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Dear Inquisitive Canine - November 2012 - Play With Dogs At The Dog Park

Joan Hunter Mayer on November 06, 2012

Dear Inquisitive Canine,

Our dog Tyler loves going to the dog park. But since he learned to fetch, all he wants to do is play with a ball. He doesn’t play chase and run with the other dogs, and in fact rarely even sniffs hello.

We’ve tried not taking our ball flinger, but the park is covered with abandoned balls and somehow Tyler always convinces someone to throw the ball for him. How can we get him back to playing with other dogs at the dog park?

Do you or Poncho have any advice?

Kevin S.
Northern California


Dear Kevin,

We’d be more than happy to give you pointers for getting Tyler more engaged in dog play with other dogs at the park. The following dog training tips should help make these adventures fun for you, while still making it rewarding for Tyler.

First and foremost, determine what your main goal is. To me it sounds like it would be for Tyler to engage in dog play with various dogs during these outings. You’re correct in taking the ball play out of the picture during park visits. Bringing toys to a dog park is similar to a child bringing his/her Nintendo DS to another child’s birthday party at Great America. If there are no other dogs around to play with, then fetch is fine. But if you want your dog to play with other dogs, then yes, do away with the superfluous distractions.

You’ll also want to think about what behaviors are being reinforced, which ones you’d rather reinforce, and which ones you want to ignore (or limit by withholding rewards).

  • Interacting with other dogs: Reward! Reward! Reward!
  • Ignoring balls: Reward!
  • If another ball is found, ask Tyler to do something else, like walk nicely next to you, get rid of the ball, and reward him for staying with you.
  • If Tyler continues to be ball obsessive, you can always put him on leash for 20 seconds as a “time out,” while ignoring him. Then take him off leash and reward him again for desired behaviors.
  • Other humans and their behavior: Ask for help if necessary. Let others know that you are teaching Tyler to play with other dogs, and that “fetch time” is played elsewhere. You can thank them for helping you out. If they want to give a “Good boy!” to Tyler whenever he shows interest in their own dog, that would be even better, and much appreciated! (If they continue to throw the ball for Tyler, you can always walk away, giving them a “time-out.” However, punishing humans can cause negativity and that’s no fun.)

When it comes to teaching Tyler to play with other dogs, you’ll want to do so in “baby steps.” This is called shaping behavior. Instead of waiting for a full-on play session, you can reward small steps, starting with a glance, then moving up the behavior chain, allowing Tyler to set the pace until he is interacting with multiple dogs at once. The sequence might go something like this; Tyler gets a piece of chicken or steak:

  • Every time another dog walks near him, or walks by him.
  • Every time another dog shows interest in him, wanting to greet.
  • Every time Tyler looks at another dog!
  • Every time Tyler approaches another dog.
  • Every time Tyler and another dog perform their doggy-sniffing-greeting ritual.
  • Every time Tyler and another dog show interest in playing: for one second, two seconds, then three seconds, etc. until they’re wanting to hang out and play together.
  • Periodically during play time to reward Tyler for playing with other dogs.

To really emphasize how fun playing with other dogs is, stop the steak party once you leave the dog park. With time and consistency, Tyler will start to associate other dogs with fabulous steak-parties, and then he’ll want to keep playing. After a few rounds of play, and steak hors d’oeuvres, Tyler won’t want to leave, so be careful what you wish for.


Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho the dog. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and dog behavior coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt who knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their column is known for its simple, commonsense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog.

Joan is also the founder of the Inquisitive Canine and developer of the Out of the Box Dog Training Game, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, please .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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