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Inquisitive Canine: Caught Up in Playing Fetch at the Park

Reinforcing certain behaviors can train your pooch to put the ball aside for play time with other dogs

Dear Inquisitive Canine:

Our dog, Tyler, loves going to the dog park. However, ever 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; in fact, he rarely even sniffs hello.

We’ve tried not taking our ball flinger, but the park is covered with abandoned balls, and somehow Tyler always persuades 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 would be more than happy to give you pointers for getting Tyler more engaged in play with other dogs at the park. Poncho and I have decided that I’ll take care of providing the expert advice for this column, while he provides his own inquisitive canine point of view on Poncho’s Prose blog.

First, I’d like to praise you for taking Tyler on outings to public places. As a professional dog trainer, I educate my clients about the importance of exposing our canine companions to new places and situations, and having them meet and greet others to help them adapt more proficiently to our sometimes chaotic human world. The following dog training tips should help make such adventures fun for you and rewarding for Tyler.

To me, it sounds as if your main goal is for Tyler to engage in dog play with various dogs during the 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 or her handheld gaming device to another child’s birthday party at a theme park. 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 want to think about which behaviors are being reinforced, which ones you would rather reinforce and which ones you want to ignore (or limit by withholding rewards).

» Interacting with other dogs: reward!

» Ignoring balls: reward!

» If another ball is found, ask Tyler to do something else — such as walk nicely next to you — get rid of the ball and reward him for staying with you.

» If Tyler continues to be ball obsessive, try putting him on leash for 20 seconds as a timeout, while ignoring him. Then take him off leash and reward him again for desired behaviors.

» As for other humans and their behavior, ask for help if necessary. Let others know that you’re teaching Tyler to play with other dogs, and that fetch time is played elsewhere. If they want to give a “good boy!” to Tyler when he shows interest in their dogs, that would be even better. (If they continue to throw the ball for Tyler, you could try walking away and giving them a timeout. 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, reward small steps, such as a glance, and then move 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 or 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, three seconds, etc., until they’re wanting to hang out and play together.

» periodically during play time to reward him for playing with other dogs.

With time and consistency, Tyler will start to associate other dogs with fabulous steak parties, and then he’ll want to keep playing. You’ll also want to make sure his playtime with other dogs is fun. For information on proper dog play, including body language, what to look for to identify healthy, consensual dog play, and when to interrupt, check out my blog for dog-play etiquette and dog-training tips as well as the Noozhawk archives featuring advice on proper dog play.

To emphasize how fun it is to play with other dogs, stop the steak party once you leave the dog park, and leave the game of fetch for other locations. After a few rounds of play — and steak hors d’oeuvres — Tyler won’t want to leave, so be careful what you wish for. But hey, you’re always welcome to write in again. Poncho and I love to receive questions from inquisitive dog guardians.

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense 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, 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, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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