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How To Help An Emotionally Traumatized Dog Learn To Play

Go to any dog park and you’ll see man’s best friend engaging in all types of play. They’re fetching, chasing, tugging, and tackling, but what about the emotionally hurt and traumatized of the group?

For those dogs, the simple act of letting loose and having fun is a foreign concept. Not knowing how to play and not having the confidence to engage with others is something that affects dogs of all breeds and backgrounds. It’s true that some dogs are naturally less energetic than others, but every dog deserves the chance to embrace their playful side.

Emotional Trauma in Dogs

When thinking about the hardships many dogs face, physical abuse is always first to mind. But when those bodily wounds heal, the bruises of emotional trauma linger. The psychological suffering continues long after the dog is rescued. Many formerly abused and neglected dogs shut down emotionally, and they need to learn basic behaviors, like playing, all over again. In other cases, adult dogs don’t play because they were never taught how. There’s no chance for socialization when they’re living in neglect, and they grow up not understanding the concept of fun.

Even dogs that grow up well cared for in happy homes can suffer emotional trauma. An unpleasant experience at the vet’s office, an altercation at the dog park, or the loss of a person or animal they were particularly connected to are all potentially traumatizing experiences. It’s not up to humans to determine what’s traumatizing and what’s not. Something that seems insignificant to the dog’s owner could have a lasting psychological impact on the dog. Paws Abilities says,

“Too often, we get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about our dogs’ pasts, and forget to pay attention to the animal in front of us. While trauma can have lasting consequences due to its huge impact on the way the brain develops and processes information, patient behavioral modification and an environment of safety can have equally powerful effects.”

Why Play Is Important

Play is a valuable skill set that benefits dogs in more ways than one. Not only is it an opportunity to improve the dog’s quality of life by adding fun to their daily routine, it also teaches proper socialization. Dogs need play to show them how to interact with both people and other animals. It’s mental stimulation that keeps them engaged in their experiences, and it’s an excellent bonding opportunity. Ten minutes of tug-of-war is 10 minutes spent strengthening the human/dog relationship. Not to mention, all forms of play are great exercise.

Tips For Teaching a Dog How To Play

1. Start Slow

Dog owners know playtime is a positive thing, but their pooches need more time to catch on to the concept. Jumping in too fast and too soon could be an overwhelming step backward instead of progress moving forward. You don’t want to scare your dog, and it’s best to slowly ease them into the idea of playing. Try putting yourself in their paws and consider what they would deem safe versus threatening. Dog behaviorist Victoria Stilwell says,

“You cannot build a strong bond with your dog unless you truly understand how he perceives the world around him, but to do this effectively you must first learn his language and appreciate his sensory experience.”

Start by leaving toys around the house. Place them in their crate and on their bed to safely gauge their reaction. As long as they aren’t obviously spooked by the object, you can move forward with encouraging them to interact.

2. Positively Reinforce Their Interest

Positive reinforcement is one of the most valuable training tools available to dog owners. When your dog starts to show interest in toys, quickly mark the behavior with something positive. Toss them a treat, give lots of praise, and scratch their belly in that way they love. Do it over and over, and they’ll soon start to associate toys with all the best things in life.

3. Get Involved

You can’t expect your pup to pick up a toy and start playing by themselves. You need to lead by example and show them that whether it’s past abuse or a lost loved one that’s holding them back, playing is a fun way to get attention from their favorite person.

Don’t scare them by moving too fast, but start engaging play with the toys they feel comfortable with. If they’ve shown interest in a ball, gently roll it in their direction. If they’ve grown accustomed to seeing a rope toy around the house, start tossing it around in your hands while making happy facial expressions. The goal is to spike their interest so they want to figure out what you’re doing. Entice them to come over to you, but never force them. It needs to be their choice to do it all on their own.

