Physical Play
The following information has been adapted from Dr. Brenda Griffin’s Playing Games with Shelter Dogs.

Cultivating a playful relationship with a dog provides exercise, socialization and an opportunity to strengthen the human-animal bond. Consider how dogs play with one another and then try to engage the dog with some of those play behaviours. For example, assume a play stance, tag the dog’s flank with your hand, or run a few steps together.

Some dogs show little interest in toys, and limited ability to entertain themselves. Sometimes, these same dogs light up and engage with you if you bow at them or playfully tag them on the rump.

stop sign iconYou always need to proceed with caution when you play physical games with unfamiliar dogs. Physical play may be best suited for engaging dogs that you have had an opportunity to interact with or assess.

stop sign iconGames should never induce fear.

stop sign iconIf unruly behaviours are triggered by play, modify the game or select another game.

Before attempting to engage in physical play, it is important that you have some familiarity with the dog and that he/she appears comfortable with you. Keep in mind that your attempts at physical play may not be understood by the dog and could be perceived as frightening or even threatening. Carefully observe body language. Engage the dog in a confident and friendly manner. The goal is to be safe and have fun.

Gotcha  dog icon

Find a printable version of Gotcha.

Note: This game is not intended as physical play but as a skills game. However, it can be played with dogs that are new to your animal centre, before engaging them in physical play. This game communicates to them that if someone reaches out towards them, it is not a bad thing. We must be able to reach for a dog’s collar without inducing fear. This is an important skills game for all dogs and can be especially helpful for shy and fearful dogs.

What to Do:

The goal is for the dog to welcome you to reach for him and take him by the collar. He associates your reach with good things happening.

With one hand, reach out and gently touch the dog’s neck as though to take him by the collar and say GOTCHA.

At precisely the same time, use your other hand to give him a treat

Once he is comfortable, do this from various positions – sitting, standing, and walking.

This is a great skills game to play with any dog and has many foundational applications.

Tag  dog icon

Find a printable version of Tag.

Tag can be the ticket to healthy fun engagement with people for some dogs – so don’t rule it out as a way to connect and play with a dog. However, it can frighten some dogs or result in over-arousal for others. If this occurs, the game should be modified or another game should be played instead.

For dogs that get too aroused with tag, consider playing GO WILD AND FREEZE, or redirect the dog with LIFT or SPIN. If the dog likes to run while carrying a toy, you can try playing while he is doing so. He can’t mouth you as long as he has the toy in his mouth but can still join you for some jumping, running and hopping fun together.

What to Do:

At a distance from the dog, assume your best play stance (wide stance, knees bent), smile with your mouth open and look at him sideways with squinty eyes. Then, laterally hop towards the dog (who should be looking at you).

If he does not look afraid, reach out (without looming over him) and playfully touch or gently push at his neck, shoulder or rump, then move away. Don’t come on too strong at first –slowly and easy until you can gauge his response. If he comes after you with playful excitement you can run a few steps and giggling is good.

Depending on his response, getting on the ground and engaging him might be good – repeat what was fun for both parties. Adjust or end the game as needed if any unruly behaviour is triggered.

Hide and Seek  dog icon
Go Wild and Freeze  dog icon

Find a printable version of Go Wild and Freeze.

This is a good game for strong, young, impulsive dogs. It teaches them how to turn on and off and rewards appropriate behaviour with play. It is actually quite fun to play a group version of this – one dog with more than one person – all going WILD! and then FREEZING. This is truly an amusing and quite useful game for dogs and humans alike.

What to Do:

Look at the dog and say “GO WILD” – and you jump around, make some noise, hop laterally, get silly, get excited. Hopefully, he will be encouraged to do the same and you can playfully engage and connect together.

After a moment or two of wildness, say “FREEZE” and turn away from him, cross your arms, and say nothing at all.

When he is calm, re-engage him and  say”GO WILD” again.

Touch  dog icon

Find a printable version of Touch 

This is the behaviour we want to shape: the dog seeks your outstretched hand—and it is a fun and positive experience!

What to Do:

Teach the dog to touch your hand.

Hold the palm of your hand near his face. Wait for him to touch it with his nose, and then give him a treat.

Keep your hand still once it is near his face. Do not reward mouthing. As he learns this, gradually put your hand in other positions so he has to move to touch it.

Building on the foundation of touch and/or following your hand, introduce LIFT and SPIN. Find a printable version of LIFT or SPIN.


Hold your hand above the dog’s head such that he has to lift up to touch it.

This can be used to shape an impressive leap to touch your hand, which is fun for many dogs.


Move your right hand in a small clockwise circle over the dog’s nose.

As he follows it, he will SPIN in a tight circle.

Gradually fade your hand over time as he learns the motion. He’ll begin to rely less and less on following your hand and will SPIN with only a hand gesture as a cue. Many dogs love to spin.

Other tricks may also be fun. For example, shake, wave, or jump through a hula hoop. Trick training is fun and can be useful for connecting with adopters. And, most dogs enjoy doing tricks because of all the positive attention and associations created with them. In fact, tricks often end up becoming stress busters and mood boosters in and of themselves.

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