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Psychology Of Play In Puppy Training

When we talk about puppy obedience training classes, what’s your first end goal that comes to mind?  Socialization?  Having a puppy with good manners?

Of course these are massively important goals, but just because we want to feel under control with our puppy in social settings, doesn’t mean that the training needs to be formal and strict.

On the contrary, sometimes starting your training by teaching your puppy to play with you first can have unexpected positive effects on your overall puppy training results.

Care to know why?

First off, play is fun.  Ever wonder why kids can play hours and hours in games like soccer or basketball but have the hardest time concentrating and focusing on math lessons in the classroom?  

That’s because all the learning they’re doing in these games is coming from play.  It’s fun, and so it becomes addictive.  Before you protest, hear me out.  Yes, even games can teach you something: timing, coordination, patience and persistence, teamwork, and developing concentration and focus.  

What makes this even more fun is that every challenge you overcome is met with some sort of celebration - a badge or trophy is granted, you celebrate winning the game.  

On the contrary, sitting in a classroom and focusing on numbers in front of you can feel stagnant and boring.  There’s little to no celebration for every math problem that you solve.  On top of that, you don’t have the freedom to move around and expend some physical energy.  Understandably many kids can find this kind of learning boring and frustrating to sit through.

Your puppy is no different.  Getting them to sit still, be calm, and focus for long periods of time will bring you just about as much success as you would to get a 3 year old to sit still, be calm, and remain well mannered at her grannie’s 3 hour luncheon.  

So what if there was a different way to do this?  It’s what I’ve learned in raising my puppies for sport work.  In competitive training, I want my dogs to be flashy.  That means that I want super twitchy, fast and intense movements that can give me military sharpness and precision.  That energy comes from teaching all their foundational skills in play.

But here’s the cool side benefits that I’ve experienced from raising my puppies this way:

  1.  My puppy thinks I’m hella fun.  Every time I take her out for exercise, it’s fun and games with me.  And because they’re games we both enjoy, it’s easy to ignore anything around us because we’re so engrossed in game together.

  2. My puppy neutralizes to the environment around her.  While she’s friendly and social, her main preference is to engage with me.  In fact, her first exposures with other people and dogs is playing with me.  While she likes interactions with them, that falls a distant second to our games.  Over time, she values their presence about as much as she values a piece of furniture sitting in my living room.

  3. She develops confidence in new situations.  Because play releases dopamine (happy endorphins) in the brain, anytime I bring him into new situations and the first thing we do is play, she learns to associate anything new with good experiences, and so he develops confidence no matter where I take him.

  1. The focus and concentration is unreal.  Play is fun.  And when he understands the rules of the game, it takes all his concentration and focus to win.  Like kids in a basketball game, I can hone and develop his focus because there are constantly changing dynamics he has to look for.  A side bonus?  Your puppy doesn’t think to run away from you or drag you on the leash to investigate the outside environment.  There’s no need to.  It’s something you can take for granted in your puppy training because all the fun happens with you.

  2. My puppy learns emotional regulation.  The right types of games will teach your puppy how to go from super excited to super calm and relaxed.  She’ll feel much more fulfilled in her relationship with you because she gets to share both sides of herself with you.  Because you’re giving her outlets for both, you get to share many more life experiences with her. The puppies that I find struggle the most are the ones who belong to owners who never play with their puppies and focus too much on control. 

  3. My puppy learns rules and boundaries.  The games I play with my puppy that enhance the training will also teach clear rules and boundaries.  You both share an inherent understanding: neither of you are to violate those rules during game play.

  4. She doesn’t think to get into naughty behaviours.  Most problem behaviours like destructive chewing, excessive barking, stealing or digging comes from a place of boredom.  Because she puts so much energy into playing with me, she doesn’t have energy to put into mischievous behaviours like these. 

See how a little effort put into learning how to play with your puppy can improve your puppy training?  The next time you bring your puppy out - try integrating more play and games into your training and walks and let us know how this affects your puppy’s behaviour.

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