The Play Way for Shy and Fearful Dogs

Play is a widespread characteristic of social animals. Humans play. Dogs play. Maybe our shared want for and love of play is a part of what strengthens our want to share our lives with canine. We play along with toys and invent pleasant video games. Many of us make some extent to include toy play and enjoyable interpersonal play into our coaching applications, providing an thrilling bout of tug or a possibility to retrieve a prized ball in change for an accurate response to a cue.

Used in a really particular method, play additionally helps shy and fearful canine be taught to work by and overcome worry and nervousness, typically in circumstances the place extra conventional positive-reinforcement strategies – makes an attempt to counter-condition triggers (“scary things”) with using meals – have been much less profitable. 

Amy Cook, Ph.D., a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, has been coaching canine for 30 years and has specialised in working with shy and fearful canine for the previous 20. She first started exploring the therapeutic worth of play for shy and fearful canine as a part of her doctoral work in psychology, the place she realized the stark variations between therapeutic approaches to addressing worry and nervousness in youngsters and the way positive-reinforcement canine trainers sometimes addressed worry and nervousness in canine. In exploring therapeutic approaches to traumatized youngsters, Cook questioned if an identical strategy may work for canine. 

“It got me thinking,” Cook says. “When we have a traumatized 4-year-old child, what do we do with them? Do we lean on classical conditioning to make new associations? Sure, that can be there, but there’s so much more to pull from in the human therapy model than what we were pulling from with Skinner and Pavlov as dog trainers.” Cook started exploring the various methods little one remedy typically incorporates playful, enjoyable video games and nurturing actions to speak love, pleasure, and security to a traumatized little one.

Not lengthy after, Cook formulated the ideas she discovered handiest for rehabilitating frightened canine into Play Way. 


The Play Way incorporates play in a fastidiously nuanced method to be able to assist shy and fearful canine overcome their points to be able to stay a happier, less-stressed life. But the “play” used within the Play Way is completely different from what many individuals possible consider when requested to play with their canine. 

“In my system, the dog leads most of the play,” explains Cook. “I may not prod or nag or insist. I may only invite. If the dog responds with, ‘Yeah, I’d love to do that,’ then great. If the dog says, ‘No thank you. I’m busy. I’m sniffing. I’m looking at something,’ that’s okay, too. I want the trainer to communicate her availability to play, but it’s equally important to respect the dog’s answer.”

Cook says that’s the toughest half. Especially in circumstances the place the coach is used to aiming for fixed engagement throughout coaching classes, wanting to name the canine’s title or in any other case prod for consideration the moment he turns into distracted and appears away. 

“We’d never dream of doing that in our interaction with other humans,” says Cook. “If you were on the phone and I wanted to talk to you, and you said, ‘Give me a second,’ I’d need to give you that time. I wouldn’t grab the phone, hang it up and say, ‘Hey! Hang up the phone! I have money, take it, let’s talk!’ The Play Way is a lot more about how interactions happen between people. I’m asking handlers to explore this space where the dog gets to decide if they want to do this.”

Giving the canine equal footing within the decision-making course of is only one key side of the Play Way. How one performs is the opposite, together with educating the canine to “look at and dismiss” potential triggers (that is described in “The Play Way, Step by Step,” on web page 21). 

For most individuals, probably the most difficult a part of studying the Play Way is studying find out how to play on this method. Play Way play just isn’t about overly excited, high-arousal play. It’s about creating a consensual, relaxed but playful interplay between canine and human that offers each events permission to be foolish and easily benefit from the second. High-energy, aroused play positively has a spot in Cook’s toolbox. It’s tremendous enjoyable, builds and maintains arousal when wanted, and is nice for constructing anticipation and reinforcing skilled behaviors. It’s simply not the objective within the Play Way.

Success Story: Tessa and Molly

Molly and Tessa get pleasure from a candy second collectively; their relationship blossomed after Tessa realized find out how to use therapeutic play to spice up Molly’s confidence and belief.

Tessa Romita of Stoneridge, New Jersey, selected a 4-month-old Coonhound pet, Molly, from her native shelter as a result of she appeared mellow. As she later realized, Molly’s outward look of “mellow” was masking a really anxious and reactive canine. 

