Why my dog doesn’t want to play?

 In Articles

“It’s not you- it’s me.” If the dog does not want to play with you, the problem may be in you.

You have probably heard the phrase, “Life is short, play with the dog!”. “Excellent,” you thought. “I’ll do it!” Eventually, dogs play with each other until they fall to the ground from fatigue. Dogs play with people, although this skill does not always come by itself. Were there any cases when you tried to play with a dog, but you failed? “This dog can not play” – most likely, was your thought.

Do not rush to blame the dog for everything. Some research suggests that you are the one who does not “know how to play.”

In 2001, the researcher of Animal Behaviour and Welfare, Nicola Rooney (now working at the University of Bristol), wanted to know the answer to a very simple question. Her and her colleagues were interested in whether the dogs respond to game signals from a person. In this study, volunteers played with their dogs for 5 minutes in the comfort of their own homes. Video recording of all game sessions was conducted. The owners were asked to play with the dogs “as usual”, but there was one condition: it was impossible to use any objects and toys.

All records of the game sessions were examined by scientists and documented what behavior the owners offered to start or support the game. The scientists singled out 35 types of game signals, including such as tapping on the floor, clapping hands, pushing, patting on the dog and, of course, a bow. People also tried to: blow on the dog, bark at it, grab the dog by the paws. And the behavior that is my favorite: “The owner moves his hand or fingers, representing the movement of an insect or other small creature.”

Determining the types of game behavior in humans was the first step. The main purpose was to determine the effect of these signals: did the dogs begin to play with the owner after these signals or not? And the narrower question:  what signals most often caused the game and what didn’t?

Out of the 35 most popular game signals, Rooney and colleagues found that the popularity of the game signal “is not related to the success of this game signal in initiating or maintaining the game.” For example, tapping on the floor was used most often, but the game followed this only in 38% of cases. It seems that the clapping on the floor is not a very suitable signal to start or maintain the game. Other unsuccessful, but often used signals are the grasping of the dog by the neck and clapping. Some signals in general have never led to the game! Signals with zero efficiency were: lifting the dog, kissing the dog, stepping on the dog’s paw. These “game signals” initiated exactly zero games.

Several behaviors were very successful. Rooney and colleagues found that fleeing from the dog and running after them were associated with the game in 100% of cases! Patting yourself on the chest (gesture inviting the dog to jump on the owner), grasping and holding the paw, and of course, playing bows was just as successful as invitations to the game.

The conclusions of the researchers are a bit dark: “We believe that people often use inefficient game signals.” Instead of blaming dogs for not “playing right”, people should look at their own behavior and assess its effectiveness, realizing that some game signals are more productive than others.


Nicola J.Rooney, John W.S.Bradshawa, Ian H.Robinson  Do dogs respond to play signals given by humans? Animal Behaviour Volume 61, Issue 4, April 2001, Pages 715-722

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