4. Pick the Right Type of Play

Dogs don’t all play the same way. Some are crazy about fetch while others prefer the thrill of tug-of-war. If you really want your dog to learn to love playing, help them find the right game. It will take trial and error, but always follow your dog’s lead. Fetch, tug, chase, agility, disc jumping, lure-coursing, nosework, hide and seek, and puzzles are all games worth trying out. Your dog might even want to make up their own game, and that’s okay too. Blue Cross suggests,

“It depends on your dog’s personality. Watch what your dog does when 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 behavior.”

If you’re having trouble finding a game your dog likes, take hints from their breed. Collies, for example, usually aren’t up for chasing a ball and bringing it back, but they excel at agility and plucking flying discs out of the air. Labs and Golden Retrievers are famously ball crazy, but sight hounds tend to prefer playing with prey sticks and letting loose during lure coursing.

5. Keep It Fun

The first time your dog engages in a full-on play session will be a great experience. You’re over that first hurdle, but it’s important to not give up on training efforts. If you want them to continue playing, make sure every play session is a positive experience. Don’t get upset when they “break the rules” of fetch by not bringing the ball back. If they sense you’re mad, they won’t want to play again. You can teach them “rules” as you see fit, but do it with positive reinforcement. You want every play session to end with your dog happy and tired, not confused or frustrated.

Remember to be patient and understanding of the mental barriers you’re asking your pup to overcome. Playing might seem like no big deal to you, but for a dog struggling to move on after a traumatic experience, it’s everything. Be patient and compassionate as you gently guide your dog toward a better quality of life through play.

H/T: Paws Abilities, Victoria Stilwell, Blue Cross

Tags: dog behavior, dog training, dogs, playing with dogs, tips and tricks

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Healthy Dog Central: Social Pups

Need some advice on how to keep your pup healthy in 2018? Visit Healthy Dog Central for tips, tricks, and recipes to help your pup stay fit and furry for life. All Dogtopia locations work hard to encourage healthy choices at daycare:

North Austin:

& the winner is?! Monkey! Now that’s good play…it must have been Massive Monday!

Posted by Dogtopia on Monday, March 7, 2016

San Marcos:

Splish splashing, having their own little party because it is Friday! You go little ones 🙂 !

Featuring: Sadie, Romeo, Rocket, Teddy, Sasha, and Rozzi!

Posted by Dogtopia on Friday, March 4, 2016


Trick Training w/Cal Dog U

The Charity Trick training class was a big success! Check out Miss Rudy Janda’s best tricks with California Dog University’s trainer, Brooke McKinney!

Posted by Dogtopia on Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Playing at Dogtopia

PASS SPECIAL – Now Until Tuesday, January 24th. FREE bonus days! Daycare/Boarding (day rate)

Like, Share, & Comment for all to see this rare offer! Click the link below for all the details on FREE bonus days.


Posted by Dogtopia on Wednesday, January 18, 2017

San Marcos:

Splish splashing, having their own little party because it is Friday! You go little ones 🙂 !

Featuring: Sadie, Romeo, Rocket, Teddy, Sasha, and Rozzi!

Posted by Dogtopia on Friday, March 4, 2016

Richmond West End:

Honey does the long jump while Bella and Cody wrestle

Posted by Dogtopia on Saturday, April 8, 2017

meet our

dog experts

Our doggie experts are here to answer your questions about health, safety, nutrition and behavior.

ask a question
  • Colleen Demling

    Dog Behaviorist

    With over 30,000 hours and 15 years of HANDS ON dog training experience, Colleen Demling is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Behaviorist. She is a frequent contributor to local and national ...

  • Dr. Antje Joslin


    Dr. Antje Joslin brings 14 years of small animal experience in both private and corporate practice. Her love of animals is not just professional; along with her husband and four children, she shares ...

  • Lorraine Rhoads

    Environmental Biologist

    Lorraine Rhoads is an experienced animal biologist and environmental scientist with a background in environmental safety testing and biological surveys. Additionally, Lorraine has more than 6 years ...

