Jack Russell terrier cross Todd at Lewknor adoption centre

How to play with your dog

Dogs are social animals and one of the ways they build and learn about relationships and communication is through play.

One of the things we love about dogs is their playful nature. Playing with your dog regularly will help you learn more about their personality and help strengthen the bond between you. You’ll also be the person your dog will want to be around!  

Most dogs like to chase, tug or retrieve toys and play can help provide a safe outlet for some of their natural instincts. Playing should be safe and enjoyable for everyone, so there’s a few things you’ll need to know before you play with your dog.

How do dogs like to play?

Your dog’s personality, age and breed type can all have an influence on their play style.

Watch what your dog does when they’re excited. Does your dog chase, grab or pounce on things? Experiment with a few different toys and, using a toy, mimic your dog’s natural play behaviour.


Some dogs prefer to play games with people. Games fall into three main categories:

  • Tug of war (tug toys include raggers and rubber rings)
  • Chase and retrieve (use balls and Kongs on a rope)
  • Hide, seek and search (this can be played with people, toys or food)  

Whatever toys you use, make sure they are suitable and the right size for your dog. Check their toys regularly to ensure there are no small parts that could be chewed off and swallowed.  


Avoid using tennis balls or balls without a rope – tennis balls can become lodged in the throat of smaller dogs, and can impact their breathing. Some dogs may also chew their tennis ball and swallow pieces. This can cause an obstruction in the stomach.

Solo play

Some dogs enjoy playing on their own or they have learnt to do this over time. They may pick up a toy, run around with it and throw it around by themselves. They may shake the toy or destroy it, especially if the toy has a squeak in it.  

There is nothing wrong with dogs doing this. For some young dogs it’s important to allow them to grab, pounce and have some fun on their own too. But solo play should always be supervised, especially if there is a risk your dog may ingest parts of a toy. If your dog is prone to chewing, robust tough toys are a must.

Games to play with your dog

Tug of war

Some people avoid playing tug of war because they worry it will encourage their dog to be controlling and aggressive. But it’s a very rewarding game for most dogs and provides a fantastic outlet for their natural behaviours.

If your dog wants to play in this way and they do not get the opportunity to do so, you may find they’re more likely to grab and tug their lead or clothing. This can be difficult to manage. These steps can help you:

  1. Encourage your dog to grab their toy by saying “take it”.  
  2. When your dog has a good hold of the toy, move the toy from side to side, up and down and backwards and forwards – do this gently at first, as being too exciting can make it hard for your dog to concentrate on what you’re doing and saying.
  3. After around 30 seconds, suddenly stop moving the toy. Bring it towards you and do not say anything. Your dog may still tug at this stage but do not respond. This makes the toy and the game very boring compared to what was happening a moment earlier.
  4. When your dog eventually releases their grip, say an enthusiastic “yes” and immediately begin playing again. The aim is to make it clear that when your dog is invited to play, they’ll have lots of fun. But when the toy is still, the fun ends. They will also learn that, by letting go of the toy, they are rewarded with another game. 
    Some dogs will understand what you’re asking quickly, while others may take more time. When they are reliably doing this, you can begin introducing a word such as “out” or “off” at the point they let go.


Let your dog win the toy regularly. Without this, they may begin to lose interest in playing with you. Most dogs enjoy trotting about while carrying the toy – you can encourage them back to you by clapping gently while moving backwards. They’ll soon learn that if they bring it back to you, the fun and games continue.

Chase and retrieve 

Most dogs love to chase a toy but not all have learned to bring it back. If your dog does not bring the toy back to you, start by teaching your dog to hold the toy or an object such as a dog training dumbbell.


Make sure any toys you use are not small enough to swallow (a ball on a rope is safer than just a ball). Do not throw the toy upwards as that may cause your dog to leap up and land awkwardly.

  1. Show your dog the toy and ask them to come towards you. If they do not approach you, walking backwards can encourage them to do this.
  2. If they place their teeth on the toy, say “yes” and give them a treat. If they do not do this, say "yes" followed by a treat if they investigate it with their nose. You can build up to them placing their teeth on the toy. Do this frequently until your dog is reliably holding onto the toy.
  3. Place the toy on the floor – not all dogs will immediately pick it up, but if your dog does, say "yes" and give them a treat. If your dog does not, say "yes" for investigating it. You can build up to them picking it up.
  4. Ask your dog to bring the toy back to you with some gentle clapping and encouragement. Reward them with a treat once they have returned the toy to you. Some dogs will learn this quickly, and others may take a bit longer. The key is to do this at your dog’s pace and practice the steps that they need to learn to bring it back reliably.
  5. Progress to running backwards as your dog picks up the toy so that your dog must follow you to get a treat. Eventually you will be able to phase out using treats for this, as your dog learns that if they bring the toy back to you, they will be rewarded with another game of fetch.

If you are using a dumbbell to train, you may wish to swap for an easily thrown toy when your dog has mastered the art of bringing it back to you.

When your dog is confidently bringing the toy back to you, you can start to add some control by throwing the toy, but waiting until it has come to rest before you allow your dog to fetch it. Your dog will need to learn a super sit to do this. Although you’ll have to put lots of effort into training for this, it’s far kinder on your dog’s body and just as enjoyable.


Repetitive games of fetch take their toll on a dog’s body due to the twists and turns and sudden stops. Dogs will often play way beyond their limits due to how enjoyable it is. Take care not to overdo this game – it’s much safer to ask your dog to sit while the ball is being thrown and wait for it to drop before sending them on.

Hide and seek

Hide and seek makes use of your dog's amazing sense of smell. Your dog will use a combination of wind scenting (sniffing the air to locate you) and tracking (sniffing along the ground to follow where you have walked).

  1. Ask someone to hold your dog or wait until your dog is in another room.
  2. Hide behind a door or sofa and call your dog. When you first start this game, you may need to call them more than once.
  3. As soon as your dog finds you, praise them with a food treat and lots of enthusiasm.

You can play the same game in the garden or in safe areas while you’re out for a walk. When your dog is sniffing and not watching you, crouch down in long grass or hide behind a tree and call them. Remember to be very excited when they find you.


Do not make this too hard for your dog at first, as you do not want them to panic if they cannot find you.


Searching is another way to put your dog’s excellent sense of smell to good use. A dog’s sense of smell is their primary sense.

  1. To play a search game, your dog must be keen to play with a toy. Start by briefly teasing your dog with the toy and then, while they’re watching, hide it behind furniture or throw it into long grass (if you’re outside).
  2. Encourage your dog to go and find it by asking in an excited voice “where is it?”. When your dog understands the game, you can make it harder by not letting your dog watch where you hide the toy. Do not hide the toy where you do not want your dog to go.

If your dog is not interested in toys, you can play the same game but hide portions of your dog’s dinner or tasty food treats.

Tips for playing with your dog

  • Avoid playing rough wrestling games or allowing your dog to chase children. While both can be exciting for dogs and children, they can quickly get out of hand and risk someone getting hurt.
  • Keep toys at the height your dog can reach so that you do not encourage your dog to jump up
  • Have daily play sessions at home and when out for walks, but never force your dog to play
  • When playing use an exciting voice with lots of praise and encouragement. Play should be fun for both of you.


Training should be fun for your dog too. It helps to keep their mind occupied and you can use games and food treats to reward good behaviour.

More on training your dog

If you need further practical advice, consider attending a local dog training class. To find a trainer near you, visit the Association of Pet Dog Trainers' website.

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• 20 May 2024

Next review

• 20 May 2027

Claire crouching next to her white staffie dog
Approved by
Claire Stallard

Animal Behaviourist ABTC-CAB