Is your dog always bugging you to play with him and cannot seem to learn how to entertain himself? You may have already thrown the ball 20 times but he still wants you to throw it again. Or you may have just come back from a long walk and think that you have done your duty. But no such luck! Your energetic pooch comes charging over to you with his favorite toy just as you settle into your easy chair. How in the world can you teach this dog to play by himself and give you a break?
While it may be challenging, it is possible to teach dogs to play on their own. But it does take a little patience and some training. First, your dog will need access to games and toys that do not require the participation of you or another dog. But you will need to teach your dog how to use these toys and puzzles and this will require some repetition until he gets it. Second, remember that dogs are very social animals and really want to be with us, so make sure you also give your dog plenty of attention and interaction. Finally, it is actually good for dogs to be able to function and play on their own. A certain amount of alone time is good for their emotional growth.
Keep reading to learn more about how you can teach your dog to play by himself with a variety of toys and games.
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Make Sure Your Dog Has Access to Plenty of Toys He Enjoys
Find a Variety of Toys Your Dog Really Loves
Different dogs enjoy different toys. Breed and size will often make a difference in their preference. A herding dog may enjoy a large beach ball he can chase and roll around, while a Beagle may prefer games that requires him to use his nose to sniff out treats or objects.
But each dog is unique regardless of breed. So try a large variety of toys to see what your pooch likes best. Then make sure you rotate them periodically to keep his interest fresh. I have a big box in the garage where I store a lot of my dogs’ toys. Periodically, I remove toys from their living room toy basket and replace them with toys from the box in the garage. Surprisingly, they get very excited with their “new” toys and this saves me a lot of money since I don’t have to keep buying new ones!
Work with your dog to encourage him to play with different toys, especially ones he can play with by himself such as chew toys or puzzle toys. Show him how to play with the toys and praise him each time he engages. Some dogs really don’t know how to play with toys especially those that have been raised in less then ideal situations. You can read more about this in my post, How to Play with a Rescue Dog. Dogs raised in puppy mill situations or who were strays from birth may have never been given a toy or the freedom to play.
Best Dog Toys for Independent Play
The best toys for independent play are usually chew toys and puzzle games. Balls can sometimes be played with by a dog who is alone depending upon your dog’s preferences. Here is a list of best toys for dogs to play with by themselves:
- Puzzle or Scent Toys
- Bones and Chew Toys
- Balls and Flirt Poles
Puzzle toys usually involves some small object or stuffed animal or treat that your dog will want to find. There are many types of these toys available and my favorites are the Outward Hound brand which have some of the best and safest toys for your pooch. You can see a wide array of Outward Hound puzzle toys at Amazon by clicking this link.
Other toys of similar nature are toys that can be stuffed with treats, peanut butter, or cheese spread. The Kong toys which can be found at Amazon are among my favorites. I can give my dogs their entire meal using the Kong Wobbler which is a hard plastic cone-shaped object that can dispense kibble through a small hole as my dogs roll it around. I also use the smaller rubber classic Kong Cone and fill it with cheese or peanut butter. Both of these can keep my dogs busy for up to 15-20 minutes and they are durable and safe.
Bones and Chew Toys
Dogs love to chew! I equate a dog chewing a bone to me reading a book. It is a truly solo experience and enjoyable pass time that can engage them for hours. Real bones are ok as long as they are raw. Cooked bones are not safe as they can splinter or break and get lodged in a dogs throat or intestinal track and may create tears or holes.
There are many alternatives to bones that are created from bamboo fiber, wood fiber, or hard rubber that are safe for dogs and will hold up for a long time. One of my favorites that my dogs love are the Spot by Ethical Products – Bambone Wish Bone. They are made of bamboo fiber, are safe to chew, and last a long time, often months. My dogs will often chew on these for an hour or more in the evening while I watch my favorite shows. Be sure to see more of my recommended bones, balls, and toys on my Recommended Products Page for Toys.
I have also discovered edible chew sticks that are rawhide alternatives. These alternatives are fully digestible and contain a fair amount of protein. My favorite brand is Earth Animal Chew Sticks with beef flavor. Rawhide chews are hard for a dog to digest and can cause G.I. tract problems. I also avoid anything really hard like pig hooves or elk antlers. Dogs can easily break their teeth on them.
Balls and Flirt Poles
My dogs love small balls. They are medium-sized dogs with some Cattle Dog DNA, so I also tried larger balls. But they are not into pushing larger balls around. Instead, they really love tennis balls, small squishy rubber balls, and any other small ball that I can throw for them to fetch. Dogs have a limited spectrum of color which they can see. Blue and yellow are colors they can see the best and toys in these colors may be their favorites as a result.
I have thought about buying a ball throwing machine such as the AFP Automatic Ball Launcher Dog Ball Thrower Machine from Amazon which uses 2.5″ balls. You can adjust the distance and it can be used indoors and outside. I would need to train my dog to drop the ball at the top so it would be launched, but this would take some time. So far, I have managed to play fetch with them a couple of times during the day and that seems to work for now.
Depending upon what size ball your dog likes you may be able to install a tall pole in your backyard and attach a volleyball to it that your dog can bat and chase around. You could also install a smaller Flirt Pole inside your house to the ceiling or in a door jam to let your dog play with it. See Flirt Poles at Amazon.
Second, Remember that Dogs Are Social Animals
A Well Adjusted Dog Requires Plenty of “Together” Time with Us
A dog who is well-adjusted and settled into his home environment is more content. You will have a much easier time teaching your dog to play by himself if he also has high quality, fun time with you. He will be more relaxed and centered and probably much less anxious when you cannot be around to entertain him.
This quality time should include some daily exercise like walking or running with you or a rousing game of fetch or tug of war. Make sure you also have plenty of snuggle time and let your dog hang out with you. Like people, dogs get bored and lonely if they do not have adequate social interaction. See my post, How to Bond with Your New Rescue Dog, to learn more about the significance of developing a strong bond with your dog.
Although some alone time is good for a dog to develop a healthy, independent personality, too many hours alone can create anxiety and emotional instability. This can result in destructive behavior or excessive barking. Experts generally agree that leaving a dog alone for around 3-4 hours is ideal. Therefore, teaching a dog to play by himself for short periods is really helpful for both him and us.
Beyond 4 or 5 hours, most dogs begin to feel lonely, bored, and anxious. So, if you are going to be away at work, make arrangements for a midday dog walker, or sitter, or take your dog to doggie daycare. It is important to remember that we have busy lives, friends, family, and co-workers. But all our dog has is us.
Dogs Were Bred to Live and Work with Us–They Are Now Part of Our “Pack”
Dogs have been bred for over 4,000 years to live with humans, so it is part of their nature to look to us for socialization and support. We become their new “pack” when we adopt them. As puppies, they learned to play with their littermates, so we need to step in to fulfill that role of playmate and companion. Playtime helps pups to develop important skills to forage for food if needed, protect themselves, and prepare themselves for “jobs” when they become adults.
Dogs living with families may not always have actual jobs like search and rescue or police dogs. Therefore, playtime becomes even more critical to help your dog keep his life interesting. And teaching our dog to play by himself will enable him to mature healthily.
Finally, Learning to Play Alone is Emotionally Healthy for a Dog
Dogs who learn to play on their own develop important skills for independence and self-calming. They have more control over how they feel and will be less likely to be anxious or stressed. According to an article in wagwalking.com, Why Do Dogs Play By Themselves, “The ability to use imagination, problem-solving skills, and energy while left alone makes the time go faster and it is healthier than sitting around doing nothing.” This is true for our pups just as it is for our children.
I have a couple of energetic dogs who are always bugging me to play with them. I work at home, so they think that I should play with them all day. They get annoyed if I ignore them and let me know in no uncertain terms by knocking my keyboard onto the floor or barking at me while in a Zoom meeting. I have had to train them not to do this (still working on it) by reinforcing the “off” command and sometimes putting them into another room while I work.
Interestingly, when they know they have to entertain themselves, they do! One of my dogs drags all of her toys, one by one upstairs to my bed where she can sit and look out the window surrounded by her toys. The other one will look out the front or back door and chomp on her favorite squishy ball. Oh, and sometimes they will actually play with each other, which is the reason I have two dogs in the first place! See my post, Will Two Dogs Entertain Each Other for more about this.
Final Thoughts for Teaching Your Dog to Play by Himself
In summary, make sure you interact and play with your dog each day. Provide him an abundance of toy options that he can also enjoy alone. Teach him how to use his toys. And encourage him to learn, grow, and become more independent by playing on his own.