Play hard, play fair, nobody hurt

This post is being written in conjunction with the Never Shock A Puppy Campaign.

When I got out of university and participated in a year long outdoor leadership program playing New Games was all the rage. The motto of New Games is ‘Play hard, play fair, nobody hurt’. Games are designed so that people play with each other, not against each other. There is still plenty of action and consequences for being tagged, or caught out, but this usually means your role changes and doesn’t mean you can’t play anymore. We learned to use them with groups ranging from young children to corporate executives. I was not surprised that one of the games is played by dog trainers to help both trainers and owners to better understand their dogs.

The ‘modeling clay’ game goes like this-One or two people (the players) leave the room while the rest of the group comes up with a behavior, pose or action, they want the players to perform. When the players return to the room they are given only one piece of information; they are told ‘yes!’ when anything they do is close to what the group has decided they want from them. Clicker trainers will ‘mark’ any behavior that leads to the correct behavior with a click. It seems easy enough until you are one of the players trying to figure out even simple behaviors; stand and raise one foot. There tends to be lots of experimenting with movements and you can watch the wheels turn in players’ brains as they try to sort out which are earning them a ‘yes!’.

I have tweaked this game a bit by only marking inappropriate behaviors with a ‘no!’, just so pet owners can experience the results first hand. If you are playing this game and trying to figure out what to do by being told all the things you are doing wrong, it quickly becomes frustrating. Only the most committed players stick with it, shy, timid or reluctant players rarely get far. What you tend to see is lots of stillness broken up by deliberate movements; raise arm, ‘no’, raise other arm, ‘no’, turn head left, ‘no’. It’s not a very fun way to learn and the folks determining correct behaviors soon tire of the game themselves, they want to see the players succeed.

It’s not unusual for players to give up and stop. Herein lies the problem for pet owners. A dog that gives up trying to figure out what their owner wants of them may actually be behaving in a more acceptable way than they were. This is not a big problem if the only thing their owner wants of them is to have them sit down, lie down or stand still. Indeed most pet owners would be happy if their dogs performed these few behaviors on cue. But the behaviors that get oohs and aahs and compliments of ‘what a smart dog!’ are behaviors which were learned because the dog figured out what was wanted of them, or were shown what they needed to do and were rewarded for it, not because they gave up trying.

Dogs in general like to be able to predict outcomes. Not surprising, so do we. Scared dogs especially do better when they can predict what is going to happen next in their world. As obvious as something might be to us, it’s not fair and often not correct to assume that it’s also obvious to our dogs. Make the unpredictable thing unpleasant, scary or painful and you up the anxiety level of an already anxious dog. Until the dog is able to learn to predict what precedes the unpleasantness, and even then, their overall anxiety can increase. And since life is not a laboratory, what predicts the unpleasantness may not end up being the behavior you are focusing on but rather something else in their environment, something you may not be aware of or have control over. Heck it might even end up being you!

Fearful dogs have brains that are very efficient at being scared or feeling bad. Giving a fearful dog ANY reason to be scared or anxious just adds to this proficiency. Training methods that hurt or startle a dog can add to the already overloaded baggage these dogs are carrying around with them. If you’re frustrated or not sure how to change your fearful dog’s behavior find a trainer who plays hard, fair and doesn’t hurt.

Please visit the Never Shock a Puppy Donation Site.


14 comments so far

  1. Jim Stay on

    Hi Debbie,

    This is your best piece yet. It says so much about the nature of our proper relationship with dogs. Of course it’s more important with our “scaredy dogs”, but it applies to all.

    Do you know Alexandra Semyonova ? You should. Go to

    It’s not light reading, but I think you’ll love it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Well thanks Jim, nice of you to bother saying so. I am familiar with but others may not be so thanks for sharing.

  2. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    I love this post, Debbie. Thanks so very much. I didn’t realize there were people versions of this “game” to shape behavior and build teamwork.

    We are so happy to have you in our Never Shock a Puppy coalition. Cannot wait to see you in the flesh next week at BlogPaws West!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m happy to be connected with so many fine trainers, writers and dog lovers! Thanks Roxanne.

  3. Jen on

    I love the idea of giving people firsthand experience of what our dogs go through trying to decipher our too-often cryptic training commands. What a great way to convey the frustration our poor pups must experience – and an equally great illustration of just how effective positive training can be. Thanks for another wonderfully informative post!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Jen, I appreciate it. Wish I could get up to Maine for some hiking with my dogs!

  4. Allie on

    I am a huge fan! Your resources have really helped me a lot.

    The google ads on this page are really unfortunate though –

    “(Stop) Any Aggressive Dog
    Use Dog Whispering For Amazingly Fast Results – Any Aggressive Dog!”

    Hopefully anyone who comes here is wise enough not to be led astray. You can cost them money by clicking, but that will make them advertise here more.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting Allie. You are right about the ads. I’m not sure if I can filter them on this version of WordPress. I have done it on my own website (not a WordPress site) and one day I hope to go to a different format so I have more control over stuff like that. But I’m glad you brought it up. I’m going to see if I can get any info about filtering those ads.

  5. Edie on

    What a great exercise! I think we should all try it at BlogPaws (my segue into mentioning that I’m very excited that I will get to meet you there).

    FWIW, I don’t see an ads on this site, offensive or otherwise. I don’t know if you managed to get rid of them or your site decided I’m not adworthy.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hey if you have figured out how to not adworthy please share your secret! You could probably place ads for it.

      I’m also very excited to meet you and will be bringing a little something for Frankie.

  6. melfr99 on

    Great post Deb! I played this game at the shelter as part of our STAR program and again when I took Jasper for Better Dog 1 training. It never fails to open my eyes to my own human impatience each time I participate in it.

    However, I have never understood why we humans need to use pain or force to get a dog to do what we want. I look at that as both the easy and hard way out. Shock a dog to get what we want “right now” and pay the price later when the dog becomes more fearful.

    Dogs are like puzzles to me. I want to know what helps them move forward and causes them to step back. I want to know what their motivators are and how I can use them to help us both get what we want. Maybe that’s why I love fearful dogs. They are a puzzle within a puzzle – pain and fear are not things I want to add to the mix.

  7. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    Once again, I love the way you put us in the shoes of the dog. Your ability to help understand how difficult it can be to be on the dog’s side of the conversation is just fantastic. Thanks again for the insight! And we’re looking forward to meeting in Denver.

  8. Shiloh on

    One should ask one’s self: “Would I do this to myself.” The world would be a better place w/just a little thought.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yup. ‘Do unto others’ and the ‘others’ who are the less able to protect themselves should be the most protected IHMO.

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