Tessa struggled to combine Molly together with her resident canine. Molly steadily lashed out in the event that they acquired too near her or gadgets she perceived as hers. Tessa’s resident canine, all smaller than Molly, have been all the time strolling on eggshells, with no actual thought find out how to peacefully coexist with their new canine housemate. Outside the home, Molly was a mixture of unbiased, sometimes assured, and sometimes fearful. Life was a posh maze of administration methods. 

Tessa did every little thing proper. She enrolled in a well-respected positive-reinforcement pet class and diligently tried to assist Molly. As Molly transitioned from puppyhood, to adolescence and into maturity, Tessa continued working with trainers in an try and make life much less irritating for Molly, and by extension, for the remainder of the household. While they made some progress, finally every of the trainers got here to the identical conclusion: Things have been nearly as good as they have been more likely to get. There was nothing extra to be carried out. Molly’s world would must be small. 

“Then I took Amy’s class and it was a game-changer,” Tessa says. “I tear up even thinking about how this journey started for us.” For Tessa and Molly, strengthening their relationship by therapeutic play was transformational. In giving Molly the house to simply accept or decline invites to play, she realized she had a selection, and in being on condition that selection, her confidence grew. She turned extra relaxed. “It’s so powerful to see how Molly learned she can be out in the world and not need to scan and worry about what could happen; instead, she trusts me and enjoys being out.”

The scenario even improved between Molly and Tessa’s resident canine. Whereas administration was once a giant a part of their each day life, the canine now get pleasure from free, relaxed social interplay. “It took time, but it’s beautiful. They’re friends now,” says Tessa.

Molly nonetheless has instances when she struggles with nervousness, however total she’s extra relaxed, extra assured, and typically even downright foolish. “I’ll have these random moments where Molly does something she’d never do before, like suddenly go wading through a creek when she used to be afraid of water, or not care about an alarm going off when she’d been painfully sound-sensitive,” Tessa says. “I’ll email Amy in amazement and her response is always, ‘Play is magic.’”



Taking the time to develop a conversational, give-and-take social play relationship is essential as a result of in rehabilitating shy and fearful canine, the canine’s capacity to have interaction on this method serves as a barometer for a way a canine is feeling. 

Threshold is a phrase that comes up loads in work with fearful canine (and canine who exhibit aggressive conduct, too, which is smart as a result of plenty of aggression is straight traced to worry). Threshold is loosely outlined because the second when a canine crosses from one emotional state to a different. In the particular context of fearful canine, a canine who’s simply “under threshold” is in that emotional candy spot the place he’s conscious of the presence of the set off (the “scary thing”) however not feeling in any respect threatened. Once he’s tipped right into a fearful state (“over threshold”), the fight-or-flight hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) could kick in, making it laborious for him to assume, be taught, keep in mind, and reply like a extra “normal” canine.

When working with fearful canine, the flexibility to maintain the canine sufficiently sub-threshold is paramount to the coaching success. But preserving a canine below threshold is usually simpler mentioned than carried out. Real-world variables can change on a dime, particularly if one hasn’t gone to nice lengths to fastidiously arrange a managed coaching session. And a pressured canine just isn’t within the correct psychological state to be taught he’s secure within the presence of the set off.

“When I first learned about positive reinforcement-based dog training, the general wisdom was that as long as the dog is eating, he’s under threshold,” says Cook. “That might be a reliable indicator for some dogs, but it’s far too unreliable for me with the degree of under threshold I’m aiming for. After all, many dogs can eat or tug on a toy while stressed.” 


Many trainers flip to classical counter-conditioning to assist rewire how the canine’s mind reacts to scary issues. But Cook’s technique follows extra of a human therapeutic mannequin. 

Rather than use meals in an try and reprogram how the canine feels in particular conditions, her objective is to assist the canine naturally obtain an emotional state the place he can comfortably consider a scenario and are available to his personal conclusion that there’s nothing to fret about. It’s just like how a talented human therapist guides an individual by a therapeutic course of in such a method that the consumer discovers the solutions herself. 

“It’s about giving the dog the chance to self-soothe from a place of entirely established safety, and where they’re already feeing relaxed. Now they have a chance to gather new information and I don’t have to tell them what specific response they should be having. I’m not saying, ‘You’re right, there’s a stimulus (the scary thing) and now I’m going to give you something (food) to influence you directly.’ Instead, I can say, ‘Go ahead and look at the scary thing and come to the very real conclusion that you are not under threat here.’” 

