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Making a serious or fearful dog comfortable enough to play is the goal of so many humans of dogs. We want our dogs to be happy, to experience joy, to be a dog! But what if they don’t have much dogness about them? What if they are anxious? How do you get your dog to relax and play? How do you teach a dog to play with toys?

The answer is mostly about patience, time, and letting your dog explore their own instincts for play. You don’t really teach a dog to play with toys, but show them how to be the dog they are. But let’s first look at the question about a recently rescued dog:

The question: how do I teach a dog to play with toys?

My dog has little or no interest in toys. She looks at them, she watches hubby and me play with them. She will watch a ball roll by her, she will watch as we roll the ball back and forth. She will sniff it if we put a toy by her, but that’s about it. She watches as we squeak it, stares at it, she bit into a squeaky and was surprised when it squeaked. She chewed it for about 10 seconds and gave up. I was wondering if anybody has tried those toys that move by themselves, or makes sounds themselves. What did your dog do with them? How did it work out?

It just breaks my heart that she hasn’t realized that life is FUN. She just cannot grasp the concept of fun. She has no idea that fun is something she gets to have too! It’s as if she feels that she can only watch others enjoy life but she can’t participate. When I see other little dogs play bow to her and she doesn’t know what to do I just want to cry. How can I help her?

BTW, I take her to the pet supply stores at least 3 times a week if not more often. She gets to meet other dog loving people who understand her. People who work there, visit there, are very pro rescues and go out of their way to help socialize her. She is fascinated by the small animals and birds.

This question first appeared on the Pet360 Community Forums, and has been edited slightly for brevity.

My response: time, patience and comfort will allow your dog to shine. And perhaps play.

I think you’re doing the right things, and it will come with time and “the right dog/toy”. You could try some of the interactive ones (tugs) or motion/sound (although some dogs are more frightened by them). She might like a flirt pole with the interest in animals (the link there contains a DIY, but you can also buy them).

I remember one of my dogs Tig’s foster saying that she found a squeaker and was having fun. I think I bought every single squeaky toy sold in the area, and she didn’t play with any of them. I think it could have been the foster had a dozen dogs in the house, and Tig probably felt like the focus wasn’t on her and she could blend in and play. However, in our house Tig was the only dog when we adopted her, and it took her time to feel comfortable enough to “be a dog” – 8 months for us.

Anyway, the only toy she has ever been interested in is a “flirt pole” (above), or stealing a toy our other dog wants. And that’s only because he wants it, not because she wants to play with it. This is her kind of game with him, because it really gets him going! In turn, he will drag her around by her tail to get her going. They are quite a pair!

The other thing though is – Tig is just a very serious dog. She’s a girl, and this is quite common amongst female dogs. They’re the “moms”, providers, etc – life can be serious business, instincts wise. Of course there are lots of playful girl dogs, it’s just a stats thing.

That said, our girl does let her guard down and does play – it just takes the right comfort level to strike, and the right scenario. She has to be very comfortable and relaxed, and have the right playmate (sometimes our other dog, and sometimes in a blue moon a dog she meets). And even though she doesn’t play much, she loves life. She’s my right hip dog. She’s happy on the couch, by my chair, shadowing me. Joy when I get home. Joy just trotting behind me on a walk and looking at those squirrels. I think if she knew English she might say “I’m happy just being at your hip, I don’t need to play. Playing is for that crazy boy terrier mix we got!” :)

Here’s a photo of when she let her guard down with a dog at the beach. This will happen only once or twice per year. But when it does happen, boy is it worth it. And it’s completely up to her (don’t get me started at the string of dogs we introduced her to at the shelter – we were super lucky to find one to her “liking” – she’s polite and respects every dog we meet, but interest and a wagging tail? We hit the jackpot with Mort).

Tig the English Shepherd plays with a corgi dog.

Tig met a corgi. They sniffed each other, and then this happened! She’ll politely sniff hundreds of dogs before one is correct for play!

And here’s a video playing with our other dog – as mentioned earlier, she likes toys only when she’s trying to get it away from the other dog (this is pretty “rude” in a dog sense, but often –as in this case– it’s OK if they live together as the dogs will have a deep understanding of what’s acceptable in this special scenario). Jealousy is quite a thing in dog-world, and can actually be used very effectively for some forms of training! Sometimes just taking a toy away and making it seem super interesting (as Mort is doing below) makes a dog interested in that object.

And here’s the game we figured out she liked – this took a lot of experimentation to figure out “crab hands” got her going… it still does many years later. She prefers to play with us to this day, not a toy.

And she’s a real serious girl. But it took a lot of time to get there, and simply a lot of experimentation and carefully watching her comfort level and interest. Not to say at all that your dog will be like this too, but that some dogs tend to be serious more often than not. Some dogs just take time to relax and will be playful. Some dogs are very picky at who is a playmate.

Don’t get frustrated – your dog is where she needs to be today, loved and protected. Getting a dog to play is way more about patience than “doing”. Play is one of those things that can’t be forced too much. Keep testing and taking it slow, casually introduce her to a variety of dogs at her pace, and your dog will develop into the dog she is… her dogness will shine no matter what.

Other notes and your turn!

There are many other ways to try and get a dog to be interested in play. As alluded to in the response, you can try making your dog a bit “jealous” by acting very interested in an object while playing “keep away”. You can roll up treats in a newspaper and bat it around like a cat toy. You can use toys that you stuff with food (Tig actually does love these!). Or, like crab hands, you can act excited and run around like a crazy person and often your dog will join in. And of course, you can train a fetch, although I usually wonder what the point is unless the dog actually wants to do this or you want to exercise your throwing arm.

Toys should contain food

What advice would you give for a serious or shy dog and play? Have you tried a recipe that you find works well? A tip for instigating play?

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • Great information! When I was volunteering at the local rescues dog training class the question about “my dog doesn’t play” came up often. I think you are right on with experimentation and patience. On thing we would often demonstrate is to start by training your dog to fetch or tug. Use classic reward based reinforcement to start and then the dogs would often start to see the joy in the game itself.

    • Tig almost got there with tug, but alas it didn\’t work with her. It certainly did with Mort – he was only a little toy interested when he came to us, and that reinforcement turned into… well… the love of his life :)

  • This is a very useful article for dog owners. From our experience, there are some dogs that can’t be convinced to play no matter what. Let’s say they’re like those people that don’t want to interact with others – they have a different personality and that’s all. After you try everything and they still don’t want to play, it’s better to let them be.