Man hugging and playing with white lab with ball in his mouth

How to Play With a Rescue Dog

Last updated on May 6th, 2023 at 08:20 pm

Many people assume that as soon as they adopt a new rescue dog, their new pooch will want to play. Yet, the opposite may be true. He may only want to run around, sniff, and check out everything in his new home. In some cases, a newly adopted dog may be frightened and look for places to hide.

If this happens, you may initially be disheartened, especially if you have anticipated his arrival for a while. You just want your new dog to be happy, have fun, and play. You have saved him from the shelter, so he should be thrilled to be free.

Your new rescue dog is probably grateful in his own way to be out of the shelter and with someone who treats him kindly. But it may take a little while for him to relax and settle in. To get your new rescue dog to play with you, you will need to have patience and allow him time to become oriented to his new surroundings. Then you can find out what toys and games he may be attracted to. Over time, you will be able to show your dog how to play using treats, praise, and modeling.

Reasons Why a New Rescue Dog May Not Want to Play

Dogs learn to play as puppies as part of their socialization between 6–12 weeks old. Dogs who were taken away from their litter at an earlier age or who were not allowed the opportunity to play with other puppies may have to learn how to play later in life. Playing is interactive, therefore a dog who has been isolated may not understand how to play with other dogs or humans. Additionally, like with humans, the primary focus is always on survival and dealing with stressful situations. Therefore, playful activity is lower on the list of priorities for dogs who have been neglected or raised in abusive circumstances. Here is a full list of reasons why your new rescue dog may not want to play initially:

  • Extreme anxiety or fear
  • Has not had a chance to settle yet into his new home
  • Never played with other dogs or humans
  • May have forgotten how to play
  • Depression or sadness
  • Health problems or arthritis
  • Still in survival mode

Give your dog a chance to adjust to his new home. A dog will need to first feel safe and relaxed before he may want to play or do something fun. This could take several weeks, so it is important to not rush the process. See this post at Furbaby Pet Care for a great article about the 3-3-3 rule regarding how long it takes for dogs to adjust during the first 3 days, 3 weeks, and 3 months after adoption. Also, be sure to visit my post, Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog for a comprehensive overview of the adoption process.

How to Help Your New Dog Relax and Decompress

The best way to help your dog settle in and relax is to give him plenty of space, as much control as possible, and have patience. Your new dog may have endured some very traumatic situations and will just need to have time and space to unwind. Make sure he has a protected, quiet place to sleep and retreat to. A corner of the room with a cushy bed or a crate may feel like a safe den to him. See my recommendations for dog beds here. Also, see my luxury dog gifts page here regarding the Best Friends Dog Beds by Sheri for beds that will remind dogs of sleeping with their Mom and other litter pups.

Also, be sure to have your new dog evaluated by a vet to either rule out or provide medical support for any health issue that may also explain why he may not be interested in playing.

Give your new pooch plenty of quiet time and keep everything calm for the first several days. Do not invite visitors to meet your new dog as this may overwhelm him. If he wants to be alone or hideout, let him do it. In time he will relax and learn that his new home is a good place and you are his friend. See my post, First Day in My New Home Through A Dog’s Eyes for a whimsical yet insightful perspective of what a dog might experience.

Find Out What Toys and Games Your Dog is Attracted To

I will be the first to admit that I spent a huge amount of money on toys for my two new rescue dogs. Both dogs were extremely hyper when I adopted them. So, I assumed that I needed to play more with my rescue dogs due to pent-up energy. But in hindsight, they probably just need more time to decompress and get used to their new home. I purchased a variety of toys and games. They were interested in about half of them, and the others not so much.

When you feel that your new rescue dog is settled and ready to play, try a small variety of toys to see what he responds to. Some of the things you can try are:

  • Balls
  • Tug toys
  • Stuffed toys
  • Frisbees
  • Chew toys
  • Puzzle toys

I tried a variety of balls to see what my dogs liked best. Since they are medium-sized dogs, they preferred tennis-sized balls the best that they could carry in their mouths. I tried larger balls that were more like the size of a soccer ball as I read that herding dogs liked to push them around with their nose. Since my dogs were a Pug/Cattle Dog mix I thought they might want to “herd” a large ball around the yard. Unfortunately, they were nonplussed and I gave it to the neighbor’s dog.

I went through various stuffed animals and chew toys. I wanted something safe that they could not chew up right away. You can see my favorites on my recommended toys page along with my other favorite toys. Stuffed toys with loud squeakers may frighten your dog or bring out his prey instinct. So, just see how he reacts. If it seems like he is obsessing or getting aggressive, then try to find toys without squeakers.

How to Encourage Your Dog to Play

Colorful box of dirty dog toys that need to be washed!
Get a variety of toys for your dog to play with.

