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What We Do - Canine Game Theory

In my years of training, I have run across numerous types of behavior issues that dog owners have asked me to assist them with. Most of these issues are a dog just being a dog in such a way that it is at odds with living in a human world.  The methods used to handle most issues and even basic training range from relationship based to punishment based.

Here at Bones, Brains and Behavior we use structured games to teach a dog skills that last.

What Is Play


You may have heard the terms 'structured' and 'unstructured' play and wondered—which is better? That's a bit like asking, 'Which is better: fruits or vegetables?' Someone who eats healthy is going to have both without even thinking about it. If you are providing plenty of playtime opportunities for your dog, then both kinds of play are taking place.

Structured play has a set of rules with specific objectives. Most games fall under the category of structured play: card games, board games and classic outdoor games like fetch and tug and more complex games like agility, flyball and dock diving are all structured activities. Getting the treats out of a puzzle toy is a structured activity. So is following directions to sit, down or come. Generally speaking, when your dog is engaging in structured play, she is seeking the most efficient way to achieve pre-existing objectives.

Play takes different forms. Structured play, sometimes called goal-oriented play, can help dogs learn how to do things both simple and complex. Structured play activities can help raise a dogs confidence, industriousness and perseverance. Games improve communication and cooperation between our dogs and us. Humans often find structured play with their dogs much easier to engage in than totally free play, but it is important that dogs get plenty of opportunities to do both as part of their healthy, balanced play diet.

Unstructured play is open ended with unlimited possibilities. Playing with balls is unstructured play. So is chasing, digging, chewing and shredding that stuffy. Deciding how to play with a toy is unstructured play. Inventing games to play is unstructured activity. So is running around the backyard or park. Generally speaking, when your dog is engaging in unstructured play, she is in the process of establishing her own objectives.

More important than structured vs. unstructured play is to ask whether the activity holds your dog's full attention. When your dog is fully engaged in an activity, she is arranging and absorbing meaning. She's finding reward in the act of understanding. She's enjoying figuring it out, whether the "it"—the activity— is structured or unstructured. If you make a habit of providing quality playtime to your dog, she'll make a habit of taking ownership of an activity and applying her ingenuity and creativity to their fullest. That's a valuable habit—a lifetime learning habit that does not have its origin in structured or unstructured play, but rather in quality activity.

The last consideration with play in general is consequences. There is nothing that any living creature does that does not have a consequence or three attached to it. With unstructured play, the consequences come fast and furious – an accidental ear bite, a twisted foot, rolled by a bigger dog or even bitten by an ant in the process of digging for those tasty roots. But consequences are not always bad. Consequences also include a faster, tighter turn, a higher jump, a quicker recovery from a roll. Consequences with unstructured play allow a dog to deal with failure and injury without shutting down or hiding away. Dogs learn that failure is part of the play and so part of life, but that it doesn't have to end the game.

With structured play, consequences are of two types.

1.Rewards in the way of food, a favorite toy or shared activity.

2.Punishment in having failed and trying again.

With structured play as with unstructured play, failure must be built into the activity in order to teach the dog that failure is only a necessary means to success and rewards. Without failure, learning only happens half way. The dog never learns persistence and industriousness that leads to success. Without failure, creativity and ingenuity never happen. All you get is a dog that does the actions for the reward.

Structure Of A Game


A game is a challenge, created by the rules that govern it, bound by the cooperation between the players of the game who all have the same purposes, intentions and focus; all of which results in a quantifiable goal.


There have been many different definitions and attempts at defining the term "game" but for the purposes of dog training, here is a definition that fits in the instructional setting as well as for life experiences.


Just so we are all on the same page, I will also define the terms used in the definition.


Cooperation-To work together toward a common goal, justly and honestly.


Cooperation implies the ability to engage in communication with understanding; to be honest about intentions and purposes and the rely of information; to do one’s rightful share of the work; to effectively perform one’s job and assist in the survival of the players until the goal is reached.


