#26 - Learn How to Play With Your Animal

[00:00:00] Allie: So, one of the things that I think gets people into a bind with this topic is that they think it’s either fetch or it’s tug, maybe if they know about flirt pole, then they add added that third, but that they’re really trying to stick into these human created games, thinking that their pets should be playing with those human created games, by those specific rules, and not letting it be more natural, letting their pet have a say in what that game ends up looking like. So, when we take away some of that formality and what we think play should look like that really opens the floodgates for what we are able to do with play. 

Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:01:03] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:04] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week we heard from Miranda Workman, and one of the topics we discussed was cat enrichment. That was really the entire episode was cat enrichment, not just one of the topics, but this week we’re going to dive further into learning how to play with your pet and talk about implementation with the animals in your life. In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about the big myth surrounding play, how play mimics species-typical behaviors, and making up your own rules. Let’s get to it. 

[00:01:55] Emily: This feels to me like something that most folks would think, “Why are we even talking about this? Playing with pets is obvious.” 

[00:02:02] Allie: I agree, and I think that shows when we have clients who are not able to play with their pets and who often tell us that they’ve taken that activity for granted with their past pets, who they have been able to play with. And I find that when I tell those clients that we can teach pets how to play, or at least teach them how to play specifically with their humans, that there’s a lot of surprise that those specifics are a learned skill.

[00:02:24] Emily: Yeah, I think that goes back to the pop culture ideas of the whole nature nurture thing. Where people assume that play is just 100% instinctual, so either they’re born with it or they aren’t. So, there’s a lot of disappointment when a pet doesn’t play, and perhaps also a little bit of shame, like what’s wrong with my pet, that they won’t play with me.

[00:02:46] Allie: Oh, absolutely. It can be really hard for folks when their pets don’t play with them. But even if your pet does play with you, I think this is still an important topic because there can often be tweaks that we make to make it more enriching, and to deepen your relationship with your pet.

[00:03:03] Emily: Yes. Yes. Yes. Because while it is certainly true that in some cases we can teach play as a skill, the other side of that coin is that we need to learn how to play in a way that both illicit species-typical behaviors in safe, healthy, and appropriate ways, but also in a way that the individual really enjoys. Because different individuals within a species will prefer different types of play.

[00:03:30] Allie: I think that’s a perfect segue, into our takeaways for today, and the first is letting go of how you should play. We’ve talked on this podcast before about letting go of should, and that really the only things you should be doing are the things that your pet enjoys, and that helps with their mental, physical, emotional, behavioral wellbeing. All the “als” in their wellbeing.

 So, one of the things that I think gets people into a bind with this topic is that they think it’s either fetch or it’s tug. Maybe if they know about flirt pole, then they add added that third. But that they’re really trying to stick into these human created games and thinking that their pets should be playing with those human created games, by those specific rules, and not letting it be more natural, letting their pet have a say in what that game ends up looking like. So, when we take away some of that formality and what we think play should look like that really opens the floodgates for what we are able to do with play.

[00:04:41] Emily: That is the first step, right? I think one of the reasons that people aren’t observing what their pet is asking is because they’re just lost in what they think they should be doing, and as we love to say, see with your eyes, not your ideas. When we get rid of that “should” it opens the door for us to start listening to our pet.

And that’s really, the second takeaway, is in order to play in a way that’s actually enriching, we have to observe how our pet wants to play, how our pet is already playing or how they’re asking us to play, and also knowing what those species-typical behaviors look like for the species that you live with and what play is mimicking so that you can be more thoughtful in arranging play in a way that allows animals to practice those species, typical behaviors in the nonfunctional type of play way that they would do.

If they had all the power in the world, if they were queen of the universe and they could say, “This is how I want you to play with me.” That’s part of it is knowing what those species-typical behaviors are and how that play is functioning for that individual. If somebody’s trying to play fetch with their dog, and their dog won’t let go of the ball, then that’s a, a really good example of a dog saying, “I don’t wanna play fetch. That’s not the game that I wanna play. I wanna play chase. I wanna grab the ball, and I want you to chase me, and try to catch, get the ball from me.” That’s a good example of observing how your pet is asking you to play and running with that.

If your dog is taking the ball and running from you, and then looking back at you like, “Are you gonna chase me?” Then that’s the game they wanna play with you. And also, that type of running from each other play is definitely a species-typical behavior for dogs. So that’s the second takeaway, observe how your pet is asking to play, how they play on their own, or while they’re trying to play with you and understand the context of those behaviors so that you can be more thoughtful in arranging play so that it elicits those behaviors.