Get Your Dog Interested in a Toy

To begin, see if your dog shows any interest in a handful of different toys. Chew toys are often made with a flavor like bacon or beef to spike the dog’s interest. You can also get your dog interested by placing a toy near him and rewarding him with a treat and praise each time he touches or licks it. After doing this several times over a period of days, he will get the connection that this toy is a fun thing. You can also apply a small amount of peanut butter or Cheese Whiz to the toy and then praise him when he licks it off.

Be Gentle and Go Slowly

First, teach your dog some basic commands like sit, stay, drop or leave it, and come. This may seem counterintuitive to playing with your dog. But it will help a lot when teaching your dog how to play and help develop a bond. Obedience classes are great as they also help connect him safely with other dogs. However, if your dog is still a little frightened or aggressive, then you may need to find a trainer to help. Check with your vet or local AKC. org chapter to find local classes and recommendations for trainers.

Next, pick up the toys he seems most interested in and gently engage your dog. Try different kinds of games to see what your dog will respond to.

Tug of War

You can teach him how to play with a tug-of-war toy by placing it in his mouth (maybe with a bit of peanut butter) and then gently pulling at it. Over time he will probably get the idea. Always reward him with praise when he keeps it in his mouth. And, be sure to let him win!


Again, place some Cheese Whiz or peanut butter on a Frisbee or small ball to get him interested. Then begin tossing it a short distance in your living room or backyard. Praise him when he picks it up. When he drops it, pick it up and toss it again and repeat the praising and tossing several times for a few days.

Of course, the second part to fetch is to bring the ball back to you. Your dog may learn this on his own. But you can reinforce it with the come and drop it command. Otherwise, you may be chasing the ball around a lot and fetching it yourself!

Nose Work

Nose work games usually involve hunting for food and involve sniffing and thinking. These are great games that stimulate brain function and dogs can do on their own. The nice thing about nose work games is that dogs will more naturally figure out how to use them with a little less help from you.

You can do simple things like hiding small treats around the house and let him sniff around until he finds all of them. Small Kong toys are great for filling with peanut butter and letting your dog lick it out over a period of several minutes. The larger Kong toys can be filled with kibble and take a little more effort. They will wobble around as your dog paws at them to make the kibble fly out of small holes. My dogs love these treat games, and they are great on a rainy day.

You can eventually move up to more challenging puzzle games that involve sniffing and removing a small lid to get at a treat. Some toys connect hard rubber pieces together that dogs have to pull apart to get to the treat With these types of toys, you may need to teach your dog how they work. With this latter toy, one of my dogs figured it out on her own. But my other dog lost patience and started growling at it! So, we returned to the easier nose work games of finding the treats.

Nose work games are particularly good for senior dogs or dogs who have limited mobility due to arthritis or other health problems. Once your dog has learned the art of playtime, you can also teach him to play some games by himself. I always chuckle when I see my two pups running around and tossing their favorite stuffed animal around. See my post How to Teach Your Dog to Play by Himself for more about this.

Introduce Your New Rescue to Other Dogs as Role Models for Play

two dogs running together in a big field
Running together at doggie daycare.

The one game that you cannot and should not do with your dog is playfighting. First of all, you may get scratched or bit. And your dog may not understand what you are trying to do, especially if he has not socialized with other dogs. Dogs teach each other important socialization skills when they play such as not biting too hard; how to invite another dog to play; and when to stop. Be sure to see my post, Will Two Dogs Entertain Each Other? to learn more about dog play.

When your dog seems ready, has been vaccinated, and is cleared of any medical problems, you may want to introduce him to other dogs. Start slowly with two or three dogs you know from friends, neighbors, or family. Just let them mill around together in a fenced yard for a while. If any serious growling develops, it may be too soon or the wrong mix. But if your dog is feeling safe and more relaxed at this point, he may be curious and will want to engage with his own kind.

The other dogs may play with each other initially, and your dog can learn by watching. Eventually, his instincts will kick in and he will probably want to join in on the fun. Doggie daycare can also help with this process if it is well-monitored. But I would avoid dog parks for a long time. Make sure your dog is fully adjusted as a dog park with a lot of dogs may feel very frightening and overwhelming. Be sure to find a park where owners keep an eye on their dogs and don’t allow for aggressive behavior.

Benefits of Play and Final Thoughts

Just like with humans, exercise and play release good hormones when dogs play. When dogs run they can get a runner’s high just as we do when jogging, and it is a great way to relieve stress and keep a bored dog entertained. Playing with your dog goes a long way in building trust and helping with the bonding process.

Playing can also involve agility training and other exercises which are both good for your dog’s physical and mental health. He will build cognitive skills along with muscles and this will help to keep him lean and strong.

Lastly, it is just plain fun for you and your dog to play together! How sweet to watch your dog’s ears and tail flying as he runs and leaps to catch a ball or a Frisbee mid-air. And, it will be so rewarding when he quickly trots back to you, his new beloved owner, to do it all again!

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