Teaching a rescue dog to play

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Teaching a rescue dog to play

Updated Dec 21, 2021

Dear Cathy, 

My husband and I rescued a six-year-old yellow lab/ greyhound mix. He must have been abused because he has scars on his front legs and he was very skittish in the beginning.  We love him so much, but he doesn’t know how to play. We throw the ball or Frisbee and he just looks at us. He doesn’t play with other dogs at the dog park. We feel so sorry for him. Can we still teach him to fetch a ball or stick?

— Artie and Stella, Smithtown, New York 

Dear Artie and Stella,

When dogs are stressed, they don’t play. If your dog had a rough start, he probably didn’t learn to play as a puppy. Not every dog will play fetch, but there are other ways you can teach your dog to play.

Get a clicker at the pet store, and start training him to “sit,” “down,” and “stay,” so he learns that the “click” means he will get a treat for doing something you ask him to do. Once he understands the meaning of the clicker, teach him how to play hide and seek. Hide somewhere in the house or out in the yard and call your dog’s name. When he comes and “finds” you, give him a treat. He will begin to learn that running and playing with you is fun and rewarding.

Next, introduce a Kong wobbler or puzzle toy filled with treats that he can push around the house or paw open to retrieve a treat. Click and treat when he touches the toy. Or, give him a tennis ball with a little peanut butter on it. Click and treat when he touches it. Eventually, toss the tennis ball with peanut butter a few feet away. When he goes to get it and touches it, click and treat. He may eventually bring the ball back to you for more peanut butter, thus learning fetch, but he also just might chomp on the ball for a while. Either way, you are showing him the many ways to play.

Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, children’s author, syndicated pet columnist, and pet expert with more than 30 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to cathy@petpundit.com. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal

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Cathy Rosenthal, CHES, CFE
Animal Welfare Communications Specialist

Cathy brings more than 25 years' experience in the animal welfare field. She is a sought-after speaker, Certified Humane Education Specialist, a syndicated pet advice columnist, an author, a publisher, and of course - a loving pet parent.

Read more about Cathy here or check out her Non-Profit's page to see more ways she can help you and your organization.

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