Written by Angelica Steinker, M.Ed., CAP2, CDBC

Dog’s smile. 

Just like people, dogs pull the corners of their mouths up high toward their eyes, partially open their mouths, and smile.  Darwin wrote of the universality of facial expressions in 1872 in his book The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals.  Roughly 130 years later, Dr. Patricia McConnell authored For the Love of a Dog in which she compares human and dog facial expressions using the methods developed by the world’s leading scientist on the topic, Paul Ekman.  The truth is out - dogs smile.

A century ago Darwin observed what dog lovers have always known, dogs feel and express emotions.  Clicker training is about teaching and learning, using scientific principles, and minimizing stress.   Clicker trained dogs love learning.  Play is impulsive, creative, free, and fun.  Play is a powerful way to improve your reinforcement history, your bond with your dog.  Clicker training and play combined can yield powerful results in behavior modification and dog sports training.  The super power of play isn’t always easy to access.  Some dogs require many months of fun investigation.  In the interest of time, I offer you some short cuts: terriers and sighthounds love it when you drag things on the ground by a rope (think rodent or bunny imitation).  Retrievers, um, generally love to retrieve and so do many herding and sporting breeds.  Many dogs love a good game of tug.


Getting your dog to start playing with you will likely take time - much more time than giving your dog a slice of hot dog, but the dividends of play will be well worth the investment in time.


Play is incompatible with stress

If a dog is stressed, she can’t play.  It is simply impossible to be having a good time while being horribly upset or afraid.  In this sense you can use play as a reinforcer to help both prompt a happy emotional state or to strengthen an already existing link between a given activity and joy!  Play can also function as a gauge to inform you regarding your dog’s emotional state. If your dog is unable to play, your dog may be unable to perform.  Establish the source of stress and help your dog avoid or minimize contact.  You can even use the play to help your dog gradually become accustomed to the source of stress via systematic desensitization.


Play can be varied

If your dog gets bored easily (Bella, my Papillion, is like this), play enables you to offer your dog a huge variety of reinforcers.  You can play a game with a toy, you can play a game with a piece of food, or you can play a game with your hand, moving it about or playfully pinching your dog.  Bella likes me to vary toys.  Take note of what your dog likes and rank your dog’s games just as you would using food reinforcers: a mildly amusing game gets a low score and the mind blowing “I will do anything to get you to play this one with me” gets the highest score.  This is not just to prevent boredom, but also to enable you to present your dog with a highly valued game for a challenging exercise.


Play can last as long as you want

A really cool advantage to play is that you can make it last as long as you need it to last.  If you really want to make a huge deal about your dog’s genius response in your shaping exercise, you can cue her to play a game of chase that may last for many minutes.  A fellow clicker trainer sends her dog, who loves to run, out to run around a huge clump of landscaping as a reinforcer for something done particularly well. It takes her dog two minutes to run around the clump at top speed.


Play won’t fill your dog up

No matter how many times you click and play, your dog won’t fill up.  Well, that is if you are using toys or other games that don’t use food.  But even if you use food for play, a cheese stick makes for a great toy and, since your dog is playing while eating, the dog will eat less and fill up more slowly.


Play prompts playful behavior

In dog sports we say that a dog who smiles and joyfully engages in an activity has great attitude.  Play can help you prompt that happy attitude.  When you click and play, the activity you and your dog are engaging in becomes linked with the play via classical conditioning.  The act of engaging in the dog sport or training activity comes to predict play.  So the dog can’t help smiling in anticipation of the click and play.


Play is always with you

No matter where you are, you can always play.  Truth be known, I have used my baseball cap as a toy and once, when I was completely desperate, I used my shoe. In both cases the play sessions were successful.


Play is creative

It can trigger innovation and is inspirational to both you and your dog.  When it comes to play, there are no rules and you can be as creative as you want.  Anything can become a toy and develop a personality.  Some of my dog’s toys have evil personalities and need to be “killed” by being tossed and shaken. Other toys are sneaky and mischievous.  Giving toys personalities and inventing stories as part of play is all part of the fun.


Play can prompt a higher arousal state

If you give your dog a treat, depending on the dog, this may not be terribly exciting.  Playing tug or apprehending a toy attempting to flee can be more exciting.  You can then use this heightened arousal to proof your cues.  Ask the dog questions such as, “Can you still do sit even though you just apprehended the evil tug toy?”  If the dog says yes, by sitting, click and play another round of “apprehending the evil toy.”  If the dog says no, player a lower key game or go back to using food and ask again.  Increase the dog’s arousal level gradually setting her up for success.


Precision and play

Play reinforcers are just like food reinforcers in the sense that they increase the likelihood of the clicked behavior reoccurring.  It does not matter if you are working on heeling or coming when called.  What does matter is where you place the reinforcer.  If you are clicking the dog for perfect heel position, but then toss your reinforcer out ahead of both you and the dog, you will likely prompt forging.  Instead, toss the toy to the dog’s mouth and then initiate one of the dog’s favorite games.

Play is happiness

Learning to play can take time for both you and your dog.  The time invested will pay happiness dividends, the best currency in the world.  Click and play, experience the joy and the power.

Angelica Steinker, M.Ed., CCBC owns and operates Courteous Canine, In and The DogSmith Tampa.  She is the author of the books “Play Training Agility: A Clicker Trainers Guide” and “Agility Success.”  Angelica is also the Director of Training for The Dogsmith,www.DogSmith.com.   She can be contacted at www.CourteousCanine.com