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Military Dog Gets A Hero’s Farewell From Fellow Airmen

Rico, a military working dog with the United States Air Force, served for eight years with his handlers, Tech Sgt. Matthew Salter and Staff Sgt. Jason Spangenberg, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He completed more than 100 combat missions and even earned the Bronze Star with...
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5 Tips for Taking Your Dog in Public

Taking your pup to the local dog-friendly restaurant or for a ride in the car can be a lot of fun, but, to ensure safety there are a few simple rules to follow. Check out these five tips before you take your dog out in public:

Follow Directions

Before you head to any public setting, make sure your pup can follow a few simple commands such as “sit,” “down,” and “stay.” It is also important to make sure your dog knows how to take directions while on a leash. Practice these commands at home before you take your furry friend out in public.

Be Prepared

Always, always, always have water and waste disposal bags with you when taking your dog out in public. There is nothing worse than trying to find a way to clean up after your pup and having nothing to use! Don’t forget to make sure your dog’s collar is all set up with your name and information in the unfortunate case of separation. It might also be good to bring a towel or blanket to clean slobbery mouths or use on hard floors in case they want to rest.

Keep Contained

If you take your dog to a restaurant or shop, make sure they are under the table or out of the main aisle to avoid tripping situations (and potential injuries for your pup). Save your dog the pain of a stepped-on tail or foot by keeping them close to you and out of the way.

Ensure Good Behavior

All locations outside of your home are going to be a frenzy of scents for your pup. Add the delicious smells of a dog-friendly restaurant and suddenly, your furry friend is very excited! Make sure your dog knows good behavior and isn’t looking for scraps or whining for treats. This is a great time to use a blanket so they can rest under the table.

Be Considerate

Bringing our dogs to local establishments is an exciting privilege, but not everyone wants to see or hear your furry friend when they’re enjoying their personal time. If your dog is barking or acting unruly, remove them from the situation or leave them at home. The biggest compliment you can receive from a stranger is that they didn’t even know you had a dog with you!

Remember: Not every dog is outwardly social. If your pup is fearful or protective in public, it might be best to leave them at home. Then you can work on bettering their public manners and behaviors when you don’t have to split your attention.

Need to work on your dog’s social behavior? Dogtopia’s doggie daycare provides dogs with all the tips and tricks they need to get along with other furry-friends. Learn more!

-Written by Colleen Demling, Dogtopia’s Canine Behaviorist. With over 30,000 hours and 15 years of HANDS ON dog training experience, Colleen is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Behaviorist. She is a frequent contributor to local and national media including Yahoo, The Huffington Post, Woman’s Day and many more. Colleen was a finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year by Women in the Pet Industry Network. She was also named a 2015 Woman of Influence and one of the Top 40 Under 40 by Pet Age Magazine. Learn more: https://www.dogtopia.com/meet-our-experts/

meet our

dog experts

Our doggie experts are here to answer your questions about health, safety, nutrition and behavior.

ask a question
  • Colleen Demling

    Dog Behaviorist

    With over 30,000 hours and 15 years of HANDS ON dog training experience, Colleen Demling is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Behaviorist. She is a frequent contributor to local and national ...

  • Dr. Antje Joslin


    Dr. Antje Joslin brings 14 years of small animal experience in both private and corporate practice. Her love of animals is not just professional; along with her husband and four children, she shares ...

  • Lorraine Rhoads

    Environmental Biologist

    Lorraine Rhoads is an experienced animal biologist and environmental scientist with a background in environmental safety testing and biological surveys. Additionally, Lorraine has more than 6 years ...

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Blue Was Given A Second Chance Because Of Your iHeartDogs Store Purchases!

Part of each sale through the iHeartDogs store is donated to Greater Good, which helps support various charities. Thanks to customers like you, happy endings, like the one below, are made possible. 

BLUE was in danger at the Riverside Shelter after having no rescue interest. He’d obviously had no training, was cumbersome and strong. With all this against him, he was looking at becoming another statistic.

Image Source: START Rescue

Yet, he touched the heart of Nikki T., who brought BLUE to START Rescue’s attention and with a few small miracles, BLUE made it out!

