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 canines. We play along with toys and invent satisfying video games. Many of us make a degree to include toy play and enjoyable interpersonal play into our coaching packages, providing an thrilling bout of tug or a possibility to retrieve a prized ball in alternate for an accurate response to a cue.

Used in a really particular manner, play additionally helps shy and fearful canines study to work via and overcome worry and anxiousness, 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 canines for 30 years and has specialised in working with shy and fearful canines for the previous 20. She first started exploring the therapeutic worth of play for shy and fearful canines as a part of her doctoral work in psychology, the place she realized the stark variations between therapeutic approaches to addressing worry and anxiousness in kids and the way positive-reinforcement canine trainers usually addressed worry and anxiousness in canines. In exploring therapeutic approaches to traumatized kids, Cook questioned if an analogous method may work for canines. 

“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 numerous methods baby remedy typically incorporates playful, enjoyable video games and nurturing actions to speak love, pleasure, and security to a traumatized baby.

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


The Play Way incorporates play in a rigorously nuanced method with a view to assist shy and fearful canines overcome their points with a view to reside a happier, less-stressed life. But the “play” used within the Play Way is totally different from what many individuals doubtless 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 periods, desperate to name the canine’s identify 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 facet of the Play Way. How one performs is the opposite, together with instructing 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, essentially 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 growing 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 undoubtedly 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 educated behaviors. It’s simply not the aim within the Play Way.

Success Story: Tessa and Molly

Molly and Tessa get pleasure from a candy second collectively; their relationship blossomed after Tessa discovered 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 discovered, Molly’s outward look of “mellow” was masking a really anxious and reactive canine. 

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

Tessa did the whole lot 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 to make life much less anxious for Molly, and by extension, for the remainder of the household. While they made some progress, ultimately every of the trainers got here to the identical conclusion: Things have been pretty much as good as they have been more likely to get. There was nothing extra to be completed. 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 via therapeutic play was transformational. In giving Molly the area to just accept or decline invites to play, she discovered she had a alternative, and in being provided that alternative, her confidence grew. She grew to become 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 canines. Whereas administration was once a giant a part of their every day life, the canines now get pleasure from unfastened, relaxed social interplay. “It took time, but it’s beautiful. They’re friends now,” says Tessa.

Molly nonetheless has occasions when she struggles with anxiousness, however general 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 vital as a result of in rehabilitating shy and fearful canines, the canine’s skill to interact on this method serves as a barometer for the way a canine is feeling. 

Threshold is a phrase that comes up loads in work with fearful canines (and canines who exhibit aggressive habits, too, which is smart as a result of quite a lot 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 canines, 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 arduous for him to assume, study, bear in mind, and reply like a extra “normal” canine.

When working with fearful canines, the flexibility to maintain the canine sufficiently sub-threshold is paramount to the coaching success. But maintaining a canine beneath threshold is commonly simpler stated than completed. Real-world variables can change on a dime, particularly if one hasn’t gone to nice lengths to rigorously arrange a managed coaching session. And a harassed canine just isn’t within the correct psychological state to study he’s protected 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 methodology follows extra of a human therapeutic mannequin. 

Rather than use meals in an try to reprogram how the canine feels in particular conditions, her aim 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 via a therapeutic course of in such a manner 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 aim of meals facilities round altering the canine’s conditioned emotional response (CER) to the set off, the aim of Play Way play is to assist put the learner into a greater frame of mind from which to completely consider the scenario and organically notice there isn’t any menace.

The Play Way, Step By Step

1.  Learning the Language of Play Way Play. For most individuals, that is essentially the most difficult a part of the Play Way. This first step focuses on growing a therapeutic play model that enables 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 model of interplay, be certain it holds up by enjoying in lots of new, non-challenging places, akin to totally 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 probably “scary things” from a spot of security, notice it’s no large deal, and calmly dismiss the potential set off. This begins by working towards look and dismiss with easy distractions. 

