The Power of Playing With Your Dog

MAY 14, 2019

Written by Puppy Love London Dog Trainer Sophia Barquero at her blog at The Leash Rack


The desire to play with our dog’s is one facet of dog ownership that just comes naturally. New puppies are almost always interested in playing with their toys (and with anything that you own too!) and we take pleasure in seeing older, newly adopted or re-homed dogs ‘re-learning’ how to play.

One of the most unique aspects of dog development is that they retain their juvenile desires for social interaction and play as they age. Their love of playing doesn’t end when puppyhood is over. So it is often the case that owners want to play with their dogs but are not sure how, because play also brings about behaviours that we sometimes may not enjoy. These behaviours include growling, barking, jumping and excitability. While these behaviours can be intimidating and alarming at first, we want to encourage you to seek what style of play works for your dog, and learn the benefits it can give your training routine, as well as your relationship.


Puppies love to play! It is how they explore the world so it is important to start them off on the right routine.

How Play Impacts Training

The benefits of play in training are often seen in dog’s who are trained for high level competition. Sports such as Obedience and Agility revolve around the dog’s ability to perform a specific set of tasks accurately, while demonstrating drive and composure. In most sports, food rewards are not allowed anywhere near the trial field – which means that dogs are performing these tasks without an immediate reward. So, how do trainers get this performance? The foundation of it revolves around play and building motivation to work together.


We include a large amount of play into our training sessions, sometimes with food and other times with toys.

Most puppies exhibit curiosity and interest in novel items, it’s what makes them so much work when they are little. Exposing your dog to ‘play time’ encourages them to become independent and confident, but directly playing with them sets an amazing foundation for their life long training plan.

Playing with them, whether through tug of war, food play, or ‘chase me’ type games allows your dog to create a bond with you that revolves around direct interaction with you. If they enjoy being with you and actively seek you out, then your training foundations become easier to solidify later on when teaching, for example, focus and engagement or loose leash walking.

You also create motivation for a reward that does not always revolve around food. A toy, or direct interaction with you becomes the ultimate ‘fun’ thing to do for your puppy and eliminates the obsession that some dogs have with food rewards in training. These types of rewards are called secondary rewards (toys) and environmental rewards (access to play), and both are long term reinforces for good behaviour. This is how our dogs are able to compete and trial successfully: they find the ‘training game’ (which is really just play disguised as rewards for good behaviour) fun!

Your dog does not need to be a competition prospect to learn and benefit from these skills. You can easily implement play to perfect behaviours and teach it in a way that is controlled and safe.

How to Encourage Your Dog to Play

1. Find what motivates your dog

While some dog’s prefer tug like toys, others enjoy a ball (like Ebony!). Others prefer a frisbee and some enjoy stuffed animals. Whatever toy your dog tends to gravitate towards, use it. We do not choose what motivates our dog’s – they do. It is what makes them individuals and unique, and with some careful observation about the kinds of toys they tend to pick out of their toy bin more frequently you can likely see a preference emerge!

2. Keep the toy fun and novel

We are all guilty of letting our dog’s have access to ‘too many’ toys at once; your living room may currently be littered with them! Instead, keep your dog’s favourite toy hidden and bring it out for brief periods of play with you. When play is over, the toy gets put away. You can also rotate which toys your dog has access to at once, so that every time they see an old one, it’s just like new again!

3. Start rewarding simple skills

Getting our dog’s to start working for ‘toys’ is pretty simple: just start rewarding with it! When you bring out their favourite toy, wait for them to calmly sit for you before verbally marking that correct behaviour with a YES and tossing the toy for them. This can instigate a game of fetch or tug, where you can continue to reward good behaviours. A few examples of behaviours to reward are…

  • Eye contact

  • Sit or Down

  • An ‘OUT’ command

  • Loose Leash Walking for 5 paces

  • Heeling for 5 paces

  • Spin

  • Target

Need an example of what a controlled, calm play session looks like? Check out our video below and don’t forget to have fun with your dog. Happy Training!

