A Plug for Play

Apr 2, 2018 | Animal Behavior, Pet Guardians, Training

By Julie Naismith

Just like humans, dogs need play time too. And one of the many beautiful things having dogs has taught me is that you’re never too old to play.

You might be asking: “But, where does play fit into separation anxiety training?”

I am all about fixing separation anxiety dogs, I am also passionate about encouraging them to play too. Working with an anxious dog is about more than tackling the causes of anxiety. The richer a dog’s life, the more productive anxiety training becomes.

Enrichment doesn’t fix separation anxiety, but it’s part of the training package. There is little that compares to play as a source of enrichment. Play engages the dog’s brain and spends the dog’s energy. Anyone who’s owned a puppy will recognize the play-sleep-eat-play-sleep-eat cycle. There’s no sleep quite like the deep sleep of a youngster exhausted from play.

Play is exhausting and it’s not just for puppies


A lifetime of play

What’s unusual about our pet dogs, when compared to other animals, is that it’s not just puppies that play. Adult dogs play too, and this fact sets them apart from other species. Maybe that’s another reason we love dogs so much: just like us, play doesn’t stop when they grow up.

As we’ve all seen, adults and puppies play socially with other dogs and with humans, and also on their own with objects. However, as dogs get older, they get more selective about who they play with, and they play with other dogs less frequently. It’s a bit like us. When we were five, we were friends with nearly everyone else in class. Now, we have a smaller number of friends, see them less often, and don’t typically run around the playground with them on a daily basis.

So, as dogs age, the nature of their play changes. But, the spirit of play remains throughout their life.

Old dogs, new games

You may have experienced going to the dog park only to see your once-playful dog snark off a former puppy playmate. Or you may have a ball-obsessed dog who has no interest in other dogs. You might have even used the usual excuse: “Sorry, he’s dull. He doesn’t like to play with other dogs anymore.”

But, just because older dogs play less than puppies doesn’t make play any less important. Getting a puppy to play is easy, but getting an older dog to play can take work, which is perhaps why it doesn’t happen as much as it should.

With a little effort, you can encourage your older dog to play.

He’s not interested in toys

The ball-obsessed pups are luckier than their peers—they’ve discovered their passion early on in life. Like the squirrel chasers or the swimmers, they’ve found an outlet for their adult playfulness.

But, what are the options for the dog who’s decided play with other dogs is “so last year,” or who has zero interest in toys? Well, here’s the thing, while some dogs take to chasing stuffed ducks like a duck to water, others may need to be coaxed to play with toys.

Given a little encouragement, lots of dogs can become tug maniacs, and a great many will enjoy getting stuck into a good food puzzle if food is more their thing than toys.

You can read more about play and dog toys in different blogs posted during the Academy for Dog Trainers Play Week, but I wanted to put in a word for my favourite dog toy, the flirt pole.

The homemade toy that dogs go crazy for

The flirt pole is a versatile toy that keeps chasers, tuggers, stalkers and chewers alike entertained. It’s excellent for use in a confined space, either indoors or outdoors. This makes it an ideal exercise option when it’s either too hot or too cold to go out.

It’s a fabulous alternative to off-leash play for dogs who might be staying away from the park. And it wears out a dog like nothing you can imagine if you’ve never used one. You’ll be delighted by how tired a dog gets after even 10 minutes of flirt pole play.

Another thing I love about the flirt pole is that it’s easy and cheap to make at home.

Your dog might not take to the flirt pole instantly. If he or she isn’t keen, try tying a squeaky toy to the pole, or a sock filled with treats. And start with tiny flirts in front of his nose.

If you have a squirrel chaser, you’ll have the opposite problem – your dog might love it so much you can’t get him to stop. But, that just means a tired and happy dog at the end of it.

But won’t tugging and chasing make him aggressive?

I understand your concern, and I used to buy into the idea that playing tug-of-war would be ruinous and lead to a “dominant” dog, plotting world supremacy. But the thing is, tugging is a normal part of play. It’s the dog pretending to dissect prey, the keyword here being “pretend”.


And no, it’s not just big “bully” types who love to tug. All sorts of dogs can become tug maniacs, especially when the flirt pole is involved. My soft, fluffy cockapoos are great examples of dogs least likely to love tug-of-war. Though, maybe they are in training for world domination. One never knows.

All that said, if the flirt pole is not for your dog, then check out some other ideas from Lori Nanan at Your Pitbull and You, and Jessica Ring from My Fantastic Friend.

Let’s play!

One last plug for playing with your anxious dog is, it’s fun! It can be draining dealing with a dog you can’t leave, and that can test your bond with him. But, playing with your dog is a delightful connection and a beautiful reminder that it’s not all doom and gloom with a separation anxiety dog.

What are your tips for getting a dog to play? Share your comments below.

About the Author

Julie Naismith is CEO and Founder of SubThreshold™ and a self-confessed separation anxiety geek. When her dog, Percy, developed separation anxiety she became a woman on a mission – determined to cut through the swathes of incorrect advice to find how to fix it. Having successfully resolved his separation anxiety, with little support and lots of judgment, she founded SubThreshold Training™ with the vision of pioneering treatment for separation anxiety.

Prior to SubThreshold, she apprenticed with one of the world’s leading force-free, evidence-based trainers, Jean Donaldson. She graduated with honors from Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers (CTC) and is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) having studied with leading expert Malena DeMartini’s separation anxiety program. Naismith works solely with separation anxiety cases, making her a true specialist in the field. She is also a member of PPG’s Shelter and Rescue Division.