Day 86 Play: the toy is not the reward

Welcome to Day 86 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!

Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.

Don’t forget to review all the information leading up to #100daysofenrichment and more here on playing safe. Know your dog!



The toy is not the reward

At a glance:

  • make the interaction about you and your dog having fun, rather than the toy
  • the interactions might be toyless/treatless, or the dog might carry the toy
  • develop your play-sense as we work toward no-toy play that is truly cooperative and joyful
  • play is the ultimate in relationship boosting, stress busting fun
  • social and cognitive based enrichment
  • play and engagement form the foundation of relationships and successful training
  • lots of these exercises can get pretty exciting, so it might be better that smaller children not take part but help in preparing training rewards where relevant.
    Children can be great dog trainers but require lots of guidance and support.
    Remember, supervise children in all enrichment activities and interactions with pets.
  • no formal training sessions today, no contrived enrichment scenarios – make it natural, make it delightful, make it fun

What do you need?

  • you and your pet!
  • a favourite toy is optional

We have talked about play a lot over our 100 days. Play can be any fun, goofy, cooperative exchange and can include food, toys, other items or just the two players.

We started on Day 2 looking at release cues so that toy-play stays fun and safe and can be applied in so many ways to our day to day lives with our pets.

On Day 32, we introduced some of my favourite games that encourage pets and people to play and on Day 73, we got goofy!

Enrichment Goals:

  • to make the fun about the engagement and interaction and not training exercises, food rewards or toys
  • to build engagement between dog and human
  • to build that bond between dog and human
  • to have a fun and rewarding experience in social situations, between dogs and humans

We are not working on training exercises today but I do want to make sure that we understand that all behaviour is reinforced or punished. Reinforcers increase behaviour, punishers decrease it.
So, if behaviour is happening something is reinforcing it, and if it’s not happening, something is punishing it.

Play is no different. Just like cueing behaviour and your dog responding is a dance of communication, play is too. Perhaps, even more so.

You do behaviour, your dog responds, you respond, your dog responds, you respond and so on and on.
This allows for a wonderfully complex level of communication between two species, forging a most health relationship between our two species.
This is a level of social and cognitive enrichment that’s tricky to replicate.

What goals can you add to this list for your pets?


How can we achieve these goals?

Today’s challenges don’t involve any particular training exercises, but instead are a bit of an experiment in what sort of interactions are truly reinforcing for your dog’s behaviour.

Let your dog have the toy and keep the toy – how can you two have fun when you don’t control the toy?

There doesn’t need to be any duration to these interactions, a couple of seconds or a couple of minutes is good.

Allowing the dog keep the toy, can help to maintain arousal at a more manageable level so you can play happier and safer for longer.

Keep it really simple today – get a good understanding of inter-species play, and how we humans often get it pretty wrong.

Applications of Play:

Play is a tricky thing that we think we recognise if we see it, but might not be able to adequately define it. And that’s the case in the literature too.

We think that animals play, but we’re not really sure why. The play research suggests we start by defining play so here’s a simple run down…

  • play for play’s sake, because you choose to play
  • play is fun, and that’s enough
  • play feels good and we want to engage in play (you don’t have to play)
  • play can sometimes look serious, but there are important differences; the serious parts happen out of order or in the absence of normal triggers relative to the serious stuff
  • play is creative, spontaneous and improvised
  • play happens when we feel safe – time should fly, you should feel less self-conscious

And although there might be some agreement on how we might define play, when it comes to deciphering the functions of play, there are lots of differences.

Play probably helps animals prepare for swings in emotion, gets them ready and honed for life and let’s not forget, play is fun! Having fun is a viable function of behaviour.


Dogs and humans play differently and dog-dog play differs from dog-human play (and differs from human-human play). But, like in so many areas, dogs and humans share tons of the basic rules of social interactions.

As is so often typical of us humans, we often approach play in the way we think the dog should play or in the way we think the dog should enjoy playing. And this so often turns the dog off play, changes the nature of games and ultimately causes break downs in communication and relationship.

