Personal Play (Week 1)

Personal play is play without toys or food. My main interest in this class is social play, which I see as a specific kind of personal play. Social play is personal play that is not geared toward exercise, nor even toward fun--at least not exactly. Instead, this type of personal play is about cooperation and connection; our social personal play allows us to laugh, converse, and bond with our dogs. During times when we cannot move around as freely, social personal play allows us to meet our dogs’ social needs while establishing better in-home and working relationships.

Your dog may take to personal play naturally, or he may look at you like you have lost your mind when you make your invitation. Your dog may play safely and kindly, or your dog may inappropriately mouth and strike with his paws. We can work with all of it!

The best thing you can do before trying personal play is commit to getting silly. It helps to get on the floor, but you can always adjust your positioning if necessary.

First, ask yourself how your dog plays ordinarily, perhaps with other dogs. Is she a chaser? A chasee? Does she wrestle or box? Does she lie down with her buddy and play bitey face? These observations will help you figure out how you can engage your pup in a game with you. If you are not sure, you will need to perform some careful experiments.

Our starting point is not going straight at our dogs and pushing them around. Instead, focus on inviting play. This is an important point: we are looking to make invitations, not overtures. With an invitation, the play has not yet begun; with an overture, the beginning of the game is itself the invitation. We want our dogs to have plenty of room to say yes or no.

If you are not sure what I mean, imagine you have started a new job and are meeting coworkers for the first time in the break room. Even if you are outgoing, you probably wouldn't charge up to a stranger in full relationship-building mode without some small invitations first: mutual eye contact, a smile or eyebrow lift of acknowledgement. Those responses are a good sign that you are free to move forward with the interaction. If you say hello and the person responds in kind but immediately disengages, you know you may have pushed too hard this time. Think of your personal play invitations similarly.

Assess your dog's response to your invitations. Does he accept? Show interest without pursuing the invitation? Decline?

This week, we are looking for quiet and lazy personal play. Not all personal play is quiet and lazy by any means, but this style of play functions as an excellent mental-emotional barometer (if your dog can play lazily with you, she can probably work and feels safe in the environment) and builds skills for safer, more effective play in training.


See how Floyd and Roxy play together? Everyone’s mouth is occupied, and everyone is just trotting around. It’s very low-pressure play that is well suited to these cattle dog mixes, allowing them to enjoy a little bit of herding behavior without overwhelming one another or rudely chomping someone who does not want to be chomped.

Tiara took the play between Floyd and Roxy as her model for playing with Roxy. Roxy has a toy to carry, and most of the game is following Tiara around. Watch how Tiara keeps her body soft and loose and angled away from Roxy as much as possible. She spends very little time getting in Roxy’s space, always moving away so Roxy has an opportunity to ask for more or say no. Especially important is how this game ends: Roxy stops accepting invitations, so Tiara backs off and the session ends.

After some more practice, Tiara and Roxy were able to play together on the ground. Here, though, we are seeing the real results of their relationship development: an unequivocal “NOPE” from Roxy. The no isn’t conflicted, and she is certainly confident that Tiara will respect her answer. This is a lovely example of a declined invitation.

This is more playful affection than an outright play session, but I am including it to illustrate how much room I like to give dogs to pursue the game. Pulling my hands up and away while making a silly face is an invitation to Jones, but it also gives him the physical and mental space to make a choice to come back for more.