When you think of group dog training classes, you may think of rigid and strict training structures.  However, as science continues to teach us more about canine behavior and learning processes, we’ve come to realize the importance of play in the training arena.  More and more modern dog trainers now include play-breaks as part of their puppy and adult class curriculum.  Play sessions can help you achieve your desired training goals by improving your dog’s focus and teaching him/her the all-important concept of self-control. 

What Is Play?

Play is the act of having fun! For dogs, play can encompass a number of activities.  A dog that starts a game of tug with its owner is engaging in play. Catching a frisbee, running around in a playpen, or playing fetch are also versions of play.  As each dog is an individual, their preferred play style will vary.  Less social dogs may enjoy one-on-one games with their owners, while more social dogs may enjoy a group play sessions with other dogs.  Play provides creative outlets for your dog to use their brain.  Add in a puzzle toy or Kong filled with food to exercise your dog’s brain while he has fun!

How Can Play Help With Training?

Learning new things can be challenging, regardless of species.  Modern puppy classes offer younger pups a chance to learn vital social skills and bite inhibition thru off-leash play with age-appropriate playmates.  And many adult group classes offer regular breaks to give dogs time to unwind and enjoy bonding their humans thru play sessions.  The act of play can simply be a well-deserved break from training or serve as a powerful reinforcement for a job well done.  And in training, the more potent your rewards, the more likely good behavior is to repeat.  While it may seem counterproductive, adding short play breaks into your training sessions can help improve focus and, when incorporated properly, can provide your dog with frequent opportunities to practice impulse control.

Ways to Add Play Into Your Training Routine

To get the most out of your training play-breaks, give your dog the break while he/she is still successful, rather than waiting until your dog looses interest or focus.  For added training impact, use the start and end of a game of fetch, tug or chase the flirt pole to teach your dog self-control.  In the name of good manners, your dog should be expected to wait politely for play to begin when prompted by you, rather than grabbing the toy at first sight, jumping up or demand barking.  Start easy by cuing “SIT”, then “OK” to begin the game.  Likewise, your dog should end the play session when signaled by you.  A simple treat trade for the toy will usually suffice in teaching your dog to end the game at your say so.  My visual cue to end play is a closed fist and the words “all done” – my dog sniffs my fist and that’s that.  Once the play session is over, you can resume training or end the session there.   

While all dog training should be enjoyable and engaging for you and your dog, play sessions serves as a powerful reinforcement for most dogs and is easy to incorporate into your training regimen.  The benefits of better focus and self-control are your rewards for a job well done! 

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