Teaching A Dog To Play

Sunny making up with Derby

One of the search terms that landed a reader on the Fearful Dog’s blog was ‘how do I teach my shy dog to play with other dogs?’ Owners often want to give their dogs the opportunity to play with other dogs, which for a dog that enjoys playing with other dogs, is a kind and reasonable thing to do. But for many dogs, playing with other dogs is not their definition of a good time.

To answer the question though, the best way to teach a shy dog to play with another dog is to find a playful, socially adept, non-threatening dog to give the lessons. Watching dogs play is fun and an easy way to get them exercised, but if a dog is afraid of other dogs, is an older dog, or never had the chance to play with other dogs, it might be simpler and less stressful to all involved to find other ways to play. Dogs don’t have to play with other dogs to get along with them or feel comfortable with them.

We say ‘different strokes for different folks’ and the same is true for dogs. My shy dog Sunny grew up in a pen with other dogs, he is a playing fool and adapts his style of play to suit his playmate. I’ve watched him play with Italian Greyhounds and Great Pyrenees (not at the same time!). The newest addition to our household, a five year old female Cocker Spaniel, appears to try to engage dogs with playful intent but it’s too aggressive for most and usually backfires. I actively discourage her from trying to play with other dogs, and she’s fine with this because her attempts often end badly for both dogs. Perhaps there’s a dog out there that would be a good match for her, but I’ve yet to find one. In the meantime she’s content to go for runs in the woods with other dogs, chase balls and gnaw on stuffed toys. I don’t think she suffers from the lack of dog play at this point in her life, though earlier experience with a well mannered player might have made her better at it.

Rough and tumble play between dogs is important for social development but not if a dog is uncomfortable with it or becomes too aroused by it. If you’re not sure what is appropriate and fun play between dogs find a trainer who can help you learn. If your dog doesn’t want to play with other dogs, don’t worry about. Try to find ways that you can become your dog’s favorite playmate.


10 comments so far

  1. ryerecordsports on


    Just wondering what kind of mix Derby is (or at least what kind you THINK it is, haha), because my wife and I adopted a dog — Bonnie — that looks almost exactly the same! We’ve heard everyone’s input on it, and our best guess is some type of lab/beagle mix.

    Our Bonnie looks nearly identical to the dog in the picture, except she has white feet and some white on her chest. But she has that same build, most noticably in the skinny but muscly legs.


    • fearfuldogs on

      Good question! My only guess is there is some kind of terrier in there, based on his attitude! Min pin? Italian Greyhound?

  2. Heather on

    I just adopted a fearful dog and all she will do is sit in the corner. She is very scared of people. Should I keep her out of the corner and close to me or wait and let her come out on her own?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Think of it this way-if you were terrified of snakes would you feel better having a place where you didn’t have snakes near you 24/7 or being forced to sit with one all day? I’m going to assume your answer would be the former.

      Give her a safe place to ‘hide’, put a crate in the corner or move her to a back room. The stress of being afraid all day is not a good thing for a dog. Talk to a vet about anti-anxiety and behavioral meds that will help lower her anxiety level, it’s not easy to learn anything when you’re stressed and scared. Find a trainer that uses positive reinforcement training techniques or is a clicker trainer. Find someone with experience dealing with fearful dogs. Forcing a scared dog to deal with things that scare them is called ‘flooding’ and can make their behavior problems worse.

      Please have a read through the fearfuldogs.com website. I know there is a lot of content to read online but I address this very question when I talk about my experience with my own fearful dog who I wish I had given a more secure place early in his time with us.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Please have a look at the January post titled

      Pay Attention

  3. Heather on

    There are so many conflicting theories on how to handle a fearful dog- its tough to know what to do. If we leave her in the corner, will she ever come out? How long will it take for her to want to be with us? This is is something we did not expect and feels like a lot to take in.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The reason I created the fearfuldogs.com website and fearful dog blog was to give folks like you the most up to date, effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs. There are videos, a list of trainers, and a book list.

      You are correct in that it is a lot to take on, and it is frustrating that dogs like yours are adopted out to unsuspecting owners. Have you spoken with them about the dog?

      That said, if you want to give it a try and see how she does in the next few weeks, that will give you an idea of what the future might hold.

      Dogs like this do not just ‘come around’, snap out of it, or suddenly become totally cool with life. I don’t know this dog so can’t say with any certainty what you can expect, but the methods and techniques I write about are appropriate for any fearful dog. The not so bad off dogs will show progress faster and the seriously damaged dogs will not progress as quickly but you will not have to worry about making their behavior worse. A fearful dog is a short step away from becoming an aggressive dog if not handled properly.

      Read the January post called Pay Attention, it is about just the situation you are in. Remember that your dog’s problem is in its brain, in order to change its behavior you have to change its emotional response to things and that doesn’t happen quickly in many cases. Check out the shyk9 group on yahoo.

  4. Tracey on

    I just recently adopted a senior beagle. Before she joined my family, it was just me and my other (slightly younger) senior beagle rescue. Winchester (the younger guy) plays like it’s his job. Charlotte, on the other hand, from what i can tell has no idea how to play. She and Winchester are usually ok as long as he is not playing, but the minute he comes to her with a toy or tries to engage her in play, or if she has a toy near her, she flips out on him. (As if she is protecting the item). How do I get her to learn that he is not a threat, and that playing is a fun thing that she might actually enjoy?

  5. dog socialization on

    this stuff just takes time. i eventually was able to get my shy dog a bit more social, but it took many months

    • fearfuldogs on

      It often takes more than time, but it’s good to give it the time.

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