My Dog Won’t Play: How to Facilitate Playful Behavior in Your Dog

What could be a reason for a dog to not engage in play?

When Doobie joined my household, this 5-year-old lab knew only fear. Play was a totally foreign concept to this frightened creature. Dobie’s immediate concerns were how to cope in a new and frightening environment. The latter is really what I wish to communicate, to all those who have rescued dogs.

Fear suppresses play behaviors

Canines will not play until they feel safe and secure in their environments. Fear suppresses play behaviors. Does your recently rescued dog seem completely disinterested in play? Give them time to adapt to the new environment, and learn trust in new owners.

My Dog Won't Play: How to Facilitate Playful Behavior in Your Dog

Play is learned behavior

Another important consideration is that play is a learned behavior.

Doobie had spent all five years of his life on a puppy mill. Beyond a doubt, he had enjoyed no playful interactions with any human. Most dog owners love to play with their dogs as a highly reinforcing behavior for both species, and young puppies soon learn to engage in play.

Likewise, the youngsters learn appropriate play interactions by time spent with their own kind, with playmates they feel comfortable with. Doobie had none of that. Can an older rescued dog from an atrocious background learn to play? Yes, absolutely!!

The initial tendency of Doobie was to sit back and observe my play with Talley and Bridget, in a hunkered-down posture that broke my heart. He wanted to trust me but also wanted to be able to flee if necessary.

Role of body language

Consider your own body language when introducing these dogs to play. What do our arms do when throwing? Yup, raise up in the air. To Doobie, that body language was a major visual threat. I learned, when trying to engage him, to be as non-threatening as possible with my arms, to keep arms at sides, doing minute little tosses with toys. It devastated me when i forgot and caused Doobie to slink away.

Nudging a rolling toy a few inches with a foot is also far less threatening than an arm raised overhead to fling.

Rolling motion

Considering the rolling motion of toys, it can be helpful to initiate interaction with a rolling type treat toy, such as a Tricky Treat Ball. The latter is easily gripped, manipulated and dispenses kibble rather easily. Show your dog how it works by giving it a nudge to dispense kibble for them the first few times. Doobie now manipulates a Buster Cube like a pro, which gives me great joy.

Toy choice

Try toys that squeak! While many dogs are initially afraid of movement, the squeaky noise can be quite intriguing, as can be letting it then drop gently to the ground. The squeaky bouncy combination can be quite irresistible. And yes, Doobie now runs about the yard squeaking a Bad Cuz in his mouth.

Likewise Doobie now runs holding the handle of a Jolly Ball. Many dogs seem to enjoy carrying something, so give them an opportunity with that kind of toy as well. And no, to date I have not been able to get a picture of him running with the Jolly Ball; the scoundrel runs to a spot with it, wanting to engage Talley in a wrestling match over the prize.

Socially-facilitated learning

This leads us to socially facilitated learning. Dogs can learn play from other dogs. If you have no other dogs, here is a great article by Pat Miller on how to introduce dogs. When Doobie became comfortable with his new friends, he began to follow them after them as they fetched, barking along the way. It was then only a matter of time before he decided to investigate and pick something up in his mouth.

A that point, I began to purposely toss/bounce toys towards him from a very short distance, and it was not long before he began to leap at them very much like a cat. He has progressed to the point where he will catch a Bad Cuz in his mouth. Watching these evolving play behaviors has given me the greatest joy, observing the enrichment that has come to his life. The progression time frame will be different for each dog, but by August (3 months) Doobie had run to a toy and picked it up. The rest has continued to evolve.


Take time, be patient and explore all the options. Your dog can learn how to play. Remember that where fear exists, play will not happen. You may want to attain the services of a licensed positive dog trainer to help you with your rescued dog, with a plan to help them feel safe in their environment. Once this happens, the play begins. Good luck, and enjoy every little progression. I know I certainly have!

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