“After spending some time in a boarding facility in L.A., BLUE went up North on transport to Jeremy of Beloved Rescue who is foster-based and trains some of our harder to adopt dogs.” – START Rescue

Image Source: START Rescue

After lots of exercise and socialization, BLUE received something he never thought possible… he got his very own loving forever home! BLUE now has a new daddy and a new 4-legged brother!

Image Source: START Rescue

START Rescue is just one of the many groups that benefit from Greater Good’s Second Chance Movement. Every time you make a purchase from the iHeartDogs shop, you’re helping fund projects just like this!

This Product Provides 4 Miles of Transport From High Risk Shelters to Safety!

Tags: dog rescue, pit bull, pit bull mix, Second Chance Movement

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Dog Foods Pulled From Thousands Of Stores After “Euthanasia Drug” Investigation

Following an investigative news story by news station ABC11 that led to an FDA investigation, several pet food products have been pulled from the shelves of stores nationwide.

After a lengthy investigation, WJLA (an ABC11 sister station) released some disturbing results from lab-tested dog foods. The news station reported:

“We tested 62 samples of wet dog food, across more than two-dozen brands for the euthanasia drug pentobarbital.

After months of tests and re-tests, one brand repeatedly came back positive for pentobarbital.

In total, we tested 15 cans of Gravy Train. Nine cans — 60-percent of the sample — were positive for pentobarbital. And while the levels detected were not lethal, under federal law they are also not permitted at any concentration.”

Image Source: Screen Shot via ABC11

Gravy Train is made by Heart Brands, a company that’s owned by Smucker’s. Some of the products that were voluntarily pulled from shelves include Gravy Train, Kibbles ‘N Bits, Skippy, and Ol’ Roy lines of canned food. The article explains that huge retailers, including Walmart, have removed the foods from their stores.

The items in question are listed below. The original version of this document can be viewed more clearly directly on the Scribd website (to see it, click here). 

Image Source: Screen shot via Scribd

WJLA added in their story:

“Big Heart Brands is also the maker of Meow Mix, Milk Bone, Kibbles’n Bits, 9 Lives, Natural Balance, Pup-Peroni, Gravy Train, Nature’s Recipe, Canine Carry Outs, Milo’s Kitchen, Alley Cat, Jerky Treats, Meaty Bone, Pounce and Snausages.”

To learn more about the investigation — and how this “euthanasia drug” may have ended up in pet foods in the first place — click here.

(h/t: ABC11)

Tags: dog food, euthanasia drug, health, pentobarbital, recalls, safety

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Quiz: What’s Your Dog’s Love Language?

Some people prefer to receive gifts from their partner, while others want hugs—or quality time. Have you ever heard of “love languages?” Popularized by Dr. Gary Chapman in his bestselling book, they describe the different ways that people express and experience love. The idea is that once you discover your personal love language, you’ll strengthen your relationships. Because we’re obsessed with dogs, we thought it’d be fun to test out the Love Language theory on our canine family members.

There are lots of ways to show your dog you care, but most dogs have a preference. Take this quiz to find out your dog’s love language!

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Got A Bored Dog? Top 8 Interactive Dog Toys To Keep Dogs Super Busy And Having Fun

Dog toys come in all shapes and sizes, but my favorite — or should I say my dog’s favorite — are the interactive ones.

Interactive dog toys (also called enrichment dog toys) are created to serve a specific purpose and to provide a unique challenge for your dog.

the best interactive dog toys for bored dogs

Basically, interactive dog toys have some really unique features to keep your dog’s interest high, including:

  • Unusual sounds – like squeakers, sound cards, or crinkled plastic in the tail of a stuffed dog toy
  • Unusual movements – like toys that bounce around on their own, have dangling parts, or various textures
  • Unusual contents – like dog treats that come out when rolled around or when a puzzle is solved

All of these features are designed to keep your dog’s attention for longer periods of time. In addition, you will ultimately get your money’s worth from a dog toy with these features — because your dog won’t grow bored with it quickly.

Types Of Interactive Dog Toys

Here are some examples of interactive dog toys:

My dog enjoys all of the above, but I think his all-time favorites are the treat-dispensing ones.

