How To... Teach Your Puppy To Play With Toys
Young puppies that have just left the litter (usually at about 8 weeks old) will have no idea how to play with humans using toys. Their natural way of playing is to play-bite on their littermates and so it is normal for them to transfer this behaviour to us. Since it is not a good idea for puppies to learn to bite us, it is important that we transfer their desire to play onto games with us with toys instead.
To teach a young puppy to play, you need several large soft toys. Fur fabric toys will simulate the other pups and be soft for teething mouths to bite down on. Large toys will also help to stop your fingers being accidentally caught. Toys with squeaks in will stimulate some pups and frighten others so be careful when using them at first.
Restricting games with other dogs
If you are raising two puppies at once, or you have another playful dog at home, you will need to stop all play between them for a while to give your puppy time to learn to play with you. Use stair gates to keep them apart when you cannot supervise. Allow them to be together but interrupt any play, separate them, and play with them individually instead.
It is important that your puppy socialises with other puppies and dogs outside the home. However, games between your puppy and others will need to be a little restricted to allow him to learn to enjoy playing with you instead. Consequently, limit games with others so that most of your puppy’s playfulness can be directed onto human games with toys instead.
It is important that your puppy spends at least three times as long playing with you as he does playing with others. Play with other dogs is natural and easy, so he will need more time to learn a more artificial way of playing with toys with you.
Small puppies prefer soft things that are similar to their littermates so buy large fluffy soft toys from pet shops or charity shops. These will usually be preferred until your puppy becomes an adolescent when he will gradually progress to harder, more solid toys
Pretend to be prey
The secret to being successful with games is to make the toy move like a small prey animal. That means moving it erratically, sometimes slowly, then with little dashes of speed, wriggling it behind objects out of sight and then back into view. Sometimes put it within range of your puppy and pull it away slowly so he can chase and catch it. Play tug of war a little. Sometimes let him take it and ‘win’ it from you. Sometimes throw it a little way away so he can pounce on it.
The various breeds of puppy have been bred to do different jobs, and, since games are a substitute for the work they used to perform, different breeds will often prefer to play different types of games. There are three basic types of game that can be played with toys:
- Chase and retrieve games – often preferred by herding dogs, gundogs and hounds
- Possession games (tug-of-war) – often preferred by guarding and bull breeds
- Shake and kill’ games (squeaky-toy games) – often preferred by the terriers
Most puppies will play all games but will often prefer one type to the others. To be really successful, play whichever game your puppy seems to prefer. As he learns, grows older and becomes a skilled player, buy toys that make it easier to play his favourite game, for example, balls and Frisbees for games of chase, rubber or rope pull-toy for those that like tug of war.
Ringing the changes with toys will help to keep both you both interested. Puppies are no different from children in this respect and will appreciate a new toy or a different game occasionally. Since you are also a participant in the game, you will need to stay interested in the game too and sometimes a new toy, or rediscovering an old one, can improve games for you as well.
Sometimes getting that first spark of interest from a puppy that has not played with humans before or hasn’t played for a long time can be really difficult. Don't give up if your puppy looks bored on your first attempt. Here are some tips for getting success:
- Play like a child - if you have a sociable puppy, put energy into the game, love what you are doing, be squeaky, move quickly, laugh, be completely daft as if no one was watching you (probably best if no one does at first!). Be as silly as you like
- Focus on the toy, not your puppy –-you can’t make your puppy play, but you can make him want to play. Look as though you are having fun and he may want to join in
- Tone it down - if your puppy is shy or nervous, tone down your play behaviour and let the toy do the work
- Make encouraging noises - it doesn’t matter what these are, just try to gee him up by making sounds. If he is shy, however, keep these soft or keep quiet.
- Don't be possessive - let him get the toy sometimes so there is a point to playing with you. If you keep it all the time or he has to work really hard to get it, he may not think it is worth it
- Don't pressure - remember, you cannot make him play, only make him want to play. If you are getting frustrated with the lack of interest coming from your puppy, stop, have a break and try something different next time. Do not force yourself to play when you really do not feel like it or if you are overtired as he will sense this and it will put him off.
- Stop early - just when you get him keen to play, stop while his interest is still high, and take the toy away with you. Keep him wanting more, rather than keeping on until you are both exhausted.
