!

About the Author

Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She is the founder of A Fairytail House. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.

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