Play is so important in the dog world. Like toddlers playing house, dog's play creates make believe situations that teaches important messages about their world: body postures and their meanings, social rules, and roles within their day-to-day world. Adult dogs will occasionally let puppies win at tug or wrestling and then skillfully pin the pup when he gets a little too full of himself. Build confidence, but keep it in check, always know who's boss. Dogs have perfected what early childhood development teachers call 'purposeful play'.
Humans can use play with dogs to do teach many of the same social cues. A simple game of fetch can teach a dog to wait during distraction and surrender something over to you that he wants. Commands like "wait" and "drop it" can truly save a dog's life, keeping a dog from chasing a squirrel across a busy road or relinquishing a dangerous item. Keeping the game going teaches the dog that you will continue the game if he complies with the rules. Exercising together creates social bonds.
Marshall learned all these cues and commands during his socialization outings. He was in the middle of Therapy Dog training, going on field trips to farmer's markets and sidewalk sales almost daily to interact with new people and situations. Marshall's Top Five Bonding Activities are going on walks, snuggling, watching the yard, belly rubs, and interacting with people. Ollie's Top Five are play ball, do tricks, play ball, snuggle, and play ball. It had never concerned me before that Marshall didn't play with toys much except for dog-to-dog game of tug with Ollie.
I went outside with a ball and to do a little investigating. I threw the ball and Ollie took off like a rocket, Marshall close behind. Ollie lunged with precision, plucking the ball from the grass and in one graceful move tossed it into the air and caught it again. He sprinted back to bring the ball to me for another throw. Marshall, meanwhile, was still standing with his tail wagging where the ball had landed. It didn't take long for me to figure out why Marshall didn't play fetch with me.
I never let him win.
I realized that I was rarely ever alone with him in the backyard. The backyard wasn't "our thing". When we were out back, Ollie was always there. Ollie was faster, bigger, and third in command in our house after me and Mike, and the cat. If I didn't give him a rule, Marshall always deferred to his "big brother" to show him what to do. I never held Ollie back and let Marshall get the ball. Consequently, I never taught Marshall how to play with me.
That isn't to say that Marshall doesn't enjoy running around outside together. Playing ball in the backyard was something new we could do to bond. He still doesn't quite understand what this 'fetch' thing is all about, but happily wags his tail now when he sees me holding a ball, knowing it means we're going to run around together. By the end of the summer we were both well into learning how to play together.