Training and Play

by Michael Baugh

Here’s my dark little secret. I don’t always want to train my dogs. Yeah sure, I’m a professional trainer, and I love helping my clients with their dogs, but when it comes down to training my own, I’m like most dog owners. Training feels like a chore I’d rather avoid.

Playing with my dog is another story. My dog, Stella, is a comedian. She loves to play, and I love it too. Problem solved. You see, it’s easy to combine learning and play. In fact, we now know that the parts of a dog’s brain associated with learning are closely related with the pleasure center in their brain. Reinforcing behavior with good stuff like play or food is a supercharged win for the dog (and for us). The dog is learning and having fun at the same time, which is a perfect fit for how their brain was designed.

Most of Stella’s training happens at playtime. She and I appear on FOX 26 Morning News in Houston every week. There’s a lot of waiting backstage, so we play and learn. Every once in a while Stella improvises a new trick, and I hoot and holler and pull out a new toy to play with. We go on and on like that until someone tells us to be quiet, or that it’s our time to go on the air.

The two rules for integrating learning and play are simple:

  1. Have fun! In truth, that’s the main rule, but the second one helps too.
  2. Trade play for your dog’s good behavior. It’s all about deal making. If Stella does the right thing like holding a stay, then I throw her big KONG Bounzer (pictured above).

Notice the “if-then” statement in the second rule. Stella and I are all about the “if-then.” If you come to me, then you get a snack. If you drop the tug toy, then you get to play tug again. If you hold a down-stay, then you get to dive in the pool for your KONG Aqua.

The learning will come fast and furious because it’s all fun and games. Stella can’t get enough of it, and the truth is, neither can I. And that’s not a secret at all.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas and is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge & Skills Assessed (CPDT-KSA). Stella is a 3 ½ year old retriever mix who lived for a short while at the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).