Play helps facilitate the method. Whereas the objective of meals facilities round altering the canine’s conditioned emotional response (CER) to the set off, the objective of Play Way play is to assist put the learner into a greater way of thinking from which to completely consider the scenario and organically notice there is no such thing as a risk.

The Play Way, Step By Step

1.  Learning the Language of Play Way Play. For most individuals, that is probably the most difficult a part of the Play Way. This first step focuses on creating a therapeutic play type that permits for relaxed, foolish, low-energy, consensual exercise, the place the canine is given room to say, “No thank you,” “Not right now,” or, “I’d rather do this instead of that.”

2. Location, Location, Location. Once the canine and handler have come to a mutual understanding about this new type of interplay, ensure that it holds up by enjoying in lots of new, non-challenging places, resembling completely different rooms of the home. 

3. Developing “Look and Dismiss” Using Simple Distractions. Now it’s time to introduce easy, non-worrisome (trigger-free) distractions. The “look and dismiss” a part of the Play Way is about serving to the canine notice he can acknowledge doubtlessly “scary things” from a spot of security, notice it’s no massive deal, and calmly dismiss the potential set off. This begins by working towards look and dismiss with easy distractions. 

The important piece of this talent is so that you can let the canine management the session; you simply open the door to the potential of play. Let’s assume your canine is initially receptive to the invitation. If she disengages for any purpose – say, a blowing leaf catches her consideration – let her achieve this. Pause, wait, and permit her to course of the knowledge. When she reorients her consideration to you, merely acknowledge her warmly, after which, if her consideration continues to be current, re-issue the calm, informal invitation to play and wait to see how she responds. 

This might be tough, as there’s a fantastic temptation to enthusiastically react to the canine’s option to re-orient to you by immediately re-engaging in play. But the calm, informal, re-issuing of the invitation to play, and never an enthusiastic, doubtlessly rewarding response is a important ingredient of “look and dismiss” within the Play Way, Cook says. “You want to leave room for the dog to look back at the scary thing if she needs to. Dismissal can come in stages. If you play too quickly, you can overshadow the dog’s natural thought process.”

The Play Way is not about educating the canine to take a look at triggers after which look again at you to be able to earn a reward of play. Cook doesn’t need the canine to be searching for rewards, however as a substitute, to be in a psychological state that helps his capacity to acknowledge the set off’s existence and notice it’s not so scary in spite of everything, so it may be comfortably dismissed. It’s essential to follow this step loads so the canine turns into effectively rehearsed in trying, processing, and dismissing – all on his personal, with out being cued to return consideration to the handler.

4. Formal Training Set Ups. Once the canine is effectively practiced at noticing however simply dismissing assorted non-concerning distractions in favor of participating in therapeutic play, it’s time to introduce barely more difficult distractions that could be of minor concern, taking care to current them at a really low degree. 

For instance, if a canine is afraid of different canine, one may use a realistic-looking stuffed canine positioned far within the distance. If the canine worries about unusual individuals, a helper may stand distant. Distance is essential since, for many canine, the farther they’re from the set off, the much less problematic it’s. The objective is for the canine to see the set off, however to now have the instruments –the flexibility to look and collect data from a spot of security – to course of the scenario and notice there is no such thing as a risk. If the canine can’t simply look and dismiss the set off, that’s key data for the handler, who then aborts the session and creates a neater coaching situation subsequent time.

Cook factors out these set-ups rely closely on the handler’s capacity to manage the setting quickly in a method that avoids being ambushed by the canine’s set off. For these on a regular basis conditions the place one simply must stroll the canine by a neighborhood filled with potential triggers, she recommends cautious administration resembling preserving a secure distance from “the scary things,” together with utilizing meals in a extra conventional positive-reinforcement framework resembling persistently feeding within the presence of the set off, typically often called “open bar, closed bar,” to assist stop the rehearsal of undesirable, reactive conduct. 

Over time, Cook says purchasers report a marked lower within the quantity of administration wanted to navigate on a regular basis, real-world conditions. Their canine may nonetheless discover triggers, however discover it far simpler to dismiss them and transfer alongside. 