The vital 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 cause – say, a blowing leaf catches her consideration – let her achieve this. Pause, wait, and permit her to course of the data. When she reorients her consideration to you, merely acknowledge her warmly, after which, if her consideration remains 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 an incredible 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, probably rewarding response is a vital factor 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 instructing the canine to take a look at triggers after which look again at you with a view to earn a reward of play. Cook doesn’t need the canine to be in search of rewards, however as a substitute, to be in a psychological state that helps his skill 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 vital to apply this step loads so the canine turns into effectively rehearsed in wanting, 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 partaking in therapeutic play, it’s time to introduce barely tougher distractions that could be of minor concern, taking care to current them at a really low stage. 

For instance, if a canine is afraid of different canines, 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 vital since, for many canines, the farther they’re from the set off, the much less problematic it’s. The aim 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 isn’t any menace. 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 better coaching state of affairs subsequent time.

Cook factors out these set-ups rely closely on the handler’s skill to regulate the atmosphere briefly in a manner 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 via a neighborhood filled with potential triggers, she recommends cautious administration akin to maintaining a protected distance from “the scary things,” together with utilizing meals in a extra conventional positive-reinforcement framework akin to constantly feeding within the presence of the set off, typically generally known as “open bar, closed bar,” to assist stop the rehearsal of undesirable, reactive habits. 

Over time, Cook says shoppers report a marked lower within the quantity of administration wanted to navigate on a regular basis, real-world conditions. Their canines 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 canines 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 quite a lot of forwards and backwards. They pause. They maintain suspense. They change issues up. They don’t a lot get pleasure from a play companion who’s being pushy. It’s not as a lot enjoyable to play with somebody who insists on selecting 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 beneath your palms to “find” you. Cover your self with a blanket and do the identical. Start with sluggish, tender power 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 attempt new issues, however don’t frantically change from one habits to a different. Float an concept and see what occurs. If your canine is used to interactive toy play or frequent coaching periods, he could be confused and want time (over a number of brief periods) to determine what’s occurring. 


According to Cook, one of many greatest benefits of the Play Way methodology is its skill to maintain handlers sincere about whether or not or not the canine is beneath threshold. That’s as a result of many food-motivated canines will nonetheless eat and a few toy-motivated canines can nonetheless enthusiastically tug though anxiousness is creeping in. In distinction, social play (as practiced within the Play Way) is way 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 you might want to take note of and probably alter. It retains the coach sincere about staying beneath 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 skill to take care of a excessive diploma of accuracy concerning 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 a completely 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 chance 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 appropriate 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 seek advice from 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 totally right. A typical method utilized by constructive trainers working with shy and fearful canines 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 shaped affiliation reduces the diploma of concern. This is known as classical counter-conditioning and it regularly 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 try 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 part 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 canines ought to name the pictures on a regular basis; she is aware of that’s not sensible. But setting apart time to develop social play can also be helpful as an general stress launch for each shy and fearful canines and their homeowners.

“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 methodology might be simply as helpful to the canine and proprietor as a group as it’s in its skill to assist the canine organically work via 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 nervous what individuals will assume. Maybe you’re even grieving a little bit bit as a result of this isn’t what you pictured when you considered getting a canine.

“I believe it helps the human, the canine, and the partnership to have this one expectation-free area – this remoted time the place you solely deal with what you each can do proper, the place you make one another chortle and revel in fooling around collectively. That type of connection may also help maintain you invested for the lengthy haul in serving to your canine. It can recharge the batteries within the relationship.”

As Cook at all times says, it’s magic! 

Success Stories: Susanne and Cash

Five-year-old Cash, a Belgian Tervuren has at all times been a “special dog with special needs,” explains Susanne Handwerk of Eichgraben, Austria. Susanne says he was once anxious about strangers, leery of different canines, 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 develop 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 precious 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 maintaining Cash beneath threshold.

Susanne says studying Cook’s Play Way methodology has helped her develop into a greater companion for Cash. Through social play with Susanne, Cash has discovered to calm down in lots of conditions that used to trigger him nice anxiousness.

“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 calm down. “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 instructing her find out how to assist Cash study to belief her as his companion, develop confidence and develop into resilient. While he nonetheless has some challenges, he’s faster to acclimate to new atmosphere, can efficiently work round different canines more often than not, and customarily 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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