Players-As an adjective, to be "game" is someone who is eager and willing to do something new or challenging with the purpose of reaching a goal or creating something new. This person is a "player". A game can have one player or multiples. These players can be working cooperatively or separately, even in conflict as a means to deter the other players from reaching the stated goal.


Quantifiable-Capable of being measured. For instance, if you were playing the game of 1-2-3-break which has the goal of the dog learning to stay in the position asked for until released, you could measure your progress with duration of stay, level of distractions, how many different environments the behavior is perfected in and the distance the handler can move away from the dog.


Challenge-A test of one's abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking. A challenge also invites the player to learn new things, refine already known behaviors and abilities, and create new pathways and new worlds thus guaranteeing survival.


Rules-A rule is a statement explaining what someone can or cannot do in a particular system, game, or situation. The rules of the game are the structure that allows the goal to be reached. Rules create the boundaries, set the tone and make cooperation inevitable.


Goal-The end toward which an endeavor is directed; an objective. Having a goal is often what differentiates between play and a game. A game can have more than one goal. For instance, coming back to the 1-2-3-Break game, there are several goals - 1) learning to stay in one place 2) waiting for a release 3) creating self-control in the face of distractions.


Purpose-The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. Each teaching game has a stated purpose, a reason why the game is being played. Sometimes there can be many different purposes for one game. For instance, crate games teach the release word, to sit at doors, stay, patience, how to earn rewards and drive.


Intention- a determination to act in a certain way; to have in mind a purpose or plan, to direct the mind, to aim. Without intention, we go nowhere. It is determination in the fullest sense, almost the need to move forward.


Focus-A central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity. 

Application of Game Theory


There are hundreds of different ways to teach and a thousand ways that life is being lived. There is classical and operant conditioning; there is social and associative learning; trial and error and memorizing facts and figures. Each of us creates a pattern of actions that assist us in learning and in playing the game of life. But the one pattern, the one learning scenario that is gaining prominence and proof, the one that appears to deliver results in all arenas is Game Theory. 


It is interesting to note that the purported reasons for living and the reasons for playing a game are the same. Research has shown us that by studying the elements of games, we find ourselves learning about the elements of life. Those components are: purposes, rules and the freedom one has to fail or win via the power of choice.

Those basic components are the same no matter what game is being played, your role in the game or whether you even know you're playing a specific game. Those components appear to be:


1.How energy is used

2.Choice and its relationship to winning the game

3.How barriers and frustration can teach more

4.Knowledge and how to gain it within the game

5.How to turn failure to success

6.How to start, change or stop any part of a game

7.How to analyze situations and deal with confusion


These components are the same and govern the training and education of our dogs. Your role is one of guidance and example. You are the one who is aware of the game and its rules and purposes. That awareness allows you to bring your dog to being aware of those rules and purposes and his role in your human world.

Training should not be about finding what is wrong with a dog and attempting to change that, it isn't even really about teaching new things. Training should be about making a dog better at being a dog. Using the dog's abilities and instincts and aligning them to our understanding of life and the world around us.


By helping a dog obtained or enhance their natural abilities, you create a dog that can observe and interact with the environment with confidence and certainty and thus has less and less need to "fight" anything.


Games provide a platform of training that covers all the necessities of life. Games enhance observation and the ability to make informed decisions. Games increase confidence in dealing with novel and unique experiences, understanding the rules and how to live without stress. Training with games teaches that failure is just another way of learning and not something to be avoided. Training with games gives control to the dog, understanding to the dog, and less and less need by the human to be constantly alert. So rather than concentrating on the elimination of problem behavior, your choice as a trainer or owner should became a decision to increase a dog's abilities which, in turn, handle problems as a matter of routine.


Games can literally be applied by anyone. At most, a good structured game should have no more than three movements from the human and one or two from the dog. Games take into consideration that we learn in small quantities and not in large chunks. Shaping, which is the clicker trainers stock in trade, is a fundamental precept of structured games. This makes it easy to train not only the dog, but the human owner as well and raises confidence in both dog and human; responsibility of the human toward the dog; and the owners influence over the actions of the dog.