How to Teach Your Dog to Play

By Kathy Santo

Oh, sure—some dogs are born to play. Some even seem to live for that moment when you pick up a ball and utter the phrase “Who wants to fetch?” But there are some dogs who couldn’t care less about any toy. Good news: You can teach your dog to love playing with toys. Here’s how:


Get the right toy. This is where trial and error (and receipts!) comes into play. The key is to not rely on the glossy photos of the toys in magazines or your personal impression of the toy the minute you see it on the shelf, but to instead pinpoint what your dog loves to do (chasing rabbits, for example), and try and match that interest to a suitable toy (something furry that squeaks).

Play hard-to-get. Starting today, you’re going to take a toy that you think is perfect (see previous point) and place it in a drawer in the kitchen. When your dog comes in, take the toy out, throw it up in the air (to yourself), shake it around, make some woohoo! noises, and generally act like you’ve lost your mind. Gradually, when you notice your dog is looking like he wants to be in on the action too, let him get closer to the toy. If he wants to sniff it, let him do so for half a second, praise him enthusiastically, then take it back, play with it, and put it away. It may take a few days, but you’ll create interest in the toy.


Flavor of the month. There have been times where I’ve flavored a toy to get the dog’s attention. Rubbing cooked chicken or roast beef on a toy can make it more appealing to a dog, which creates interest.

You say tomato, I say tom-AH-to. And so it goes with dog’s style of playing. Don’t aim for a wild game of tug for the less-than-enthusiastic tugger; instead, start by dragging the toy along the floor and see if your dog wants to follow it. When he does pick up the toy, cheer his effort, even though it isn’t the big-picture game of tug that you’re after.


Leash your toy. If your dog shows a profound lack of interest in his toy, consider tying a long line to the toy so you can drag it along at high speeds, which may kick in your dog’s prey or chase drive. Also, the result of not having a leash or a string on your toy is that you will potentially lose all control over the game if your dog picks it up and runs off.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Now that you have a fabulous toy that your dog loves to tug and play with, be sure to keep it out of the normal rotation of his daily toys.

Photo credits:

Chicken:©Mark Herreid

Toy & Ball: ©