- Be intriguing - pretend the toy is like a little precious and fragile creature. Cuddle it, hold it, turn away so he can't see it, pretend to keep it safe, squeak it (use a squeaky toy!), and, suddenly, pretend to drop it or flick it past him as if it has escaped. Race to recover it and repeat until he is interested enough to grab it.
- Be competitive? - some puppies enjoy competition and try harder to win the toy. If your puppy likes this, throw the toy and then race after it yourself, snatching it from under his nose, or sometimes allowing him to 'win' instead. Puppies with strong characters generally enjoy competition but some gentle puppies dislike it, and it can put them off.
- Don't be controlling - nothing puts a puppy off play like someone being bossy and making them to sit or wait during the game. Enthusiasm is crushed by control so leave aside all thought of rules for now and play with abandon. Try to get the enthusiasm first and put control in later (see 'How To Control The Games')
Try food - good for food motivated puppies
If your puppy is motivated by food, try loading holey toys with tasty food. You don’t need to buy a special toy. A sock with holes in can be used to dispense food as your puppy investigates it. Drag the toy past him and encourage him to follow it, then help him get the food out. Continue until he is really excited to see the toy and, gradually, he will begin to pick it up in his mouth. Praise wildly to turn this behaviour into a game.
Real fur - good for predatory puppies, including terriers
For a really disinterested puppy, try real fur, from a rabbit (ask at a butchers) or sheepskin (try a charity shop). Use it to cover a toy and to spark interest. You will find that the fur doesn’t last long when being bitten in play and, by then, hopefully, your puppy will have learned to play with the toy that is underneath.
Toy on a springy thing - good for hounds that like to chase anything alive
A toy tied to the end of a string that is attached to a springy stick allows you to make the toy bounce and spring along the ground in a way that you can never do by throwing it. These are commercially available or you can make your own. This toy will encourage even the most reluctant of players to give chase, especially if the toy is bounced through long grass. With these toys, remember to let your puppy catch the toy sometimes and keep it for a while. It is also easy to get caught up in this game and forget how long you have been playing so remember to stop play long before your puppy is exhausted.
When to play
The best time to try to get your puppy to play is when he is excited. Just like us, puppies respond to things going on in their environment, so try to choose all the ‘exciting’ moments of the day to invite your puppy to play. For example, gundogs may carry a slipper when you come home, terriers may grab at and ‘kill’ papers put through the letter box, and some puppies may play tug-of-war with the lead during the initial excitement of getting ready for a walk. Notice these times when your puppy is feeling playful and use them to encourage play with toys instead.
Keep a toy in every room so that you always have one to hand when you want to play or you can see that your puppy is in need of a game. Once your puppy is starting to play well with toys, play in short, frequent sessions throughout the day.
Put the toy away at the end of each session so that you keep your puppy’s enthusiasm and also to keep the toy in a place where you can find it easily (see 'How To Make Games More Valuable') but make sure he has plenty of other toys to play with by himself.
Reclaiming the toy
Taking the games outside
Ideally, you want your puppy to play when outside as this will help you to control him better (see 'How To Control The Games'). You may also need your puppy to play outside if you are doing problem behaviour treatments.
Before you attempt this, make sure your puppy has become wildly enthusiastic and about playing at home. Ideally, games with toys should have become the highlight of his day and he should become animated and eager to play when you produce a toy.
Once you have reached this stage (be patient, it can take some time), stop all games at home and take toys out with you on walks. In a quiet place you visit frequently where there are no distractions, wait for your puppy to finish exploring and become bored with the area. Then take out the toys and encourage him to play.
Don’t expect too much of a response at first, just a little interest is enough. Then gradually build up the games and interest in toys over the next few weeks. Once he is playing well, change location and start again until, eventually, he will become as excited when you produce the toy when on a walk as he did in the house. Once you have got this, you can go back to playing in the house again.
Keep a toy in your coat pocket so that you always have one to play with when out on a walk. Playing with toys instead of with sticks will prevent injuries to your puppy’s mouth, eyes or face. Once your puppy enjoys playing with toys on a walk, keeping a toy with you will also mean that you can use it to reward him for coming back to you or anthing else you want to ask him to do.