Play is a widespread feature of social animals. Humans play. Dogs play. Maybe our shared need for and love of play is part of what strengthens our desire to share our lives with dogs. We play together with toys and invent enjoyable games. Many of us make a point to incorporate toy play and fun interpersonal play into our training programs, offering an exciting bout of tug or an opportunity to retrieve a prized ball in exchange for a correct response to a cue.
Used in a very specific way, play also helps shy and fearful dogs learn to work through and overcome fear and anxiety, often in cases where more traditional positive-reinforcement methods – attempts to counter-condition triggers (“scary things”) with the use of food – have been less successful.
Amy Cook, Ph.D., a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, has been training dogs for 30 years and has specialized in working with shy and fearful dogs for the past 20. She first began exploring the therapeutic value of play for shy and fearful dogs as part of her doctoral work in psychology, where she realized the stark differences between therapeutic approaches to addressing fear and anxiety in children and how positive-reinforcement dog trainers typically addressed fear and anxiety in dogs. In exploring therapeutic approaches to traumatized children, Cook wondered if a similar approach might work for dogs.
“It got me thinking,” Cook says. “When we have a traumatized 4-year-old child, what do we do with them? Do we lean on classical conditioning to make new associations? Sure, that can be there, but there’s so much more to pull from in the human therapy model than what we were pulling from with Skinner and Pavlov as dog trainers.” Cook began exploring the many ways child therapy often incorporates playful, fun games and nurturing activities to communicate love, joy, and safety to a traumatized child.
Not long after, Cook formulated the concepts she found most effective for rehabilitating frightened dogs into Play Way.
PLAY WAY IS DIFFERENT
The Play Way incorporates play in a carefully nuanced manner in order to help shy and fearful dogs overcome their issues in order to live a happier, less-stressed life. But the “play” used in the Play Way is different from what many people likely think of when asked to play with their dog.
“In my system, the dog leads most of the play,” explains Cook. “I may not prod or nag or insist. I may only invite. If the dog responds with, ‘Yeah, I’d love to do that,’ then great. If the dog says, ‘No thank you. I’m busy. I’m sniffing. I’m looking at something,’ that’s okay, too. I want the trainer to communicate her availability to play, but it’s equally important to respect the dog’s answer.”
Cook says that’s the hardest part. Especially in cases where the trainer is used to aiming for constant engagement during training sessions, eager to call the dog’s name or otherwise prod for attention the instant he becomes distracted and looks away.
“We’d never dream of doing that in our interaction with other humans,” says Cook. “If you were on the phone and I wanted to talk to you, and you said, ‘Give me a second,’ I’d need to give you that time. I wouldn’t grab the phone, hang it up and say, ‘Hey! Hang up the phone! I have money, take it, let’s talk!’ The Play Way is a lot more about how interactions happen between people. I’m asking handlers to explore this space where the dog gets to decide if they want to do this.”
Giving the dog equal footing in the decision-making process is just one key aspect of the Play Way. How one plays is the other, along with teaching the dog to “look at and dismiss” potential triggers (this is described in “The Play Way, Step by Step,” on page 21).
For most people, the most challenging part of learning the Play Way is learning how to play in this manner. Play Way play is not about overly excited, high-arousal play. It’s about developing a consensual, relaxed yet playful interaction between dog and human that gives both parties permission to be silly and simply enjoy the moment. High-energy, aroused play definitely has a place in Cook’s toolbox. It’s super fun, builds and maintains arousal when needed, and is great for building anticipation and reinforcing trained behaviors. It’s just not the goal in the Play Way.
Taking the time to develop a conversational, give-and-take social play relationship is important because in rehabilitating shy and fearful dogs, the dog’s ability to engage in this manner serves as a barometer for how a dog is feeling.
Threshold is a phrase that comes up a lot in work with fearful dogs (and dogs who exhibit aggressive behavior, too, which makes sense because a lot of aggression is directly traced to fear). Threshold is loosely defined as the moment when a dog crosses from one emotional state to another. In the specific context of fearful dogs, a dog who is just “under threshold” is in that emotional sweet spot where he’s aware of the presence of the trigger (the “scary thing”) but not feeling at all threatened. Once he’s tipped into a fearful state (“over threshold”), the fight-or-flight hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) may kick in, making it hard for him to think, learn, remember, and respond like a more “normal” dog.
When working with fearful dogs, the ability to keep the dog sufficiently sub-threshold is paramount to the training success. But keeping a dog under threshold is often easier said than done. Real-world variables can change on a dime, especially if one hasn’t gone to great lengths to carefully set up a controlled training session. And a stressed dog is not in the proper mental state to learn he is safe in the presence of the trigger.
“When I first learned about positive reinforcement-based dog training, the general wisdom was that as long as the dog is eating, he’s under threshold,” says Cook. “That might be a reliable indicator for some dogs, but it’s far too unreliable for me with the degree of under threshold I’m aiming for. After all, many dogs can eat or tug on a toy while stressed.”
NOT THE USUAL COUNTER-CONDITIONING
Many trainers turn to classical counter-conditioning to help rewire how the dog’s brain reacts to scary things. But Cook’s method follows more of a human therapeutic model.
Rather than use food in an attempt to reprogram how the dog feels in specific situations, her goal is to help the dog naturally achieve an emotional state where he can comfortably evaluate a situation and come to his own conclusion that there’s nothing to worry about. It’s similar to how a skilled human therapist guides a person through a healing process in such a way that the client discovers the answers herself.