Following are the best interactive toys for dogs, in my opinion…


Top 8 Interactive Dog Toys

When it comes to chew toys, keep in mind that dogs have many preferences for them. Some like them to be interactive or chewable or easily carried, pulled, and tossed around or a combination of 2 or all the above. In any case, it’s can be a challenge for you to get just one chew toy that meets all his preferences. Usually you’ll have to get at least 2 but no more than 4 chew toys to satisfy his ferocious chewing needs. Do replace them as they wear off.  — Small Dog Paradise

If I were going to buy my dog his first interactive dog toy, these are the ones I would choose from:

#1 – Orka Chew

pet stages orka dog toy

I like when a dog toy does more than one thing. This one bounces, has several “arms” to attract attention and gnaw on, and it dispenses treats! It’s made from a durable non-toxic synthetic rubber, and since it’s shaped like a “jack”, it creates a lot of opportunities for natural bounce each time it’s released from your dog’s mouth. Plus, it’s durable enough for serious chewers. There are several varieties of durable Orka dog toys to choose from.

This video shows a few dogs enjoying the Orka Chew interactive dog toy…


#2 – Nina Ottosson Dog Puzzle Toys

dog casino interactive treat toy for dogs

Nina Ottosson’s interactive dog puzzles are among the most popular. Of them all, I think Dog Casi

no and Dog Brick are 2 of the best. Like all dog puzzle games, these teach your dog to wait (until told to start), find (things behind the puzzle pieces), and enjoy (the treats as immediate rewards). Other find & seek dog board games like this include: Dog Twister, Dog Spinny, and Dog Treat Maze. Hagen makes a nice dog puzzle: the Dogit Mind Games 3-in-1 Smart Toy. And there are a few interesting interactive dog games & puzzles by Kyjen as well. Although plastic dog puzzles are easier to clean, if you want a long-lasting puzzle set for your dog, opt for a wooden puzzle board like these: Zanies Wood Interactive Puzzles Dog Toy, Nina Ottosson’s Wooden Dog Treat Fighter, and the Ethical Seek-A-Treat Dog Puzzle.

This video shows a dog enjoying the Dog Casino interactive dog puzzle…

#3 – Rag Rope Ball

petstages rag rope ball for dogs

Another multi-purpose dog toy is one that features a ball and rope combination. My favorite is the Rag Rope Ball by Pet Stages because it’s long-lasting and this one is especially great for puppies. Of course, the rounder the ball, the more it will roll, so this one doesn’t particularly roll much. But that’s also a reason why it’s great for puppies. When your dog drops the Rag Rope Ball from his mouth, it won’t roll far away, but it will land on a different side and present yet another dangling piece of rope for your dog to start chewing on. Likewise, these dangling rope arms provide numerous opportunities for your dog to grab, carry, and toss the toy for added fun. Keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be a rope on the other end in order to be a fun interactive dog toy. For example, this Weazel Ball dog toy looks interesting! Another rope and ball dog toy that looks like fun is the Zany Ball Rope Twister — but I can’t find anywhere locally to buy it.

This video shows a dog enjoying the Zany Ball Rope Twister interactive dog toy…


#4 – Kong Toy

dog kong toy - the classic treat dispensing dog toy

Regardless of which type of Kong toy you ultimately choose, they’re all super long lasting and multi-purpose. The rubber Kongs all bounce and roll in unexpected patterns, which piques your dog’s interest. In addition, most of the rubber Kongs can be stuffed with dog treats. For the short, quick treat, you can loosely fill a Kong with dry dog kibble and your dog will be rewarded simply for rolling it across the floor and gobbling up the treats. For longer enjoyment, you can stuff a Kong toy with a combination of food items packed tightly inside. For the ultimate challenge, freeze a stuffed Kong before giving it to your dog. Depending on what you’ve put inside, it could take your dog hours to remove all of the treats inside. This is especially great for relieving boredom when your dog is left home alone!

