How the dog learned to play

Dalcash Dvinsky
The Bunny Years
Published in
5 min readOct 15, 2023

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I have always played with dogs. I played with the dogs my parents had, four different boxers, covering four decades of my life. I played with a couple of other dogs I lived with. I played with random dogs, dogs I met on a trail or at the harbour or in the fields. I played with the street dogs in Chile. Once I met a random dog on a mountain top in Scotland. Within a few seconds we had established the rules for a simple game with a small rock. Playing is my automatic reaction to dogs. It’s one of the best things you can do with a dog, one of the best way to bond, one of the best ways to get to know a dog: Finding out what games to play, what toy works, how to play without any toys. Establishing boundaries, routines, and rules. Practising engagement, trust, impulse control. As a child, I spent countless hours playing with dogs, certainly more than playing with other kids. It seemed like something all dogs want to do, specifically with me.

Which is why it was so weird to find out that my own dog, the one I got in my mid 40s, wasn’t keen on playing. At all.

Let’s go to the park and throw a ball, they said. Bunny: Ignoring the ball, sniffing elsewhere. It is pretty impressive. Sometimes he takes a few steps towards the toy, then veers to a tree or a bush. Maybe it works better with a frisbee? Or a rope? Or a tug toy? Or a stick? Nothing. Not a damn thing. It’s a pity, because playing is a fantastic way to build focus and recall, it makes me more interesting. In theory. But when weare outside, toys are very low in Bunny’s list of priorities. The only exceptions are brief moments when we accidentally find someone else’s ball. To this day, the only time I can engage him in any kind of play on walks is when we play with food. But his relationship to food is a completely different story.

When we are playing at home, the focus is there, the desire to do something with me as well. All the distractions are gone. But playing is only the Thing To Do when there is absolutely no alternative. He rather spends his time staring through the window. Other dogs go nuts the moment you take out a toy. Bunny sniffs the toy and then looks at me. I try to animate the toy, by moving it, by throwing it, by making funny noises, and by moving with the toy: mild curiosity.

If I somehow manage to get him interested in a toy, he surely wants to have it, so much so, that he starts guarding it ferociously. I tried countless approaches on how to train the dog to play tug, or fetch. Bunny ruined all of them by simply not giving the toy back. Guarding, simply having the thing, is more important than interacting with me. His ‘game’ is growling, lunging, and threatening to bite. But I don’t play that way. He always appears to be much more serious than necessary in those situations. Being silly with me seems like a huge challenge for him.

Okay, I thought, somehow I managed to find the only dog in the Universe who doesn’t play, fine. We don’t have to do that. I can take advantage of his lack of interest in toys. I give all of them names, and I teach him to identify his toys by name. When I tried this with other dogs in the past, it was hampered by the dog’s inclination to pick the toy up and to play with it. With Bunny it works beautifully. He knows the names for about a dozen things and can identify them easily, for a reward. The motivation is here not the toy, but the food. It’s a fantastic way to engage a dog who doesn’t care about toys. But ultimately it feels a bit like going to school, it’s interesting and engaging, but not very entertaining. It’s not fun. And it’s not play.

From the beginning, there were certainly seeds of play, little moments, when he picked up a ball, and threw it around a bit. When he pretended that it’s a mouse he wants to catch. Or when he pulled on a tug toy. Or one round of ‘fetch’. Ten seconds of play time, followed by five minutes of growling. On very good days, we played for a minute or so. On most days, not at all. I offered him play pretty much every day, but he wasn’t interested. I used his playfulness as an indicator for his happiness. When he was doing well, he played. When he was sad and depressed, he didn’t. He often was sad. He played a lot more when Kathrin was around.

And then, very slowly, it got a little better. The seeds started to grow. Very slowly. He started to give in, to show some flex, which is the only way playing can work. You can’t play with someone who insists on winning all the time, on being always right, and on forcing everything. He started to give the ball back, almost by accident at first. Then with more intention. One of my strategies is to give very clear signals, with noises and body language, to tell him what play means by demonstrating it. One of his strategies is to throw himself on the ground, ball in the mouth, and to show me his belly. My reaction is to scratch his belly, to wait a minute or two, to calm down, and eventually he will loosen his grip on the ball. At that point I can take it away and a new round begins.

He learned how to be more gentle. His noises turned soft and playful. I can now actually tell the difference between a play growl and a growl. Very slowly, he realised what boundaries are, and how to be okay with them. He learned how to be rough, but not too rough. And then he started to initiate games, maybe for the first time in his adult life. Essentially all our games are still a chase sequence, followed by fighting for a ball, or for an old bone. But now it is really a play, a soft re-enactment of the real thing. There used to be just one harsh reality where the ball had to be his, in his mouth. Now we have created this separate world where it is okay to give it back. Where it’s even fun to give it back.

It has taken about three years, three years of being mostly serious, often sullen and worried, and quite depressed for long stretches. Months without touching a toy. But now I have a dog who plays with me, every day.

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