“It’s about giving the dog the chance to self-soothe from a place of entirely established safety, and where they’re already feeing relaxed. Now they have a chance to gather new information and I don’t have to tell them what specific response they should be having. I’m not saying, ‘You’re right, there’s a stimulus (the scary thing) and now I’m going to give you something (food) to influence you directly.’ Instead, I can say, ‘Go ahead and look at the scary thing and come to the very real conclusion that you are not under threat here.’”
Play helps facilitate the process. Whereas the goal of food centers around changing the dog’s conditioned emotional response (CER) to the trigger, the goal of Play Way play is to help put the learner into a better state of mind from which to fully evaluate the situation and organically realize there is no threat.
WHAT PLAY WAY PLAY LOOKS LIKE
Play Way play is about social, interpersonal play, more so than playing together with toys or using food. What matters most is that the human acknowledges and adopts the conversational nature of how dogs play with each other, rather than seek to drive and control the play interaction.
Healthy dog-to-dog play has a natural rhythm. There’s a lot of back and forth. They pause. They hold suspense. They change things up. They don’t much enjoy a play partner who is being pushy. It’s not as much fun to play with someone who insists on picking the game and dictating exactly how it’s played.
“It’s a lot like working with toddlers,” says Cook. “With kids, you don’t get to decide how the game goes. It’s no fun if you decide we have to play Candyland and then you win. Play Way play is about being cooperative, improvising, and letting the dog make suggestions like, ‘I want to do this…’ or ‘I don’t like when you poke my butt with your claw hand, but I do like to play fake bitey-face with you.’”
Try play-bowing at your dog. Hide your face and encourage your dog to burrow under your hands to “find” you. Cover yourself with a blanket and do the same. Start with slow, soft energy and give your dog plenty of room to move around. Try to exude affection. Flirt! When you touch the dog, pull back and invite her to come toward you. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but don’t frantically switch from one behavior to another. Float an idea and see what happens. If your dog is used to interactive toy play or frequent training sessions, he might be confused and need time (over several short sessions) to figure out what’s going on.
PLAY WAY ADVANTAGES
According to Cook, one of the biggest advantages of the Play Way method is its ability to keep handlers honest about whether or not the dog is under threshold. That’s because many food-motivated dogs will still eat and some toy-motivated dogs can still enthusiastically tug even though anxiety is creeping in. In contrast, social play (as practiced in the Play Way) is far more fragile. Social play is the first thing to go when stress starts to creep in, says Cook.
“It’s not very robust,” Cook says. “The second a dog starts to have even a mild concern – or even a curiosity that might lead to a concern – the play stops. When that happens, you as a trainer have a clear indication of something you need to pay attention to and potentially adjust. It keeps the trainer honest about staying under threshold.
“I like things that help me counter my own biases and weaknesses as a human being,” Cook continues. “When you’re trying to get something done, you might be tempted to tell yourself it’s okay, the dog’s fine if he’s eating or tugging. I find this type of social play keeps me really honest in my assessments.”
The ability to maintain a high degree of accuracy regarding the dog’s thresholds can lead to faster results compared to traditional classical counter-conditioning protocols. It’s a heavily front-loaded effort that pays off in the end. By taking the time to slowly develop a wholly consensual, give-and-take play relationship with a dog, you gain the ability to use social play for therapeutic purposes. And in using social play therapeutically, you’re less likely to accidentally push the dog over threshold.
Also, by preventing the dog from going over threshold, he’s more likely to take consistent steps in the right direction, instead of setbacks continually causing him to take two steps forward and three steps back.
MUTUALLY RESPECTFUL TRAINING
Here’s an aspect of play therapy that is less commonly seen in other dog training methodologies: Being “present” – sensitive and respectful of the dog’s needs – is an integral component of the Play Way.
“It’s not about coming in with a plan and saying, ‘I’m going to make this specific thing happen to influence you to feel a certain way,’” Cook explains. “I’m sensitive and listening to my learner. It enriches all of my training to consider a space where I’m respectful of the viewpoint of my dog. I don’t think that’s something we emphasize enough in dog training.”
That’s not to say Cook suggests dogs should call the shots all the time; she knows that’s not realistic. But setting aside time to develop social play is also beneficial as an overall stress release for both shy and fearful dogs and their owners.
“Reactive dogs, shy dogs, fearful dogs – they all live a more inherently stressful life,” Cook says. “It’s hard to be routinely triggered by stressful things. We all need play, silliness, and laughter to help shake-off these types of stressful build-ups. I think, in general, we don’t really do enough to relax the dogs who spend a decent amount of time feeling an overabundance of stress compared to a more adjusted dog.”
In this way, the Play Way method can be just as beneficial to the dog and owner as a team as it is in its ability to help the dog organically work through its fears.
“When you own a fearful or reactive dog, you yourself are often stressed,” says Cook. “You’re nervous your dog will blow up at any time, and you’re worried what people will think. Maybe you’re even grieving a little bit because this isn’t what you pictured when you thought about getting a dog.
“I think it helps the human, the dog, and the partnership to have this one expectation-free space – this isolated time where you only focus on what you both can do right, where you make each other laugh and enjoy being silly together. That kind of connection can help keep you invested for the long haul in helping your dog. It can recharge the batteries in the relationship.”
As Cook always says, it’s magic!