How can it be that any living creature is without the knowledge of how to play? Wouldn’t that be akin to not knowing how to have fun or relax or be happy or laugh? Well, you’ve probably met people who didn’t seem to know how either, so let’s not be too hard on the dogs that missed out on that class. Most critically, proper play skills are extremely important to a happy, well-balanced and confident dog. Without proper play skills, training can be compromised and the dog will likely even suffer from poor social skills with other dogs. Thankfully, these skills are readily learned and fun to teach.
In truth, puppies that are without playmates during critical periods of their life, probably somewhere in the 6 weeks to 6 months range, would lack a lot of the opportunity to learn how to play. For dogs, play is something initiated in puppyhood. It hearkens back to the wild dogs who would learn their initial hunting and defence skills from play with their littermates and mother.
Regardless of the age of your dog, presuming they are in good health, you can probably help them learn some fundamental play skills. It is important that you keep your dog’s basic drives and behaviors in mind while you work to develop play. Virtually every dog has behaviors that could be built into playing but some of those behaviors could also go a bit too far to create a new set of problems (such as the dog that is a bit mouthy could become more uninhibited and mouthy as a result of such encouragement).
Basic theory would suggest that you observe your dog and determine things that they find some interest in, sniffing the ground, chasing the occasional butterfly, whatever the minor activity might be that could give you clues to what they find fascinating. From there, you want to determine how you could encourage the behavior. The dog that likes to sniff the grass might be intrigued by something you could drag through the yard. The combination of movement and scent would be too wonderful to ignore. Or feel free to try and intrigue them with a variety of props. Consider smearing peanut butter on a chew bone to get the dog more interested, put duck scent on a stuffed toy to see if they find that compelling enough to follow around when you play a bit of keep away. Try hiding toys around the house in relatively easy to find places (they are new to this after all). Make sure you and everyone else makes a huge fuss when they find your hidden treasures. You can be sure they will be always searching. Your creativity combined with the dog’s essential nature will help you down the path.
Secondary to this endeavor is to avoid overdoing it. If you get your dog to play with you for a couple minutes and they’ve never played much before, it’s time to stop. Don’t go to the point where they end the game or they will see play as work. Try to leave them wanting more.
Play is also a great part of socializing. Once your dog realizes that you have all these interesting tricks up your sleeve, they can’t help but figure every walk will be an adventure. Offering a toy when they deal with new experiences (fire hydrants, playground equipment) and letting new people they meet give them a small treat will go a long way toward developing and enthusiastic response to new things.
If your dog has a strong prey drive, you likely won’t need much help teaching them how to play, but you may need to help them find another game than tag (and rip a hole in your pants). Some games are not good choices for some dogs as they can encourage undesirable behaviors such as tag and tug of war. This is not to say that they should not be utilized but they would probably serve best if an experienced trainer was involved in their implementation. Virtually any game can be given an on/off switch. Once you do that, playing almost any game, even tag and tug of war, needn’t be an issue.
Once you’ve taught your dog to play, the biggest challenge might be in controlling their creativity. Someone once taught their dog the hide and seek game above. One evening during dinner, the dog collected virtually everything they could find that wasn’t too big or nailed down, and piled it up under their playmate’s chair. Another dog figured out that if her owner put on socks, that the boots would follow and they would go outside and play. That dog was quite a pest if she found a sock! Even so, neither owner would have ever traded their companion for a pile of gold. With that said, you may still want to consider the potential consequences if a favorite game became a consuming passion!