Nala Reviews: Dog Sports Skills, Book 3: Play!

TLDR? I really, really like this book. Check it out.

Nala loves to play with me–but she feels a little conflicted, too.


If you had asked me how you play with dogs around the time that I adopted Nala, I probably would have said something like this:

“Oh, you know. You can play fetch (but Nala isn’t a huge fan of fetching). You can play tug, but you should put rules on it. Some people wrestle with their dogs, but Patricia McConnell warns against it. Oh, you can play chase games! Nala loves those. Some people play with flirt poles, but we’ve never tried it. We play with the hose sometimes, but we might have to put a moratorium on that–it kind of makes Nala lose her mind, she loves it so much.”

If you’re thinking that I had read a lot of books but hadn’t come out the other side much more prepared to play with my dog, you’re basically right.

As you may have gathered if you read this blog regularly, I’m a huge nerd. I’m interested in absorbing every available, credible detail of dog behavior, positive reinforcement based dog training, the human-animal bond, relationship building with dogs, and everything related that I can possibly find. But when it comes to playing with dogs at all, much less incorporating play into training, I have found the details and mechanics frustratingly slim.

For some, this will pose no problem at all: if you have a dog who is really into a particular game, that dog will probably teach you to play it in spite of yourself. You’ll attach rules to the game just to keep yourself from being bitten, slapped, knocked over, or pounced upon and bitten simultaneously.Then she’ll turn herself inside out for a chance to do it. Some dogs just make it easy–well, provided everyone figures out a workable system before you lose any fingers or limbs.

Nala–due partially to her nature and partially, I am sure, to a few errors I have made along the way–does not. Teams like us need books like this.

(I should note, here, that Fenzi and Jones also devote considerable attention to guidelines for surviving the puppyhood and adolescence of high drive dogs–you know, the ones that might maim you before you figure out how to play well together–and games for dogs who are so into motivating toys that they hoard them. So don’t write this book off if your problem is different from ours.)

Initially, I was going to review the topics the book covers. I don’t need to–the book is actually outlined in detail on Fenzi’s retail site, here. As you can see if you follow the link, Fenzi and Jones discuss the usual: Fetching. Tugging. Chasing each other. But, unlike other authors on the topic, Fenzi and Jones add two other categories, food play and personal play. Moreover, each type of play–fetch, tug, food, and personal play–is discussed in exhaustive detail, with careful considerations for building drive for each kind of game from the ground up and troubleshooting each game for individual teams.

Perhaps more useful than the variety of types of play is the careful thought and consideration that Fenzi and Jones have put into the frame surrounding this discussion. In an early chapter, they establish a framework for approaching everything you do with your dog in order to balance her drive for an activity against control, and, more importantly, what kind of control you use.

Here’s the concept that has made a huge difference for me and Nala: if a dog is not bubbling over with drive and enthusiasm for an activity, you cannot make her work for it. Equally, it makes no sense at all to dangle a toy in front of her nose and make her exercise self-control for it. It’s not self control if she doesn’t bite it because she doesn’t really want it! If your dog wouldn’t turn herself inside out for a chance to tug with you, the traditional rules–only grab the toy when cued! Drop it when cued! Do other stuff before getting the tug! Never, ever go for the toy unless I tell you to!–don’t make sense, and put a lot of pressure on the game that is guaranteed to wilt a sensitive dog before she can get a chance to figure out whether she likes it (and getting loud and wild and whooping it up puts too much pressure on the game, too–but that’s not my main point here).

In fact, Fenzi and Jones say that in general, for dogs who lack confidence, hardness, and drive, it makes more sense to play lots of games with external controls. Since Nala came out of the box already soft and thoughtful, I’ve learned, as Fenzi and Jones say, “to rely on external control; doing so helps build up hardness, determination, and self-confidence.”

The authors go on to interweave this theme of balancing your dog–creating springy intensity without losing thoughtfulness by using internal or external controls–throughout the entire book.

Still, the book is refreshing because it never lays down a prescriptive YOU MUST (except, perhaps, in a high drive dog chapter, where they say you MUST NOT a few times. But they have good reasons, I promise). Instead, Fenzi and Jones offer countless details for how to customize their games for each individual team. They understand that not just every dog is different, but every human is different. Some handlers may not be able to run with their dogs. Some handlers may enjoy relatively pushy, obnoxious play with their dogs, while others may feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea of letting their large dog jump on them in the name of personal play. Everyone’s idea of the perfect game with their dog is different, and Fenzi and Jones understand that. Moreover, they pay careful attention to handler safety in the toy and personal play chapters–how to tug with your dog to spare both their joints and your back, as well as how to engage in personal play without getting cheerfully chewed on by your dog who loves to play bitey face with other dogs.

There are countless ways to play! Nala loves high hand touches; they give her permission to launch herself into the air.


What’s particularly cool about this book, though, is its re-reading value. The first time I read it, about a year ago, my mind was totally blown by that internal/external control concept, and I set immediately to work incorporating it into most of what Nala and I do together. I also started incorporating breaks for food play into most of our training sessions, and set to work teaching Nala that being held back from something could build her anticipation for the thing instead of just confuse her.

When I set out to write a review of the book for last month’s blog hop, surprisingly, I found myself sucked right back in. This time, I got really excited about our toy play potential. I’m going to get a lunge whip and systematically build Nala’s drive for toy play, incorporating Fenzi and Jones’s strategies for reducing conflict in dogs who are possessive of objects (because Nala definitely feels a little conflicted about giving up toys). Because we now have opposition reflex and a love of external control games on board, I bet I can use those to fix our fetch game, too.

Because the truth is that today, thanks in large part to the ways I changed our training after reading this book, Nala is kind of a totally different dog, when it comes to training. She’s pushy. She’s excited. She’s much more resilient than she used to be–if her click doesn’t happen, she works to figure out how to make it happen. If I screw up and step into her space, she still looks away and licks her lips–but she recovers and keeps playing instead of shutting down. She’s fast and springy and engaged in a way that she never used to be.

Don’t get me wrong: Nala has always enjoyed training with me. She has always been a very willing creature. But a few weeks ago, I dragged out a video to show a friend on a training list how hard tuck-sits used to be for Nala and found myself watching it in actual disbelief. Was that my dog, moving so slowly and uncertainly? Did I wake her up from a nap to train or something? Has she really changed that much in eight months?

The answer is–yes! She has! And while I probably can’t credit it to any one thing we’ve done, I think that a big part of it was the confidence building work we did from this book (the other big thing is that Nala and I finally figured out how to do free shaping. The concepts in Denise’s Engagement class helped, too).

As a teaser, I’m going to share a food play game that isn’t actually in the book–I don’t remember where I picked this game up, but I know credit goes to Denise Fenzi. It’s called Mousey. We play it almost every day, and it’s especially useful for cheering Nala up when she’s a little bit overwhelmed by her environment.

I think that nearly anyone can learn a lot from this book, and if any part of the time you spend playing with your dog doesn’t bring extreme joy to both of you, you’ve just got to pick up a copy. It’s terrific. Highly recommended.

You can order it directly from Denise Fenzi’s store, The Dog Athlete, here.

This is part of a blog hop!


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6 thoughts on “Nala Reviews: Dog Sports Skills, Book 3: Play!

  1. I am on a book-buying moratorium, but oh, I really want this and it’s companion books. I’m terrible at play — not even self-conscious — just super-awkward. My partner is GREAT at it and I’ve learned a lot watching him, but ohhhh, I could use some help. Thanks for the review!


    1. Do it! I’m an enabler.

      More seriously: this book is totally awesome, and I definitely recommend it. But if online classes are your jam, you might also consider looking at the Relationship Through Play class at FDSA, since you specifically feel like your movements and mechanics are awkward. The lectures in that class have video, the gold working spots post videos, and sometimes you get lucky and the lurker group has lots of people posting video, too. And, technically, that wouldn’t be a book and wouldn’t break your rule. 😛


  2. I caved! LOL I’m really excited about it! I know some folks who do the FDSA classes and get a lot out of them. I would totally not keep up right now, but maybe once life settles down a little bit..if ever! Also, I liked the way you think! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The play class doesn’t come around again until October! #enabling

      I really love the online class format. I keep meaning to write a post on what I love about them/how I take advantage of them even when taking them at the cheapest levels.


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