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“We do not stop playing because we grow old…we grow old because we stop playing” ( Benjamin Franklin)

I can put my hands up and admit that since the arrival of my daughter 8 months ago, Mossy has not been given the attention she deserves. While she has been fed, watered, sheltered, given security and allowed to be a dog (the most important one I think)… but our relationship has been frayed due to my lack of effort in maintaining and strengthening our bond. This was one of the main points that came across during Alasdair Bunyan’s seminar, too many people are relying on other dogs to be the main play focus of their dogs and human-dog play is being missed out.

Alasdair Bunyan is the senior training and behaviour advisor for the Dogs Trust and his extensive knowledge and wit really made this seminar stand out. I left feeling totally invigorated and motivated to go home and figure out a plan on how we could both get the best out of the relationship.

Never above you

Never below you

Always beside you

Alasdair put huge emphasis on the importance of relationship between dogs and their owner. The main components of this have to be trust and respect in order for good training and play relations to develop. He mentioned a study carried out recently in Hungary which found that dogs emotions are very much tied to human emotions. The study showed that the area of the human brain which is used for empathy and love also lights up in dogs when the same sounds are played.

So why should we train our dogs?

Training is important for a number of things, including exercise, stimulation, enrichment and communication. Alasdair believes that no dog is fully trained, there is always something new we could be teaching them. This helps to build a dog’s confidence and strengthens the bond they have with their owner.

Training also allows us to help our dogs make the most appropriate choices when in certain situations. Because dogs, like all animals, seek to control their environments, we have to make sure that their choices are the rights ones and are also conducive to the human society that they live in. When a dog reacts impulsively to situation, if allowed to happen enough times, it becomes muscle memory. If this occurs then triggers will set off this default behaviour. In order to reverse this we need to build new pathways to help the dog create a new default behaviour.

When looking to change default behaviours the most important question to ask is what is the dog’s main drive and motivation. In order to do this we need to have a good relationship with the dog so that we can get a clear understanding of what may be affecting the dog’s actions.

Once the motivation and drive have been understood these can be used to change the emotional reaction a dog has to its triggers. Shaping, capturing and luring can then be used then to train new behaviours.

  1. What do you want the end behaviour to look like (if we are not clear about this how can the dog be!)
  2. Build up the behaviour slowly
  3. Add a cue
  4. Build up the speed at which the dog performs the behaviour
  5. Add distractions

When looking at reinforcers we have to examine all aspects of food, play and environment. A dog that may take food really well in the house may be more motivated by play when outside. Some treats may be too high value for the types of training, creating too much of a distraction. Because of this, the use of reinforcers should carefully thought about.

Alasdair created a list of prime behaviours that he feels all dogs should have. A behaviour which really caught my attention was the use of chin targeting. Alasdair showed clips of how he used targeting to distract his collie from a group of joggers. Targeting can be used for an endless number of behaviours which can be taken in any direction wanted…even to the point that you can train you dog to pretend to lift its leg on deserving victims! As soon as I got home I started practising this with Mossy and she is picking it up with great speed! I am hoping that as the owner of a nervous dog this will help me to distract her if we get caught in a situation that tips her over threshold and I can’t get away.


For play to be carried out it requires familiarity and emotional security in a known and safe environment. This is something I try to create on my dog walks in order for the dogs to fun with each other and explore the smells and sounds of the world.


herc fly


ted down


  • Biting and grabs
  • Paw movements
  • Play bows
  • Pouncing
  • Vocalisations

When dogs become more familiar it also allows them to push the boundaries and they will display play behaviours that would be inappropriate if done with a new dog. Alasdair talked about how this is OK and that as long as the play is fun and voluntary with lots of breaks there is no issue with rough play. However, this does make play quite hard to define as it mimics serious aggression, which is why to an outsider it can sound like clash of the cujos!!! Because it is so close to real aggression it can easily tip over the line if not kept in check. Another factor which affects this is the different play styles of the dogs. If they are incompatible this can also create friction.


Supporters club or fun police – nip in and out, barking on the fringes, usually herding breeds.

Gladiators – love high physical play, lots of slamming and pinning, can be an issue to done to other play styles.

Tuggers – love tugging and rough play!

Softies – will squeal at the slightest sniff of rough play!

Chasers – can prefer certain roles (chaser or to be chased) but can be an issue if predatory drift arises!

Because there is always the potential for emotions to change it is essential that we act as the best referees ever. If play is getting too rough then call the dogs away, reward and then let them return to play. I should change my dog title to ‘dog referee’ instead of walker!


This is the most important part of play because without this we risk neglecting the relationship we have with our dogs! Alasdair talked about needing to understand the play drives of our dogs so that we can get the most out of our play sessions.

An issue which I have with Mossy is that she is ball obsessed. I don’t know if this is something that I created or whether the nature of her breed (collie cross) means that it would have manifested anyway. However, anyone who knows me also knows that I hate ball chucking! Mossy is a declared ball addict, though she has been in recovery for some time. While throwing a ball is not the worst thing we could do to a dog, in fact some people may think it would be cruel not to, the ball turns Mossy into beast! She has resource guarding tendencies anyway but if she has been chasing a ball it really brings out her possessiveness and she becomes very anti-social.

I feel that in a lot of cases the ball can become a social crutch for dogs. Mossy is normally terrified of wheeled things, her most feared wheeled thing is a dog with wheels! The ball is such a distraction that once when I was chucking it for her a disabled dog, normally her ultimate nemesis, was able to wheel around without her flickering an eye. If that’s the case, then what is the point of even walking a ball obsessed dog because they aren’t even aware of their surroundings.

Alasdair also pointed out that he had known of 5 deaths over his career caused by tennis balls getting stuck in the dog’s airway. If we are going to chuck balls, he recommends to get balls with ropes attached.

Mossy’s ball addiction creates a conflict for me because while I know that she loves it, it isn’t very healthy for her. She is an all or nothing dog so even throwing it for a short sessions means she will bring me every stone, stick or bit of rubbish to chuck for her. I asked Alasdair what I should do and he recommended that I change the game to something that keeps her under threshold and gradually work up towards more higher value games.

I have now got rid of the balls in the house and working on only playing tug games. A new rule is that Mossy also has to deliver the toy to my hand, as she has a habit of just spitting it out and racing backwards in anticipation of the chase.

I found Alasidar seminar hugely helpful and informative. This has only given a taste of what he talked about so if you are interested keep your eyes peeled for more talks carried out by the Dogs Trust…I am now off to spend all my money on new toys!!