Copy of Loose Leash Walking Series: Part Two


Now that we have introduced the importance of Engagement in your loose leash walking, we can start to build other behaviours!

As mentioned previously, loose leash walking is a culmination of impulse control, handler awareness, engagement, and focus. This blog post will overview training your dog to focus on you in environments you may encounter on your walks.  

Focus is all about teaching your dog to look at you or ‘check in with you’. Similarly to engagement, focus is an incompatible behaviour to pulling – if your dog is focused on you, they cannot pull you towards distractions. Most often, dogs learn to focus quickly at home and in their yards but out in the ‘real world’ they struggle. As a result, this is where a large portion of your training for this skill will be practiced. As soon as your dog is successful in the home and around it, it should be practiced outdoors and in various environments.


Focus – can your dog look at you reliably in multiple environments?

Focus training differs from engagement because focus is ‘cued’, which means it is eventually given a verbal command – some people may use their dogs name, or “look at me” or “watch”. Regardless of your verbal cue the behaviour is set up so that you ask for it in situations that may be helpful. These include when distractions walk by you and your dog, or when they are caught looking at something for too long.

The reason we advocate for engagement to be taught before focus is because engagement training lays the groundwork for our dog’s desire to work with us. Once we have encouraged motivation and a desire to work with us, teaching Focus becomes easy!


It isn’t a realistic expectation for our dogs to solely stare at us on a walk – that would make the excursion pretty uninteresting for them. Instead of attempting to force our dogs to stare at us and ignore distractions (which is quite frankly, difficult to do!), the goal of walks should be to balance the dog’s desires to sniff and explore while also offering us appropriate and controlled behaviours. 

So how do we start?

The goal of teaching focus through the exercise outlined below is to teach the dog to glance at the things they find interesting, and wait for them to offer you a moment of focus or attention. This method of training is called Capturing – which means that we are not asking for a behaviour, the dog is offering it and being subsequently rewarded for it. This reinforcement history will cause the dog to repeat this skill over and over in the future.

Think of it this way: Every time your dog pulls you towards a fire hydrant and sniffs it, they are being rewarded. Not by you, but by the consequences of their actions. Sniffing and exploring are reinforcers for our dogs just as food is, which means they will continue to practice the same patterns of negative behaviour. Spotting a distraction and pulling you excitedly towards it can quickly become a pattern in walks until we start to implement alternative behaviours. If we want our dogs to learn new skills, we need to start by setting them up for success and working on gaining their focus well before we walk them close to their distractions. 

The Drill

  1. Have your dog on leash in a quiet, familiar environment and have treats in your pocket. Allow your dog to look, roam, and smell where they wish.

  2. As soon as your dog glances in your direction, mark and reward. Allow them to return to gazing or roaming.

  3. When they turn to you again, mark and reward.

  4. As your dog glances at you more frequently, reward accordingly. Try ten repetitions and see how many your dog can do quickly!

Need a visual? Check out our video!


If you are practicing focus or engagement work with your dog and they pull or jump towards people, you are likely working too close to distractions. Try putting some distance between your dog and those distractions and try training them at that level for a period of time before making it more difficult.

It is important to note that many dogs find it challenging to walk by another dog on a busy or crowded sidewalk. Although city life has granted our dogs all the comforts of life, some dogs find on leash proximity to others dogs distressing, frustrating or too exciting. Therefore we don’t tend to recommend you allow your dog to walk too closely to another if you do not know how your dog will react, or if they are uncontrollable.


If you face big distractions on walks, move your dog out of the way and work on some focus!

Rarely do we recommend on leash meet and greets. They can be unpredictable and hard to physically manage, not to mention any interaction your dog gains through pulling can cause them to to be reinforced by the scenario. Instead, we suggest giving your dog some distance from another pup, and working on capturing your dogs calm focus and rewarding that skill.


– Practice these focus drills (and your engagement exercises) outside of your normal walks and activities with your dog.