We even have research that looks at how people play with their dogs and how our play behaviours overwhelm our play partner, yet we continue to push, presumably believing that this is fun and this is how it should be done.

I spend a lot of time working on improving relationships between pets and their people; that’s what this entire project is about too. I also spend a lot of that time helping people play with their dogs (certainly not the worst job in the world!).
I incorporate play in almost every training and behaviour program I design. My most common problem is that people don’t appear to know how to play with their dogs and sometimes don’t value play’s importance, whether that be toy based games, or just silly, playful interactions.
Our trainers will tell you that that is something that causes me great stress and concern – I take play very seriously, playfully serious!

I believe that play is life, and play is a way of dealing with life. Improving your play with your dog does so much more than just fun with food.

Just because you (think you) utilise reward based training, R+, “force-free” or whatever “positive” label, doesn’t mean it’s a happy, playful learning experience. Teaching playful behaviours like tricks isn’t the same as playing.

The beauty of establishing these foundations is that the more you play together, the more you will each shape one another’s behaviour. Your behaviour will evolve, adapt and adjust to your player.

The ultimate goal in play is to get really nice play-interactions, without treats or toys. The two players, dog and human, are participating for the pure joy.


Play starts with an invitation and consent, the players make eye contact and ask if they want to keep the game going; play is cooperative so we ask and answer. Play involves mirroring of behaviour and balanced participation.

Today, we continue on the road to wonderful, consent-full, choice-led, partnership based play between dog and human. What could be better than that?

Play Dos and Don’ts


  • play in really short sessions
  • get their attention first
  • invite play
  • get consent
  • and keep asking if they would like to continue…
  • practice – play is like any other behaviour


  • bring too much intensity
  • push the toy at the dog
  • make it too exciting when the dog is just starting to show interest
  • expect too much
  • rely on food too much
  • get stuck
  • play too long

Toy Play Options


Maybe your dog gets his kicks out of playing with an item, without a human. There’s nothing wrong with this and indeed, I encourage it. Lots of our #100days challenges are about your dog interacting with their environment, sometimes entirely exclusive of their human’s interaction.






Sometimes he will choose self-play, with a Jolly ball, over interactive play with a tug; he just tugs to be released to shake the Jolly Ball:


Mix it up!

Make toy play not just about the toy! How many different games can you and your dog, together, come up with for just one toy, the one you are playing with?

Not just tug or fetch…what else? Try not to do the same moves in a row – mix it up!


You are having fun with your dog, and there just happens to be a toy present…it’s not necessarily always the central focus.


This unedited clip is just ten minutes representing our lives’ work together, in play. He wants to stick with me for the interaction and not just for the toy. The toy is part of our interaction but not always the central focus.


When working to build the joy in play, establish this variety from the start. This also helps you identify moves that are particularly reinforcing for the individual dog’s behaviour.

The toy is present, and the dog can have it, but the fun and games are in the interaction:




No-toy-play is about simple interactions that are fun for both players, are cooperative – true play. Toys or food can be present,  but the joy is in the interaction. Each player learning about the other’s preferences, sharing a dance in communication.

Being silly together – as adults, we don’t get to be silly enough. Sometimes, it’s important to be more dog.



These two little play sessions are about Dexter and I learning about one another’s tolerances and preferences. What does my play partner like and enjoy?

These sessions are a couple of months apart with Dexter having been absent for holidays and so on. But as soon as he is back in that play context, he jumps in and is much more forthcoming about his preferences and finding out mine. A dance in communication.

Take it easy and don’t come on strong. Use minimal touching. It’s must easier to add play and interaction, than it is to come on too strong and then try to tone it down a bit.

Start with food play, add toy play, build in a ton of interaction.

Check out Day 36 too to help you work on choosing reinforcement.

Your challenge

Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!

Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂

We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!

My favourite playa, whose capacity for joy, fun and play apparently knows no bounds and has me in amazement and awe (and sometimes bewilderment) every day.