“Dogs get really good at gathering information quickly, and from a place of calm safety, so they aren’t feeling triggered and don’t need to overreact,” she says. “It’s much easier for them to look at people or dogs and it’s like they’re saying, ‘No big deal. I’ve seen that before. We can move on.’”



Play Way play is about social, interpersonal play, extra so than enjoying along with toys or utilizing meals. What issues most is that the human acknowledges and adopts the conversational nature of how canine play with one another, somewhat than search to drive and management the play interplay. 

Healthy dog-to-dog play has a pure rhythm. There’s plenty of forwards and backwards. They pause. They maintain suspense. They change issues up. They don’t a lot get pleasure from a play associate who’s being pushy. It’s not as a lot enjoyable to play with somebody who insists on choosing the sport and dictating precisely the way it’s performed.

“It’s a lot like working with toddlers,” says Cook. “With kids, you don’t get to decide how the game goes. It’s no fun if you decide we have to play Candyland and then you win. Play Way play is about being cooperative, improvising, and letting the dog make suggestions like, ‘I want to do this…’ or ‘I don’t like when you poke my butt with your claw hand, but I do like to play fake bitey-face with you.’” 

Try play-bowing at your canine. Hide your face and encourage your canine to burrow below your palms to “find” you. Cover your self with a blanket and do the identical. Start with sluggish, smooth vitality and provides your canine loads of room to maneuver round. Try to exude affection. Flirt! When you contact the canine, pull again and invite her to come back towards you. Don’t be afraid to strive new issues, however don’t frantically swap from one conduct to a different. Float an thought and see what occurs. If your canine is used to interactive toy play or frequent coaching classes, he could be confused and want time (over a number of quick classes) to determine what’s happening. 


According to Cook, one of many greatest benefits of the Play Way technique is its capacity to maintain handlers sincere about whether or not or not the canine is below threshold. That’s as a result of many food-motivated canine will nonetheless eat and a few toy-motivated canine can nonetheless enthusiastically tug regardless that nervousness is creeping in. In distinction, social play (as practiced within the Play Way) is much extra fragile. Social play is the very first thing to go when stress begins to creep in, says Cook. 

“It’s not very robust,” Cook says. “The second a canine begins to have even a gentle concern – or perhaps a curiosity that may result in a priority – the play stops. When that occurs, you as a coach have a transparent indication of one thing that you must take note of and doubtlessly alter. It retains the coach sincere about staying below threshold.

“I like issues that assist me counter my very own biases and weaknesses as a human being,” Cook continues. “When you’re trying to get something done, you might be tempted to tell yourself it’s okay, the dog’s fine if he’s eating or tugging. I find this type of social play keeps me really honest in my assessments.” 

The capacity to keep up a excessive diploma of accuracy relating to the canine’s thresholds can result in sooner outcomes in comparison with conventional classical counter-conditioning protocols. It’s a closely front-loaded effort that pays off ultimately. By taking the time to slowly develop an entirely consensual, give-and-take play relationship with a canine, you acquire the flexibility to make use of social play for therapeutic functions. And in utilizing social play therapeutically, you’re much less more likely to by accident push the canine over threshold. 

Also, by stopping the canine from going over threshold, he’s extra more likely to take constant steps in the best path, as a substitute of setbacks frequently inflicting him to take two steps ahead and three steps again. 

Different From Classical Conditioning

p>People typically mistakenly discuss with the Play Way as a classical conditioning set-up that makes use of social play instead of meals to assist change how a canine feels concerning the “scary thing.” But Cook says that’s not completely appropriate. A standard strategy utilized by constructive trainers working with shy and fearful canine is to strategically provide meals or toys – one thing the canine readily enjoys – anytime the set off (the “scary thing”) is current, in order that the canine involves affiliate the scary factor with the supply of meals or toys, and the newly fashioned affiliation reduces the diploma of concern. This known as classical counter-conditioning and it steadily works wonders. 

However, with the Play Way, says Cook, “I’m specifically working to avoid a situation where the dog looks at the scary thing and then instantly play happens. Instead, I’m using play to facilitate the dog’s ability to be in a relaxed, happy state where he can comfortably assess a situation and decide for himself that he’s safe. I know Pavlov is always on your shoulder, but the focus of the Play Way is not to drive the purposeful formation of specific associations. I’m actively trying to not contribute, as a trainer, to the associations being made by the dog.” 