– Capture your dogs focus until your dog offers you glances continuously. A good measure of success to follow is this: out of 10 repetitions, your dog should easily do 8 (this 80% average means that your dog is understanding what you want from them the majority of the time). Once they do, you may begin to cue it through a verbal marker – “Watch” or your dog’s name are good choices.

– Do not repeat your verbal cues! Keep your training clear by ensuring you are not repeating commands. This will only confuse your dog and make your training less effective overtime. Most of this training should be silent aside from your verbal marker.


Focus with distractions

Focus is a skill that is often undervalued in dog training but it is very useful! It is even more useful when you do not have to ‘nag’ or pester your dog for the behavior. By pairing this skill with engagement training, you motivate your dog to like being with you and checking in with you through direct eye contact and through capturing. This, proofed in various environments will make your walking successful! 

Loose Leash Walking Series: Part One

APRIL 9, 2019

Loose Leash Walking Series: Part One Written By Sophia Barquero from her blog over at The Leash Rack


The arrival of Spring is the perfect opportunity to head out with your dog after a long winter and explore the world…but that peaceful stroll can turn frustrating quickly if your dog pulls, strains and jumps as you hang on for dear life!

Loose leash walking is a hard skill as it involves deliberate practice and multiple components of obedience training. It can be an even bigger challenge when you factor in ‘city living’ distractions. Buses, cars, bikes and other dogs are always going to exist and pop out of nowhere on your walks and for your safety and theirs, dogs of all sizes should remain calm in the presence of them.


Is this your dog as soon as they see a squirrel?! Read on!

The most common complaint with walking is excessive pulling and excitable behaviours around distractions such as people and other dogs. These behaviours not only present a safety issue for owners, but they can also lead to less walking overall. A frustrating 30 minute walk daily can sour the relationship you have with your dog and make you less inclined to walk them. You may seek alternative methods of exercise but this is a solution we never want to see because loose leash walking is a life skill and can absolutely be taught with the correct foundations.

As we stated earlier, walking is hard and it is not a skill that can be achieved overnight. Unlike your Sits, Downs, and Targets, walking requires many layers of proofing; that is, practicing in various environments and distractions, with a consistent level of reward and structure. Despite this fact the question “what should I do when my dog pulls?” is usually the most asked in training classes. 

There are many ways to interrupt pulling, but this blog post will focus instead on what to do when your dog is not pulling. By making this your primary objective and goal, you become proactive in your dog’s training. Rather than waiting for pulling to occur on a walk and training your dog then, you will anticipate their pulling and start to teach an alternative behaviour. 


The ‘secret’ to teaching your dog to walk well on leash lays in teaching solid foundation skills. These skills are a culmination of impulse control, handler awareness, management, and engagement and focus. Together, they create incompatible behaviours to pulling. If your dog has some measure of impulse control, they are less likely to pull. If your dog is aware of you and their environment, you can anticipate times when they pull. Finally if your dog can focus and redirect their attention to you willingly, you have a very useful way to structure your walk.

The assumption should always be that dogs will pull – they are animals after all. The training we want focus on is teaching the dog a measure of control that inhibits excessive pulling. So, the first step towards stopping your dog pulling is to start Engagement Training.

Most people understand focus to be your dog’s ability to direct their attention towards you (and we will touch base on this skill in our next blog!). Engagement training, however, is a relatively new concept in companion training. Engagement is your dog’s willingness to work with you (and in this case, check in with you), ideally without the obvious presence of rewards.

The premise is this: without hot dogs and cheese, will my dog Ebony still check in with me and want to do work with me? Can she do this in a new environment? Can she do this with other dogs walking by her, or people? The answer is yes, because I have built her engagement incrementally over the years. I have taught her that doing stuff with me is fun and rewarding, and something to look forward to. First, we used food and secondary rewards such as toys and then the environment. Eventually, the work itself became rewarding through repetition and practice.  

