Canine Case Files: Paco – Learn to Play

The final segment of Paco’s three-part case story provides guidance on teaching a dog to play.  Often rehomed dogs have little to no experience playing with a human.  They are busy surviving, perhaps actively avoiding people.  Some have developed a preference for the company of other dogs.  Others have learned that hands and clothes are playthings.

The best way to teach your dog to play is to experiment.  Observe and figure out his style and play activities that he finds most fun.  If we want our dogs to want to play with us, the games must be fun for them!  If a toy is not of interest this week, try it again next week.


Food foraging motivation is a great way to bolster play drive.  Instead of serving up meals in the conventional bowl, I delivered Paco’s kibble in a Kong Classic, puzzle, or food ball.  We quickly upped the game with more complex foraging devices.  With each new device, Paco had to figure out strategies for extracting the kibble.  For him, this was highly gratifying and fun.  It channeled lots of mentally energy and provided enrichment in his environment.  Paco became an expert food forager and enjoyed this activity into old age. 

When dogs have opportunities to harness their problem-solving skills, it is easier to engage them in all other types of games and play.

Fetch – Paco’s Way

The first time I tossed a tennis ball for Paco to fetch, he had no idea what he was supposed to do.  The tennis ball was not that interesting.   I tried a Kong ball that previously had food in it.  Paco was motivated to chase it, but without the food, it was not fun.  I auditioned several styles of balls to gauge Paco’s interest.  He chose a medium-sized ball with a squeaker. 

When I threw the ball across the yard, Paco looked like he intended to chase it, but somehow changed his mind.  He was confused, looking at me, then across the yard.  Next time I rolled the ball a much shorter distance, and Paco went after it.

I did not expect him to bring it back and drop it at my feet.  Turns out, that was not the way HE liked to play fetch.  This was his game.  Paco enjoyed chasing the ball and making it squeak.  He learned to love chasing a frisbee and plush toys, embellishing the game with a “shake and kill” move.   

Tug – Paco’s Way

The first time I wiggled a tug toy in front of Paco, he blinked his eyes and moved his head back.   Again, he did not know what I wanted him to do.  Next, I tried dragging the tug toy along the ground.  Paco was interested in it, but still not grabbing it with his mouth. 

Wiggling the tug toy on the ground AND squeaking it finally resulted in success.  At first, he let go as soon as I started to pull.  It took a bit of practice, increasing the tug time as he learned that this was the game.  Paco liked to tug, but his ultimate enjoyment was to “shake and kill”. 

Paco always told me his play style and preferences.  It was on me to observe and make it a fun cooperation.  This may mean putting aside old notions and expectations of what dog play should look like.  It SHOULD look like joy for the dog and the human.

I miss the joy of Paco’s company.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2020 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC