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The Importance of Play and Rest

Updated: May 31, 2022

There are many different ideas regarding the most effective way to train a dog. Some believe the dog should be made to obey commands often using aversive methods which can cause pain and suffering to the animal. More modern methods supported by scientific research now recommend more humane techniques accepting the dog is a sentient being with the ability to develop cognitive skills. Pedagogy of play is now commonplace in the school curriculum and rest has been shown to have a positive effect on the retention of learning. So if it works for humans why shouldn’t this work for dogs?

My research project for my MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Training indicated the following:

· Play aids the initial acquisition of learning

· Rest aids the formation of memories

· Play and rest help to promote a positive affective state

Its so easy to put this into practice to help our dogs learn, enrich their lives and help to make the bond between us even stronger.

Dogs play in different ways, some retrieve, some tug, some chase for example. The type of play a dog engages in can be breed specific driven by an innate tendency or it could be a learned behaviour. The type of play can also be broken down into boisterous or calm play and the style of play we initiate as humans can be chosen according to what we want to teach. For example, if we want to teach a calm behaviour such as being quiet when the door bell rings it wouldn’t be helpful to play a game that would make the dog over excited.

Calm games could be scent work type games, hiding things and helping your dog to find them. Exciting games could be tugging or retrieving or running around. Its up to owners to find out what their dog likes most. Play with toys isn’t something all dogs will engage in. This is especially true of dogs that have had little or no engagement with play during the critical period (up to 14-15 weeks of age). The puppy that has engaged in enrichment activities from a very young age is more likely to play. Many responsible breeders these days provide enrichment activities for puppies. These can be things for the puppy to explore such as tunnels, ball pools, walking on different surfaces as well as different things to chew or chase.

My study indicated that just two minutes of play before and after a training session aided learning. Think of the play as an introduction to the session, getting your dog to focus on you, motivating them and engaging them. Have a short training session and then a couple more minutes play, this time to calm them. Always set your dog up to succeed in the session, make a plan before you start so you know what you want to achieve and how you are going to get there. Complex behaviours need to be broken down into bite sized chunks and taught separately and then chained together, so you may not achieve your final goal in one session.

My study also found rest to be helpful for retention of learning. Although there has been little research into this, studies have shown that lack of sleep impedes learning and rest aids the formation of memories. My findings supported this and I believe it is important for an animal to have adequate rest after a training session.

So a few points to take from this are, find out how your dog likes to play, both a boisterous and a calm activity are needed to suit different learning opportunities. Play for a few minutes before and after the teaching session. Allow your dog to rest after a session. Put this into practice and then watch your dog’s learning accelerate and your relationship strengthen.

If you would like to read my study in full please get in touch.

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