Lower the Pressure! Adapting Play for a Sensitive Dog

Black and rust hound type dog leaning on a green and black squeaky snake toy. This toy was part of our low pressure play
Zani has always loved those toy snakes

Play between a human and a canine is a magical thing. I’ve always loved to play with my dogs, and I’ve appreciated the courses I’ve taken on play and the techniques I’ve learned from trainer friends over the years. (This means you, Marge Rogers! See a great example of her work in the “Holy Grail” section below.) Yes, readers, there really are courses on how to play with your dog! And the cool thing is that many of them can help you observe what kind of play your dog loves the best and figure out how to do it. In other words, the human is the student, even more than in most other training classes.

I’m a decent player. Not an expert, but I’m pretty good at figuring out what my dogs like and adding little fun touches. And I notice when they make up games of their own, and take part when invited.

Summer enjoyed very physical play. She loved it when I would push on her chest, shoving her backward. She would come roaring back forward yelling at me, then ask me to push her again. She also liked me to play “I’m gonna get your bone” with her. I wish I could post a video of this game, but I’ve always figured it would be a bad idea. There are a dozen reasons not to do with a dog what I’m doing in that game. If a person thought the game looked fun and tried it with a resource guarding dog, things could end very badly. The game looked really scary, but we had great fun. She liked to tug as well.

sandy colored dog with black ears and muzzle holding a red ball

Clara will play about anything with me. She loves shredding cardboard (I have to be careful she doesn’t eat any), tugging, and flirt pole play. Most of all she loves to play ball. She’s not an incessant player though. She’s up for about 20 throws, max, but for those throws she is all in. What glorious speed and athleticism! We still use two balls to play. She drops one into a container at my feet and I throw the other. When she wants to stop, she carries a ball to the back door. I let her in the house so she can chew on the ball a little while. (I suspect that’s part of why we don’t do many throws, but also she’s never had a whole lot of stamina.)

Zani is a tugger. She will tug and tug. She also likes stalking-type “I’m gonna get you” games. She’s such a versatile little dog that I achieved the Holy Grail: she will tug in the presence of food and work for treats in the presence of favorite toys. OK, Holy Grail for me, anyway. Pro and competition trainers do it as a matter of course, but it was a big deal for me. Zani likes interactive play and will enjoy any reinforcer I offer.

Here is an example from a few years back of some of Zan’s high-intensity play. She is only just figuring out how the flirt pole works, but her enthusiasm is clear.

Low-Pressure Play

In early 2016, Zani experienced some pretty severe problems with anxiety. She was not a happy camper for several months. She stopped wanting to play. She was too shut down to do much of anything.

As she started to recover, I tried various ways of playing with her again. She just couldn’t do it the usual ways. The intensity of play and the one-on-one with me were too much for her. There was too much pressure.

But I had this feeling: she was ready to play something again. The interaction just needed to be indirect and non-demanding. Even though engagement with our dogs is one of the words of the day, the engagement factor needed to be low for her.

A Non-Demanding Game

The video below shows what I came up with. If you don’t know the context, it is a really stupid-looking game. I look like a lazy trainer who doesn’t even care enough to interact with her dog. I walk around in circles in my yard, dragging two long snake toys with squeakers in each segment. I almost ignore Zani, just saying a word to her now and then. Every once in a while I make a faster change of direction or swing the toy out a little, but I don’t look very involved.

But context is all. I may be a lazy trainer sometimes, but this is not me being lazy. Not turning around to interact with her is purposeful. She didn’t enjoy intense engagement at the time. But you can see her delight with this game. Her tail was happy, and she hardly ever let go of the toy. The length of the snake toys was important. She could choose her distance from me. She was so content to walk around in circles with one end of a snake toy clenched in her jaws while I squeaked the other end. We would do it for much longer periods than this video shows.

What looks like unskilled, almost uncaring play was something I had worked hard to figure out. And it was just right for her at that time in her life.

She enjoys intense play again now, although since her injury and as she ages I’ve toned it down. She has some favorite tug toys, including an old toy with a lot of legs that she loves for me to swing around on the end of a rope. (This game is a little faster and a lot more interactive than snake dragging!) Plus—don’t tell—when she feels extra playful she sneaks into my bedroom, gets a shoe, and scampers out with it, guarding it and inviting me to try to get it. Yes, a shoe. She is going on 12 years old now. She’s allowed.

Because I can’t help being didactic: the shoe idea is a terrible one for a puppy or a new dog.

What Constitutes Pressure?

I identify two common types of pressure in play: spatial pressure and social pressure.

Spatial pressure means moving into the dog’s space in ways that are unwelcome. Zani herself taught me a lot about pressure. She’s sensitive even when she feels fine. So if a dog is unsure of you (or even if they aren’t and you just want to speak dog a little better), you can lead with your side or even your back when interacting. Don’t walk straight up to them, don’t stare at them, and don’t loom over them. Invite them into your space rather than entering theirs. It’s no accident that I have my back to Zani in most of the video.

Social pressure applied by humans to dogs is usually pushy chatter. “Take it! Take it! Look!” What seems like an invitation to us can be intimidating and unpleasant to a sensitive dog. Social pressure can also involve spatial pressure, as when you thrust a toy into a dog’s face. (Called by some trainers the “suicidal rabbit” approach, because it’s not how prey animals act. It’s usually not the best way to start play even with a dog who is in the game. Moving the toy away from the dog is usually a lot more attractive to them!) Looking at my video again, I don’t ever “offer” Zani the toy. I walk away from her with it.

Pressure Can Be Good

Some of the pressure-ful things I mention above can be welcome parts of play with a dog you know well and who enjoys them. Pressure can be part of what makes play fun. Stalking games build up a lot of pressure. But they can be way too much for a fearful or sensitive dog, or for that matter, a puppy. Watch a nice adult dog play with a puppy sometime. They do all sorts of things to make themselves less scary, even though they are faster, more adroit, and usually a lot bigger than the pup. If they build pressure, they never let it get to a scary level.

Green and black squeaky snake toy used for low pressure play

I’m by no means an expert on play. But the snake dragging game gave Zani something fun to do when she was too sensitive to tolerate her usual, high-intensity interactive play.

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson: Text, photos, and movies