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

10 thoughts on “Lower the Pressure! Adapting Play for a Sensitive Dog

  1. I had a foster dog who was so horribly shut down that she barely moved.
    Sudden movement, noise, and many other things scared her.

    Trying to find out how to help her play, was such a huge part of her learning she was safe.

    The snake game would have freaked her out as did most things. But I found that if I moved my hand around…not too fast….with enough distance….she would pounce and very softly play bitey games.

    it was so magical to see this terrified dog feel safe enough to engage in play.

    I wish there was some “play book” of possible things that could engage dogs like Zani and Katie.

    I will be hanging on to the snake game for future reference.

    Thanks for those lovely videos!

    1. Kayla, So cool that you figured out a little game that didn’t scare her! The little bitey games sound so sweet. And yes, the magic!

      You’ve just given someone a good idea for a “play book.” (Lots of pun material there, too!) Hope a writer/trainer is attracted to the idea!


  2. I have a 3-4 year old little terrier mix rescue who’s play consists of a few smaller zoomies around the living room or maybe the yard maybe 2-3 times a week. She came to us last May very shut down. She likes quiet walks but will freeze up if something scares her — loud booms, the garbage truck, yelling people down the road. She can go months without a bark. We do not pressure her on any level.
    She is friendly with people and other small dogs and puppies, but play is nothing she cares for with them either.
    She doesn’t care for toys or chews — she was found with teeth so rotten that 11 were pulled and more might have to go.
    Perhaps in time she will become secure enough to play in some way. She has already come so far!
    We love her no matter what but wondering if you have any thoughts on this.
    She won’t follow me around the yard with dragging toys (no interest in toys), but she will come snuggle if I sit down.

  3. This is wonderful. We have two extremely fearful dogs at the shelter where I am the trainer and behavior manager, and though they will only show glimmers of trust now and then, they do so want to engage with people. Movement, along with this kind of low pressure, at a distance toy/tactic is exactly what they need. I am wondering why you decided on two snakes instead of one. Thank you for this post.

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Frankly, I don’t remember why I chose two. Maybe so there would be one on either side of me? It’s good to point out, though. Even that difference could be enough with a fearful dog. So starting out with one is a great idea.

  4. Snake dragging game requires a lot of interaction and engagement of our dogs. I’m so sure that I’ll play this game with my dogs soon. Thanks for your suggestion!

  5. Hi Eileen – just had a chance to read this wonderful post. You’re right, play with a sensitive pup can be a challenge. This was such a great idea to encourage Zani to engage. I’m still figuring out Obi (after six years! Always more to learn!) and Rowan (our recent addition and a sensitive soul).

    Do you have any inkling why exuberant Zani changed so dramatically in 2016? That’s something I haven’t ever seen.

    1. It’s still a little bit of a mystery. She has always been sound sensitive, phobic really. She would fall to pieces when she heard certain high pitched sounds. But during that time, very suddenly, she started acting generally anxious. REALLY anxious. Trembling, wouldn’t eat. My vet and I did our best to rule out pain since the symptoms overlap. Probably not pain. Her triggers were very weird. She wanted out of the house. So sad. She would scratch at the front door to be let out, as if there were monsters in the house. She was scared when I sat down at the kitchen table. Really! My vet worked with a wonderful vet behaviorist and got her on meds and she slowly improved. She is pretty much back to normal now, and even copes well with sounds since I have worked with her a lot on that. Thanks for asking. It’s one of the great mysteries, to me.

      1. I had no idea all that was happening with Zani. My sympathies to both of you, and so glad your vet and behavioral vet found a combination of meds and behavioral mods to bring her back to her own cheerful self.

        We had an interesting conversation with my brother- and sister-in-law last night on this very topic. Their exuberant golden “went anxious” when she was about 3. This showed as utter balking when out on walks, then refusal to go on walks at all, and night-time anxiety needing comfort. Fast forward two years, when they decided to work with their vet on this. A combination of one med plus Purina Calming Care for the last six months has started making a difference. Dakota is now inciting walks, and saying “More!” when they go out. They’re up to a couple of miles now, and gaining confidence that they won’t have to carry her home. I’m starting to think Purina is onto something with their probiotics (and that’s saying something, as I feed homemade plus premium kibble). The more I read about gut microbiota and their influence on the brain, the more intriguing it all is!

        I’ve wondered a bit about meds with Rowan (2 year old border collie). With our dear departed Habi, there was no question – she needed meds and thousands of hours of behavioral work to function in this world. Rowan’s anxieties are very mild in comparison, and we’re working behaviorally with her with great local trainers. Hoping to avoid the medications route, but we learned with Habi that if that’s what a body needs, that’s what a body needs. After last night’s discussion and pending a talk with our vet, we may try Calming Care.

        All this stuff is so fascinating! And you set such a great example of listening to your dogs and coming up with creative ideas to make their lives the best they can be. Thanks for sharing them with us!

        1. Thanks Chris. Yes, it was a tough time, but it is well behind us now. I have no problem going with meds with any of my dogs, as long as I’ve got my good vet (and sometimes the VB) on the case. And yes, the probiotics stuff is pretty interesting! Thanks for filling me in about that.

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