Play is important for all dogs and has an important role in service dog care and training too. Play is an opportunity for physical and mental exercise, can reduce stress, and support the relationship between the owner and the dog. Trainers can use play to reward dogs for desired behavior as well as build a service dog candidate’s confidence in new environments.
Additionally, trainers can use play to help with task training. Many service dogs retrieve, pull and give items to other people as part of their work. Service dog candidate puppies can be introduced to some of the cues for these behaviors informally, while they are playing. I introduce cues with my dogs while playing by saying the cues while the puppy is performing the behavior in play. I re-introduce the cues when I later train the behaviors in a more structured context. While, I can’t say for certain that this always speeds up training, I have had some dogs who appeared to require very little formal training for some tasks I previously introduced in play.
Keep your training goals in mind when playing with service dog candidate pups. For instance, if you will need the dog to deliver items to a person’s hand as part of a service dog task, encourage the puppy to place toys in your hand when playing fetch. Help the puppy become comfortable putting items of different materials in his or her mouth by playing with toys of various materials.
Teaching Play Manners
A young dog’s excited behavior in play can sometimes be difficult for a person with a disability to safely manage. Rules for safe games need to be established at the outset. I simply stop the game if the dog engages in an unwanted behavior like jumping or mouthing, wait for a few seconds and then try again. If a dog is very excitable, using a leash or tether can help manage the dog more safely. Show the owner how to move away from the dog if the dog jumps, wait for a desired behavior like “four on the floor,” and then move closer to resume the game. Teaching the dog to respond to cues to sit or down during excited play is important.
A simple but important behavior is for dog to drop a toy on cue. One way to train this behavior is by saying the cue “drop” and then immediately tossing a different toy or treats on the ground. Dogs quickly learn to drop what is in their mouths and start to look for the new toy or treats.
Accommodating Play Strategies
For people with mobility limitations, it can be difficult to move quickly enough to trigger playful behavior. It can also be difficult for the client to hold the toy. Larger-sized soft toys are often easier to for people with disabilities impacting the use of their hands to grab. Fleece tugs attached to a tennis ball can be used to teach the dog a combination of retrieve and tug. Flirt poles may also make it easier for some owners to play with their dog.
Owners who use crutches, canes or walkers or who are unstable when standing up may be able to play more safely when seated. People who use wheelchairs or scooters need to turn the equipment off or lock the wheels when first playing with their dogs. Other possible games can include hide-and-seek and dog puzzle toys that involve owner interaction.
Clients may benefit from coaching on how to use their voice and movements to elicit play. For instance, they may need to use their voice more effectively or use playful gestures.
Silliness is Important
Silliness is an essential part of play. Clients need to find ways to play with their dogs that work for them as well as for their dogs. I personally use a combination of higher pitches and tones in my voice and movements. I even sing to my dogs. Most adults are uncomfortable acting silly in front of others. Trainers can encourage clients to set aside time to experiment in their homes and see what works for them. If your client needs some convincing, research on the effect of “pet-directed speech” may be help. Even science supports silly.