Playing made Mochi braver, happier, and more affectionate 🥺

We tackled the #30daysofplay challenge in March, and can it be?? I think Mochi actually loves me more as a result.

On March 1st, we jumped into @prettygirl.xhar and @urbandogleader's #30daysofplay challenge: play with your dog every day!

A dog named Xhar and her mom started this challenge to work on their relationship, confidence, and trust-building together, and their trainer, Grace (aka @urbandogleader), amplified it into a community-wide challenge.

You can watch my entire journey, with annotated videos, in my Instagram story called #30daysofplay.

Goal: Have more fun playing together, period.

Originally, my goal was to be able to play with Mochi without relying on food, for so many reasons.

First, I didn't want how long or much we play to be capped by her maximum calories per day.

Second, I wanted to be able to create a bond based on us simply enjoying being together, and not through me hijacking her existential need to eat food. (Though, lots of training needs to start with food-based work, especially with fearful dogs, like Mochi.)

Third, and most importantly, I wanted to be capable of providing Mochi more opportunities to come out of her shell, have fun, and just get lost in all the positive feelings that come with play. I wanted her to be able to enter flow, think of none of the scaries out there in the world, and just get to be a happy, excited, playful dog. I think we can all understand why this last goal is generally good for dogs (and humans!), but there's another reason too.

Here’s how I think about it: Mochi experiences different positive or negative (especially fear-based) emotions every day. Every time she has a positive experience, her daily tank of happy, positive emotions fills up a bit. The happier she is, and the longer she’s happy, the more her tank fills up. Every time she has a negative experience, especially fearful ones, we use up some of her tank. When her tank is low, fear causes her to panic more easily, go into flight more easily, and recover more slowly. So me doing the work to fill up her happy, positive emotions tank gives her a lot of resilience, and it’s something that needs to happen every day.

Around 10 days in, I saw how much Mochi’s love for playing with me increased, even though we were still using food, so I changed our goal from playing without food to having more fun playing together, period, which became absolutely the right call for us because the results were incredible.

Result: A happier, braver Mochi, who loves me more (can it be???)

I could never have predicted the results we got from dedicating myself to playing with Mochi more for 30 days straight, but in retrospect it all makes sense. After I recapped our experience for my trainer Andrew, they told me that if nothing else, the sheer dedication and engagement time that I put in with Mochi was enough to make a difference in our relationship.

A small orange dog looking extremely regal while laying down on a bench.
Mochi, looking regal, on Day 12 of our play challenge. This was the first time she has ever willing to lay down outside, a huge win for her confidence.

Mochi’s behavior changes in March:

  • She began showering me with kisses, especially when I acted silly and did silly things while playing with her.

  • She started sitting and even laying down next to the window, a place that is a regular source of her fear because of all the outside sounds and people.

  • She started pressing her nose onto the window to look outside, and now we have to clean our window of wet nose marks regularly 😂

  • She still gets distracted by things going on outside, but not only because she was scared. Sometimes, it was because she was curious!

  • She got more and more excited to play with me outside, in the safety of the tiny dog park we visit. She even laid down outdoors for the first time since we adopted her, which is HUGE.

  • She started doing lots of doggy parkour again, including mastering her jumps onto benches, and now that elevated space is a place where she feels safer observing the world. She's also jumped on new outdoor objects she’s never jumped on before!

  • She spends time on the couch with us at any time of day now, when she used to only be willing to do it at night when the outside world was less noisy (the couch is next to the window).

  • She started laying down in random spots in our apartment just because she wanted to, showing her comfort in the living room again.

  • Squeaky ball sounds at the dog park don't make her fearful anymore, and she just keeps doing whatever she was doing instead of going into high alert.

  • She seems so much more comfortable and interested in us as her parents. She wants to be around us more, she jumps onto the couch to be next to us, naps with us in bed, and while she still runs away sometimes when a motorcycle roars nearby, she's much more likely to come back, and in a shorter period of time than she used to. Sometimes, she doesn't run at all.

A small dog that looks like it's ready to hunt and devour something.
Mochi looking FIERCE. This is the only photo I have ever taken of her where she seems to be exuding confidence, and it’s both outdoors and during parkour.

What Sisi learned in March:

  • Mochi loves following me around, even if she isn't a velcro dog. During play, being around me is one of her biggest motivators.

  • Play for us used to be me just tossing food around and calling it play because she was excited. Now, it's actually us playing a game.

  • Playing with Mochi actively, and as if we're playing a game where I can do things like fake left and run right, is way more fun for both me and Mochi.

  • Playing with Mochi is a physical activity that gets me winded after 5 minutes 😂 

  • Mochi is a super deferential dog, but she returns my silly invasions of her personal space with a lot of kisses, which is adorable, and sometimes turns into her washing my face and/or glasses. I do some mini personal play (more later) all the time with her now, regardless of whether we're playing, and this might be one of the biggest reasons behinds how much our relationship has grown.

  • I've learned how to relax and “just play,” a term I hated hearing before because how do you even do that. But after amping up my energy level, throwing my limbs around, or inviting her to chase me, I realize that in some ways, I can just play with Mochi as if I was playing with a tiny human, and if she's not into it, it's also fine. She can just watch me play and I can still have fun with it.

