Could Play Post-Training Help Improve What Your Dog Learned?

We put a lot of sweat and tears (hopefully no blood!) into training our dogs. So, we want to make sure they retain as much learning as possible between sessions. 

Both sleep and positive emotional states have been shown to enhance mental performance and memory in dogs when they occur immediately after learning a new task. Research also shows that emotional arousal can enhance memory. 

We often think of this occurring in conjunction with negative events—such as September 11th. But can it happen with strong positive emotions as well?

Researchers believe that emotional arousal enhances memory due to the release of epinephrine and the activation of a particular area of the amygdala. This kind of activation can be triggered by both good stress (challenging, but enjoyable) and bad stress (challenging and distressing). 

This led researchers to believe that arousal related to positive emotions may also enhance memory. Specifically—can play enhance learning?

Study Results

Nadja Affenzeller did a follow up (1) to a previous study on the effect of play on learning in dogs. In the first study (2), they taught Labrador retrievers a two-choice object discrimination task. The dogs were taught to indicate one of two objects – either a blue basket with woodchips or a green box with cat litter. Immediately after the training session, the researcher walked the dog to a play area and played with him or her off-leash for 10 minutes. The play was either fetch or tug, depending on the dog's preference. The walk between the training and play areas took about 10 minutes each way. Dogs in the 'rest' group spent the same amount of time resting on a bed and did not engage in the walk or play.

What did they find? In the first study, dogs that played needed fewer trials to "relearn" the task 24 hours later (compared to the rest group). The play group needed about 26 trials on average, but the resting group needed about 43 trials.

The second, more recent, study tested the same dogs a year later to see if the effects from the initial study remained. They were able to get 11 of the original 16 dogs. All of the dogs were able to relearn the discrimination task. However, the dogs in the play group relearned the task faster and with fewer errors than the dogs in the rest group. 

Does this mean play improves learning?

This is a pretty neat result and suggests that playing with our dogs after a training session might help enhance learning! Before we go any further, however, let's do some critical analysis of the article itself.

One thing to consider is the size of the effect. If one group requires 25 trials to relearn a behavior and another group needs 26 trials, that isn't a very big difference. It may be significant from a statistical point of view, but it's not that big of a deal from a practical standpoint. In this study, the play group needed about 24 trials to relearn the behavior and the resting group needed about 43 trials. That's a pretty big difference and much more important from a practical standpoint!

It's also important to look at how much overlap there is between the groups. If there is a lot of overlap between the two groups, that suggests that different dogs are impacted differently, and the effect of play may not be consistently important from dog to dog. In this case, there was very little overlap between the groups in terms of the trials needed to relearn the task or the number of errors. 

Both facts strengthen the evidence that adding play into your training routine may cause noticeable results. There are still other things to consider, though.

Another consideration is the sample itself. All of the dogs in this study were Labrador retrievers. Possibly, but we can't know for sure until we test a wider range of dogs. That means we need to be somewhat cautious when applying this to other breeds.

You may have noticed that the dogs were walked to a fenced area, then played with, then walked back. This raises an important question. Is it really play that matters? Or is it something else? It could be interaction with humans, physical exercise, or mental enrichment. Or maybe it's just being outside! We can look at other studies for more insight into this question. Several other studies have found that physical exercise after training can improve learning. However, one study found no benefit from on leash exercise (3).

Also, does the play have to be 10 minutes? Could it be more or less play? Does it vary by individual dog? The answer to the last question is almost certainly yes because there are many factors that influence learning. Even if these results are replicated in other types of dogs, that doesn't mean you are going to see the same effect in every single animal. It also may depend on what kind of behavior you are training.

Take home points – applying the research to your dog

What can we take away from this study? This is one study and so we don't want to frame the results, put them on the wall and start telling everyone that it's been proven that playing with your dog helps them learn faster and more accurately. But, that doesn't mean there is nothing to be gained from these results! In fact, I find the results pretty exciting, and I think it's worth playing around with. In this study, the difference between the dogs that received play/physical exercise and those that didn't is pretty dramatic.

Why not take your dog out, work on something new and then play with them? Or take them for a walk, or let them run outside in the yard. Perhaps doing a training session and then crating your dog to take a break or work with another dog is not ideal. Or, more likely, not ideal for some dogs. What about behavior modification sessions? Playing with your dog after the session may help relieve stress and help them remember what you were just working on! Play with it – no pun intended! See what happens. And then share it with the rest of us! I'd love to hear about your experiences on the Facebook page!


1. Affenzeller, N. (2020). Dog–human play, but not resting post-learning improve re-training performance up to one year after initial task acquisition in labrador retriever dogs: a follow-on study. Animals, Vol. 10, 1235.

2. Affenzeller, N., Palme, R. and H. Zulch. (2017). Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Physiology & Behavior, Vol. 168, pp. 62-73.

3. Kis, A., Szakadát, S., Gácsi, M. et al. (2017). The interrelated effect of sleep and learning in dogs (Canis familiaris); an EEG and behavioural study. Scientific Reports, Vol. 7, 41873.

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