[00:06:46] Allie: I used to have the cutest game that I would play with Zorro, I can’t do it now in his enclosure, but when he was in a clear tank, we would play follow the finger because it’s a species-typical behavior for turtles to follow moving objects, that whole hunting thing. And so, we would just go back and forth finger against the tank and he would follow it. And that was his favorite game. Follow the finger. I miss it.

[00:07:11] Emily: That’s so cute.

[00:07:12] Allie: Right. I wish I could play it in his current setup now, but I can’t.

[00:07:16] Emily: Yeah, that’s the only downside to having that bigger and more natural tank that you’ve got for him is that you don’t have the glass walls anymore.

[00:07:23] Allie: Right.

So, once you have an idea of the broad strokes of how your pet plays, and I would say too, perhaps researching the natural species-typical behaviors that play in that particular species mimics so that you know what to look for.

You may not know to look for your pet, asking for you to chase them, if you didn’t know that was a typical play behavior. And just like I said, for Zorro, follow the finger may look like a very silly activity if you don’t know that turtles do that. That they also stalk fish in their natural habitats. So, you may wanna do some research in addition to observing how your pet plays. But once you have an idea of the broad strokes of that, then it’s time to get into the specifics. And again, this can include making up your own rules. You do not have to play by the kind of stereotypical rules of the animal games that we’ve created. 

So, one of the ways that you can do that is to do toy and play preference tests with your pet. I’m gonna keep using your example of chase, Emily, because I think there are, are a lot of dogs out there who prefer chase over fetch. Absolutely, there are a lot of dogs who like fetch too, but I think you, and I probably see the dogs who prefer to play chase because a lot of times that ends up getting them into trouble in the human world. And we see nuisance behaviors, or even maladaptive behaviors that come out of that. 

So, let’s keep using the chase example. So, let’s say,” Okay, I see that you perhaps wanna play chase.” We could do a toy preference test and ask them, “Do you wanna play this game with a tennis ball, or a squeaky ball, or a rope toy, or a stuff toy, or fill in the blank kind of toy.”

One of the easy ways to do that is to just put out a bunch of toys and see what your dog gravitates towards. We’re talking quite a bit with dogs, this is absolutely also for cats, obviously, since Miranda talked a ton about how to play with cats specifically, and I think that’s a species that a lot of people don’t realize how to play with cats in a way that promotes those species-typical behaviors. So, you can absolutely do this with cats, you can do this with other species, too. But we’re using that dog chase example. So, put out a bunch of toys, see what your dog gravitates towards and say, “Okay, let’s try that with that toy.”

And then we can say, “Do you like it if I just chase you full out running? Do you like it if I pretend to stalk you first? And then we get a bit of play in there.” That’s how Oso likes to play is I pretend to stalk him, and then he goes and runs across the yard and grabs a thing, grabs a toy out there and, and shakes it around and runs with it, but he’s not really a chase, he likes the stalking part more than the actual chasing part. So, you can play with the specifics of that game and just try things as long as it’s safe for everybody involved, and not only safe, but everybody feels safe. Gotta get that security category in there. As long as everybody feels safe, then try a bunch of things, and you can develop your own game with your pet that both of you really enjoy playing. 

So, my example of this today, I’ve talked about the pets in my house already and a little bit of how they like to play.

But one of my favorite examples that I’ve experienced with play is a dog that I knew at the sanctuary where we worked. Her name was Louise, and Louise was a young, I think she was still an adolescent actually semi-feral dog who people were not her jam, but she loved other dogs. One of my tasks was to help Louise feel safe around people, and learn that people aren’t all terrible, and perhaps get her to the point where she might even like to go home with a person.

I think she did actually get adopted if I’m remembering correctly. We were having trouble with Louise. She, she needed more distance than what we could feasibly throw food at her, and have her feel comfortable with that, so we couldn’t particularly use food in that situation. One day I was just sitting there, and she had gotten comfortable enough to come up with maybe about 10 feet from me, and I was like, “You know what? I watch her all the time play with other dogs; she absolutely loves playing with other dogs.”

And I, yes this, looks as silly as it sounds, I offered her a play bow. She play bowed back at me, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is a breakthrough with this dog, and so we just started play bowing at each other. It was the cutest thing. That really broke the ice, for us to be able to work with her, and be able to walk her on a leash, and be in the same area with her, and eventually be able to use food with her.