For extra details about the Play Way, go to or take a look at Cook’s on-line course, “Dealing with the Bogeyman – Helping Fearful Reactive and Stressed Dogs,” supplied by way of Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, 



Here’s a facet of play remedy that’s much less generally seen in different canine coaching methodologies: Being “present” – delicate and respectful of the canine’s wants – is an integral element of the Play Way.

“It’s not about coming in with a plan and saying, ‘I’m going to make this specific thing happen to influence you to feel a certain way,’” Cook explains. “I’m sensitive and listening to my learner. It enriches all of my training to consider a space where I’m respectful of the viewpoint of my dog. I don’t think that’s something we emphasize enough in dog training.” 

That’s to not say Cook suggests canine ought to name the photographs on a regular basis; she is aware of that’s not real looking. But setting apart time to develop social play can also be useful as an total stress launch for each shy and fearful canine and their house owners.

“Reactive dogs, shy dogs, fearful dogs – they all live a more inherently stressful life,” Cook says. “It’s hard to be routinely triggered by stressful things. We all need play, silliness, and laughter to help shake-off these types of stressful build-ups. I think, in general, we don’t really do enough to relax the dogs who spend a decent amount of time feeling an overabundance of stress compared to a more adjusted dog.”

In this fashion, the Play Way technique might be simply as useful to the canine and proprietor as a staff as it’s in its capacity to assist the canine organically work by its fears.

“When you own a fearful or reactive dog, you yourself are often stressed,” says Cook. “You’re nervous your canine will blow up at any time, and also you’re fearful what individuals will assume. Maybe you’re even grieving a bit of bit as a result of this isn’t what you pictured when you considered getting a canine.

“I feel it helps the human, the canine, and the partnership to have this one expectation-free house – this remoted time the place you solely deal with what you each can do proper, the place you make one another giggle and revel in playing around collectively. That form of connection can assist hold you invested for the lengthy haul in serving to your canine. It can recharge the batteries within the relationship.”

As Cook all the time says, it’s magic! 

Success Stories: Susanne and Cash

Five-year-old Cash, a Belgian Tervuren has all the time been a “special dog with special needs,” explains Susanne Handwerk of Eichgraben, Austria. Susanne says he was once anxious about strangers, leery of different canine, and on excessive alert when he was away from residence. Also, he’s not very food- or toy-motivated, so conventional administration strategies involving meals or toys are of little assist. Many sides of life with Cash had change into “frustrating and exhausting” for Susanne.

Finding Fenzi Dog Sports Academy and Cook’s “Dealing with the Bogeyman – Helping Fearful, Reactive, and Stressed Dogs” class modified how Susanne approached coaching with Cash. Whereas prior trainers insisted she work to make toys extra worthwhile to Cash, studying the Play Way taught her find out how to develop new video games they might get pleasure from collectively. The class additionally helped her higher perceive thresholds, and the significance of preserving Cash below threshold.

Susanne says studying Cook’s Play Way technique has helped her change into a greater associate for Cash. Through social play with Susanne, Cash has realized to loosen up in lots of conditions that used to trigger him nice nervousness.

“Now I realize Cash was over-threshold much of the time,” Susanne says. “And because he was so stressed, he was sleeping most of the time at home. Everybody told me that was a good thing, but now I know it wasn’t. He was exhausted. That’s no way to live.”

Taking the time to develop a therapeutic play relationship helped Cash loosen up. “It helped him become less serious and to worry less,” Susanne says. “And I think it was helpful for him to realize I would listen to his signals – that a, ‘No’ would be, ‘No.’ In the beginning, he ignored most of my invitations to play, but the more I respected his answers of, ‘No,’ the more he was ready to play with me.”

Susanne says Cook’s class was life-changing in educating her find out how to assist Cash be taught to belief her as his associate, develop confidence and change into resilient. While he nonetheless has some challenges, he’s faster to acclimate to new setting, can efficiently work round different canine more often than not, and usually ignores strangers. 

“The Play Way helped Cash lighten up and learn I would listen to him and support him,” Susanne says. “And it helped me lighten up because I feel like I’m able to help him.”

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