This video shows a dog enjoying the Kong treat toy for dogs…

#5 – Busy Buddy

busy buddy kibble nibble dog toy

This brand of dog toys was designed to redirect your dog’s destructive chewing behavior into positive playtime instead. There are a lot of different styles of Busy Buddy dog toys that provide different chewing experiences. My dog likes the Tug a Jug best.  The Premier Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble Dog Toy is our second favorite. But they’re all great because they’re made with your dog’s safety in mind. And due to their shape, they all provide unique bounce patterns which keeps your dog’s attention longer.

This video shows a dog enjoying the Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble interactive dog toy…

#6 – Everlasting Fun Ball

everlasting fun ball for dogs

The everlasting fun ball is a round ball that can be filled with dog treats. What makes this treat-dispensing dog toy unique is the fact that the treats are much harder to get out. In addition, it’s a quieter playtime experience than some of the other treat-dispensing dog toys due to the fact that it’s made of a soft, durable material — so you don’t hear it bouncing and rolling on the floor. I wouldn’t say this one is for extreme chewers though. Determined dogs with strong jaws can sometimes pierce through the rubber. There are a few different varieties of Everlasting Fun Balls to choose from, along with uniquely shaped treats for these toys.

This video shows a dog enjoying the Everlasting Fun Ball interactive dog toy…

#7 – Talking Dog Toy

petqwerks dog babble ball

Most dog toys with voices or lights are not super-durable. So, as long as you know ahead of time that your dog is not an extreme chewer, there are 2 talking dog toys that I especially like. They’re both by PetQwerks: the Talking Babble Ball dog toy and the Animal Sounds X-Tire dog toy. Again, they’re not durable enough to survive being crushed by strong and powerful dog jaws. Instead, these interactive dog toys are meant to be gnawed on lightly while your dog becomes entranced by the unusual talking and sounds coming from inside. They’re attention-getters, that’s for sure!

This video shows a dog enjoying the Talking Babble Ball interactive dog toy…

#8 – Buster Cube

buster cube dog toy - a treat dispensing dog toy

My dog’s all-time favorite treat-dispensing dog toy is the Buster Cube. It’s made of a hard plastic, like the IQ Treat Ball dog toy — which is another popular option in this category — but it can’t come apart during play like the IQ Treat Ball. The only downside to the Buster Cube is the fact that it’s slightly noisy as your dog rolls it across the floor and the treats inside roll from side to side.  The upsides are plenty: First, you can adjust the challenge level, making it easier or harder for your dog to get the treats out. (Actually, you’re increasing or decreasing the size of the opening that the treats fall out of.)  Second, the interior capacity is really large, so you can toss a good amount of dry dog kibble inside and your dog will play for hours. Third, it’s completely indestructible. We have the large size, and there is no way possible for a dog to get its jaws around this thing. Even if he did, the hard plastic is super durable. We’ve had ours for over 15 years and it still works great. My dog loves it!

NOTE: The Buster Cube works best on tile and hardwood flooring. (Another one that’s great for slick floors is the Atomic Treat Ball; reviewed here). If your dog will be playing on carpeted floors mostly, then you’ll want to consider the Kong Wobbler instead. (Here’s a review of the Kong Wobbler.) The next best thing for a treat-dispensing toy like these is the Bob-A-Lot. It wobbles on its own a bit — as you can see here — which reminds your dog to keep interacting with it.

This video shows a dog enjoying the Buster Cube interactive dog toy…

So, there you have it, the best interactive dog toys for your pooch. There are probably several on this list that your dog will love!

More About Interactive Dog Toys

In addition to the links I’ve included above, here are some other resources to help you choose the right interactive dog toys for your pet:

I like to help people find unique ways to do things in order to save time & money -- so I write about "outside the box" ideas that most wouldn't think of. As a lifelong dog owner, I often share my best tips for living with and training dogs. I worked in Higher Ed over 10 years before switching gears to pursue activities that I'm truly passionate about. I've worked at a vet, in a photo lab, and at a zoo -- to name a few. I enjoy the outdoors via bicycle, motorcycle, Jeep, or RV. You can always find me at the corner of Good News & Fun Times as publisher of The Fun Times Guide (32 fun & helpful websites).


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