And so, play really just opened the doors for her, and had I tried to play in a human way, in a primate way, I think I had actually tried that already, and it scared the living daylights out of her. I think I had tried to throw toys and she’s like, “No, why would I ever do that?” I had to play the way that she wanted to play, our game was just that we play bowed at each other. And that is, I would say a loose, loose interpretation of what a game looks like, but that was the game that we developed. And it really was a huge breakthrough for us with her.

[00:13:10] Emily: That is the cutest story. I love using body language signals from a species to communicate with that species, I slow blanket cats, I fold my wings for birds. Like I, I love that. So, it does not at all surprise me to hear that, this dog who wasn’t a people dog, responded well to your play bow, cause I am, I’m totally the shameless person who will do animal body language signals for other animals, whether or not anybody’s there to look at me and laugh at me.

[00:13:42] Allie: I just don’t do lip licks because that just feels really awkward.

[00:13:47] Emily: I don’t either that one doesn’t flow with me either. So my, actually my story today is actually gonna be about a bird, and she is a red belly parrot. Her name is Yodi, and she was my bird. She since defected and fell in love with a friend of mine. And so she now lives with my friend Haley. Because she broke up with me and decided to go live with Haley now, and I had to respect her decisions. But she was my bird, and I got her from a breeder who had, he’s unfortunately passed away, but he was a really good breeder. He would fledge all of his babies, he gave them opportunities for species-typical behaviors, and he made sure that all of his the people who bought his birds were really well educated before they took a bird home, and he kept track of all his babies.

So, he’s, he was one of the good ones. But the reason that he gave Yodi to me is because the other birds in the aviary, for some reason, we’re picking on her. I knew him for years and that just didn’t happen in the aviary, I don’t know what it was about her, but she ended up losing an eye because of it.

And so, he gave her to me because she wasn’t safe in the aviary. I was like, “This is awesome. I don’t usually get baby animals. I’m usually just getting the really messed up adults.” And so, I have this opportunity to get this baby bird, and start from scratch, and do everything right with her.

And I was so excited about it and she definitely humbled me. Because I could not for the life of me, figure out how to get her to play, or forage, and she wasn’t afraid of me. She would step up if I asked her to, she would eat food from my hands, but there was just no connection there. There just wasn’t, I couldn’t figure out how to like break through the crust and get really to know her.

And I tried all these different things and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t figure it out. And finally watching her, there was like some of the paper that some of her food was wrapped in an a forging toy. She pulled the paper out and started shredding the paper. So, I was like, “Okay, so she likes prefers paper to any of the wood, or the acrylic, or anything like that.” So, I took all of the wood, and acrylic, and like woven Palm leaf toys out, and just put a bunch of like paper products in her cage. I had also given her a lot of foot toys because supposedly red belly parrots liked play with their feet a lot.

They have a reputation for flipping on their back, like Caiques and playing with foot toys with their feet. And she just wasn’t doing that, and so I got rid of all the foot toys too, and I replaced it with the really thin plastic, like almost like the party favor type of toys that almost looked like punched out plastic, and paper. And she just went to town on that, and she was just really into that. And I was like, “Okay. So, I found like the texture, her whole thing is that she doesn’t like the textures that you would assume that a red belly parrot would like. She wasn’t into any of that. She was not into foot toys.

She was super into these really thin plastics.” Yeah, thin plastics and paper. So, I’m, I started to use those toys to try to build a relationship with her, and whenever she’d interact with me anyway, I’d give her a piece of paper, or a piece, of plastic or something. And then one day I decided to try those little, the little cat balls, the plastic balls with the bell inside that you can get like a whole, a PA six pack of ’em for $2 or whatever. I was like, this is a thin plastic, she might like this. And she just happened to be on the floor of her cage forging for stuff anyway. So, I took that little ball and I rolled it towards her.

You know, I didn’t want it to hit her, it was just like a gentle kind of role in her direction. And she looked at it with her little eye, cause she was blind in one eye, so she’d like, when she was interested in something she’d turn the eye that she could see from, and her little eye started pinning, which for those of you who don’t know means that the birds are really excited, or interested in something. When she was excited about something, she would say her name, like ” “Yodi”. That’s how she would say her name when she was excited. And so, she like looks at the ball, she goes, “Yodi!” And she picks up the ball, and she looks at me, and she throws it back at me, and rolls it back to me.