I cannot attribute play to being the sole reason why all of these changes happened. That's not realistic, and I have to give a lot of credit to the fact that eight months have passed and she knows we're consistent and here for her. I also know a lot of our progress is thanks to all the hard work we put in during general fear rehabilitation work, such as box feeding. But I also see all these changes, and that they happened all in a single month, and I think that play was definitely a real and significant factor to us turning all these pages.

Okay, so what did we actually do during play?

I first created a baseline of what Mochi looked like when we played with food at the start of the month, which you can see in my Day 1 and Day 2 videos.

Over the first weekend, I took Ivan Balabanov's 2-hour Chase and Catch 2.0 class (Grace and others had highly recommended it for us), and I tried the techniques I learned there for about a week, to try and get Mochi interested in playing with a ball by watching me do it. (Ivan's class has a steep price tag. I'll talk about that later in this post.)

There were a couple of things that Ivan stresses are really important about this process. First, if I wanted Mochi to truly get interested, I had to look like I was having a ton of fun playing with toys, even if she showed zero interest. Second, I am welcoming her into a game that I like to play, not forcing her to play with me. However, because trying to engage someone else in play and being rejected is a sad experience, Ivan warned us to be ready for that, and prepare ourselves to pretend like we’re having a great time no matter what, and end each session on a positive note.

I followed those instructions for about five days, with no real interest from Mochi in the ball. She was generally confused, content to just sit next to me, and sniffed a ball once or twice. But during time, that's when all the kisses began.

Kisses on my face when I got close. Kisses on my face when I playfully approached her. Kisses when we were both relaxing together after I got winded throwing a ball by myself.

After that, with some tips from Grace and lots of Instagram friends, I switched tactics.

First, we tried personal play. I share resources later about how to get into this yourself but just think of it as doing silly things next to, and to your dog. Kind of like how you’d play with a baby. I do things like literally push my face into her head or neck, make little claw hands and slowly grab her nose, or make weird and vaguely dog-related sounds as I move closer to her snout (yes there is video evidence in my #30daysofplay Instagram story). Even though I haven’t been successful in getting Mochi interested in toys (yet), after taking Ivan’s class, I felt much more comfortable being playful with her all the time: in-between meetings, when I walk past her, when she decides to hang out next to me, anytime really.

Second, we spent a lot more time playing outside, because I live in a small NYC apartment, and gosh if we were gonna play, I just needed more space to feel like I could actually play! This benefited Mochi a lot.

Third, when we finally dived into just playing more with food, I got better at playing. I faked which way I was throwing her treats, ran around with her, dashed away from her when she wasn’t looking, and jumped and waved my arms a lot. In return, Mochi showed me more enthusiasm, more engagement, and more confidence outdoors, which is a big thing we've been working on.

Classes and other resources for learning about play

  • Instagram Stories: Free
    As they set up this challenge, both Grace and Xhar and her mom posted really helpful Instagram stories. I highly recommend that you check these out. 

  • Jay Jack's Foundational Lesson Plan: Free
    I highly recommend going through the YouTube videos that Jay provides for free on your own, which includes exactly how I think about all the different elements of play now, and how I can recognize concepts like celebrate or chase. Grace's stories above also summarize these concepts really well, but it's worth it to dig deep. Jay also covers personal play, and a lot of foundational skills period, like windows — which Mochi is not great at, but one day we’ll get there.

  • Ivan Balabanov's Chase and Catch 2.0: $157
    Ivan's class includes a 2-hour lesson video, plus a 90 minute Q&A video. I think the class is extremely valuable, and I got a lot out of it and he and his company deserve to get paid for their work and expertise. The much steeper price on this does make it inaccessible or hard to try for many people. I would love to see Train without Conflict (Ivan's company) make their work more accessible in a way that makes sense to them, such as with a sliding scale or scholarships.

  • Amy Cook's Class: Dealing with the Bogeyman - Helping Fearful Reactive and Stressed Dogs: $65 at the Bronze level
    We're taking this class now in April, at the Bronze level, which means you just audit the class instead of getting individual teacher attention. But if you want individual attention, you can upgrade and pay more for it. There are a couple of courses from Amy that look perfect for Mochi, and I only recently found out about these. I also love how they both have scholarships and a sliding scale so that the class can be more accessible for more people.

So ... I guess we learned a LOT in March. Near the end of the month, doing all this did start to take a toll on me, because every day I was tracking and analyzing what I learned about Mochi, what I learned about myself, as well as things I want to try the next day. On top of that, I was launching a huge project at work, and on top of that, all the hate and assaults directed toward AAPI folks, especially elders, and women walking their dogs (yeah), were and still are very stressful for me. Near the end of the month, for my own self-care, I stopped recording our play session for a few days.

Now, in April, I've signed up for Amy’s class, but I’m first going to rest for a few days, and just do random, silly personal play with Mochi as it feels right and good and fun for us. Then, once I feel a little more rested, I'm excited to keep learning, dive into this new class, and grow Mochi and my relationship even more. ❤️

Sincerely,

🐕 Mochi and 👩🏻 Sisi