How does this help our walking? Well, engagement is a foundation skill. If you teach your dog that checking in with you on walks and in outdoor environments are good things, you are already being proactive about where their attention is wandering before it leads to excessive pulling. When you throw in hard distractions such as another dog that your pup could potentially pull towards, you are already ahead of the game and can set up the scenario to work to your advantage.

If you have taught your dog to frequently check in with you to the point that its muscle memory and fun for the dog to perform, suddenly walking becomes more about that activity. By practicing this, you have a skill to fall back on when distractions begin to creep up on your walk. You are no longer solely dealing with ‘a dog that pulls’ –  Instead, you are putting the majority of your time and effort in to teaching them better skills that help your relationship become stronger.

Engagement training differs from ‘focus work’ because it is not a cued skill, it is simply based on creating a fun dynamic between you and your dog. While Focus and Attention are excellent tools to use in your walking, building engagement lays the groundwork for those very skills to be solidified later on. 

Practicing engagement for beginners will need to start outside of your walks, but in the meantime while your dog learns, you should also be practicing management!


The other part of the ‘waking equation’ would entail management, and ensuring your dog is set up to succeed. If you are aware of her tendency to pull towards strangers, for example, this is a perfect opportunity to either practice your training skills or manage your dog.

If you have not brought appropriate rewards to train your dog or are unprepared for these scenarios, then you will mange the situation by stepping aside as strangers walk by (for example), or by creating distance by crossing the street. The last thing we want to do is set up our dogs to fail by attempting to walk too closely to their kryptonite and risk them practicing inappropriate behaviours. It is always best to keep your training as clear as possible for your dog and especially clear on what behaviours aren’t allowed (such as jumping up on people).  


You start by teaching engagement in easy locations!  

This is the fun part! Starting your dog on engagement drills is best in the home first and then an open area like your yard. The basic premise is that we want to reward the dog and make it fun when they ‘engage’ with us, and move with us. This can mean glancing at us, in direct or direct eye contact, looking up at us, or turning their body towards us.

To make the exercise easier, we would recommend starting this on leash but try to think of the leash as a guide rather than a preventative measure. You want your dog to choose to engage with you over the environment whether you have the leash or not in the future.


  • Start indoors with your dog, and have a handful of rewards ready to go. Move 3-5 steps away from them, and if they follow you mark and reward them.

  • Try to feed them as they move with you – backwards, then forwards.

  • Allow them to break that focus to glance around and do whatever they like. Its important not to ‘force’ your dog to check in with you, as the power of this skill comes from the dog ‘choosing’ to do it and subsequently being reinforced for it. This means no verbal commands or cues such as their name or ‘come’

  • As soon as they check back in after taking a break, mark and reward again, and take a few steps backwards with your dog.

  • As you progress through the exercise, you should notice your dog choosing YOU over the environment more and more, and you can walk in multiple directions with their sustained engagement. This is good!

If you think about it this way – what incentive do dogs have to check in with us when the world is so exciting? Most dogs usually just want to explore the world with their senses, so its important to remember that teaching them to engage with us is a process and should involve reinforcement. The more you practice, the more progress you should see over time. We like to recommend you use a higher value reward for these drills, especially if you are working outdoors. Most dogs tend to stop eating ‘regular’ rewards in more distracting environments – this is normal and part of the learning process.

Keep your training sessions short for this exercise. Five to ten minutes of consistent reinforcement is sufficient in new environments. Remember we want to avoid flooding them and overwhelming the dog.


Moving out of the way of distractions helps control your dogs reactions to them if you are unprepared for training


The main ingredient to successful loose leash walking is practice. This means that outside of your dog’s usual activity you will need to practice building their engagement.

An easy way to break the training down?

  • If you walk your dog 2Xa day, try to practice this drill 2X as well, before or after your walk.

  • Practice these drills in the yard before meal times

  • Grab a handful of rewards and head out to your driveway, and practice the skills there for a few minutes.

Engagement training doesn’t just help your walking! It is the foundation for every life skill you want your dog to learn and it’s the key to getting your dog to want to work with you and learn with you.

Happy Training!