And so, “I was like, oh my, God. This bird is not a foot toy bird. She’s not a wood bird. It turns out she likes to play soccer.” So, we are just like throwing the ball back and forth, rolling it on the ground, she came over to my hand, hopped up on my hand, I brought her out of the cage, and the little cat toy ball out of the cage, put them both on the ground, and we just spent probably an hour rolling that cat ball around the room to each other. And she would throw it, and whenever like the little bell would tingle, she would laugh. “Ha.” That was the thing that I found that she loved. And it is still species-typical behaviors, but it’s not the ones that these, this species is known for. It’s not one that I had expected, or assumed that she would like, so I had to do that sleuthing thing to find out the texture preferences, her toy preferences, and her play preferences. And then, once I figured those out, then she and I bonded super quickly and we became very good friends. 

And by the way, she still likes me. When I go and visit Haley, she still flies over to me and says, hi, and gives me be Bey kisses. But I was out town a lot and Haley took care of her when I was outta town. And she fell in love with Hailey. But the point is it took really a lot of sleuthing to figure out her toy preference and her play preferences. And that was how we built the relationship. Is from figuring those things out.

[00:19:25] Allie: I think that’s a really good point that just because something can be typical for a breed or a species doesn’t mean that individual pet got the memo. There are so many retrievers that are like, “Yeah, I don’t do fetch even though that’s what I was originally made to do.”

So, I think that’s a really good point, see with your eyes, not your ideas. You have to really observe your individual pet and those species-typical or breed -typical activities can be a good starting point so that you know what to try, but we need to go beyond there and ask them, did you get the memo or not?

[00:20:00] Emily: Yes exactly. The information that we learn about species and breeds that we work with is a good foundation. We need to know what to look for, and what to expect, and that’s definitely a good starting place, but you have to be willing to move out from there because behavior is complex, and genetics only makes up for a very small percentage of all of the different factors that influence behavior.

[00:20:24] Allie: I feel like we didn’t talk enough about cats in this implementation episode about following cats. Do you have a cat story?

[00:20:33] Emily: I do, actually. Maybe we could argue this is about play, we have some friends who live like two blocks from us, and they just adopted a cat who he was like a, a feral cat that was, bonking around their neighborhood, and got into a fight, and got sick.

He had some abscesses, and so they took him in and took him to the vet to get surgery. And then he just became their cat. And so, he’s a spicy, he’s a spicy little dude, and he’s not afraid to express his displeasure with his teeth. So, whenever my partner and I would go over to our friend’s house, I would just give him lots of space.

 Not really try to interact with him, if he approached me, I would give him the opportunity to bunt my hand, but I’m not gonna reach out and grab him. And then once he started bunting, then I would pat him a little bit, do a little pet consent test, stop, let him come engage again.

And the second or third time that we came over, after I think it was the third time that we came over after they adopted this cat. I was sitting in a chair, and he came up to the chair and he looked at me and I couldn’t tell what he wanted. And so, I, I reached my hand down, and he just slightly turned his head.

So,” I pulled my hand away, and he looked up at me, and then I was like, “Oh, does he want to get up on the chair?” So, I kind of leaned back to give him space, he jumped up on the arm of the chair, and he got snuggled in, into a little kitty loaf position.

And I slow blinked at him and he slow blinked back at me. Then I offered my hand, and he bunted it, then I started petting him. After a little while, he was really comfortable with that. He put one paw onto my thigh, and then looked at me, and I was like, ” Yeah, this is, this works for me.” So, I slow blinked at him again.

And then he took the slow blink as like permission, and he just like immediately nestled into my lap. We just sat like that for probably an hour, him curled up on my lap. And our friends were like, “He doesn’t sit on anybody’s lap.” And I was like, “Yeah, because we had this whole conversation where I asked him what he wanted, and I let him say yes or no. This like affiliative behavior, this slow blink, when he was looking at me asking me if I would let him do these things.” So, that’s not really a play story, but it’s really related to this topic of observing the animal, asking them what they want, listening to what they’re telling you, and building a relationship from that.

[00:22:58] Allie: If we make up the rules for our own games, that could be a game, the little Bunting game. That would be really cute.

So today we discussed learning how to play with your pet. Even if you have a pet who already plays with you, this can be a great opportunity to interview your pet about how they like to play and see if there’s a more enriching way to do it.

And this includes, letting go of how you should play, then observing how your pet plays and the natural species-typical behaviors that play mimics, then getting into the specifics, including toy and play preference tests.

This is the end of season two, y’all! We’ll be back for season three towards the end of the year with some super awesome interviews that I wish I could tell you who, but you’ll just have to wait to see. 

You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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