How To Teach Your Dog to Play Dead

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This review guide was updated in February 2019.

“Play dead” or “Shooting your dog dead” trick is unquestionably one of the best tricks you can teach your dog. There are a couple of reasons for its popularity. One, it is always impressive when a lively creature can manage to stay so still on command.

Two, there is this inherent natural suspense in-built in the scene, like watching an action movie and hoping your fallen will get up unharmed. So taking some time to master it will be worth it if you care to bring some laughs into a gloomy world.

Foundation For “Play Dead” – Obedience

“Play dead” counts as a slightly advanced trick, so before tackling that, your dog should know some basic obedience commands. Knowing the “Down” command is suggested since you will use it to get your dog into the beginning position for “Play dead”. Rolling over is not as crucial, but it is useful since you can utilize it to efficiently get your dog to roll over to his side from lying position. He will also dog will already be familiar with laying on his side. Also, knowing the stay command is a plus, since the dog will already be familiar with the concept of staying still and relatively motionless for some time.

Before you begin the training, you should choose a cue word and a hand sign if you wish to use one. You could just say “Dead dog,” or “Play dead,” but you could also get more creative – by saying “Bang!” and making a hand gesture like you’re shooting from a gun. These are the most common options. Your dog doesn’t understand the literal meaning of the words you’re using; they just serve as a signal for him to show off the learned behavior.

Teach Your Dog to Play Dead Step By Step

Start by telling your dog to lie down. As we have previously learned, the dog should already be familiar with this command.

Next, put a treat close to his nose, and then slowly drag the hand holding a treat up and behind him, so he would have to roll over onto his side to reach it. If he’s having trouble, you can have to gently press his shoulder to get him into the right position, but note that if you press it just slightly too hard, he may want to get up as he could feel like being forced into a passive position, which is instinctively uncomfortable for a dog.

As soon as he lies down on his side successfully, praise him – tell him your chosen word of approval, such as “yes,” “good,” or “well done.” If you’re using clicker, now is the right time to click. The clicker can help you capture the moment with greater precision. Then give your dog a treat.

Repeat the second and the third step of the exercise several times, until you feel your dog is comfortable with it, and then move on.

The final step is to introduce the chosen cue word, and a hand signal if you’re planning to use one. Repeat the previous steps with the command “Dead,” or “Bang!” and a hand signal.

Continue to practice several times a day for a few minutes. Don’t do it longer than that. Otherwise, your four-legged friend might get overstimulated or bored.

After a few days of consistent and fun practice, start testing him by just by getting his attention and saying the cue word and a hand sign if you’ve chosen to use one. At one point he will start responding and performing the amusing scene. Then call some friends over, and the real fun can begin!


Variations of the “Play Dead” Dog Trick

Your dog doesn’t understand the essence of the word you’ll be using as a cue, and also he cannot truly grasp the whole context of your “shooting dead” scenario. From his perspective, the cue word is just a trigger to act, knowing that there are treats, praises and happy owner’s faces as a reward if he does well. Therefore, you don’t have to use the word “Dead” – you can use anything you like.

Perhaps the most attractive version is to use the cue word “Bang!”, “Pow!” or “Boom!” combined with a shooting gun hand movement. That will give the trick a real cinematic quality – you and your dog will look like you just had a good ole’ Western duel at noon. Some people go as far as imitating a machine gun sound. Dogs have no issue with that. But be aware that some people might!

We should keep in mind that”play dead,” especially if accompanied by a shooting cue word and a hand sign might be disturbing and morbid for some people. Small children who can’t differentiate between pretend-play and reality yet might get seriously frightened and end up thinking you’ve done something evil to your dog for real.

There are a couple of popular cue word alternatives to “Bang!” and “Dead.” One of them is “Sleep,” or “Good night.” That one promises an equally fun, though a less tense show.

Another fun option is to embed a word “Dead” into a non-threatening scenario. For example, you could say “Would you rather be a cat or be DEAD?” or “Would you rather eat this broccoli or DIE?”. Needles to point out how hilarious this will look to your potential spectators.

Just always remember to always use the same cue word. Once you choose it – you should stick to it to avoid any confusion.

Level Up with the Standing “Shooting Dog Dead” Trick

If you’re up to it and you’re looking to add even more cinematic effect to your performance, you can try the standing version of the trick. Naturally, this one is a bit trickier.

Before you start with the “shooting”, you will have to teach your dog to do the stand stay trick. You should aim that the dog stays still until you say it’s enough.

After mastering this, you’re ready for the next step. While your pooch is performing the stand, create the shooting sound of your choice (remember that it always has to be the same cue word) such as “Bang!” and then tell your dog to get “Down.”. Then praise and give the treat.

After mastering this part, you can try to make it perfect by incorporating the “play dead” ending of this dramatic scene according to the instructions above.

General Training Advice

Always keep the practice light and upbeat – If your dog us having a bad day, if he seems bored or frustrated, don’t force him to perform. End the session with something he is already good at – even if it’s just a “Sit” command. That kind of closure will make your buddy feel good and will keep his spirits up for the next session.

Never scold your dog for failing to perform – And especially since this is just a goofy trick done for fun, and not the primary obedience training, the most significant set of commands. “Stop,” “No,” or “Stay,” said at a crucial moment can save your dog’s life.

On the other hand, “Play dead” is important just for having fun. In any case, besides being ethically dubious, scolding and negative feedback don’t yield good and lasting results. Regular positive feedback training or clicker training is a much better and kinder option. Clicker is especially useful for teaching “play dead,” since the click sound is so distinct and fast to produce that it helps you point precisely to the desired behavior, without confusion.

Rolling over before playing dead

If your dog already knows how to roll over, this can either help you complete the “Play dead” training faster, or make it a bit more difficult. Why is that so?

If your dog already knows how to roll over, he will know that laying on his side is a rewarding and a non-threatening position, and this fact could make him accept the “play dead” command with more ease. But on the other hand, that may drive him to instinctively repeat the “roll over” trick as soon as he gets it that he should lie down on his side.

Don’t get frustrated if you happen to need several extra days of training to achieve your goal. If your dog keeps rolling over, step away from him and act uninterested. Since dogs are so addicted to our attention, stepping away is the best way to warn him that he’s doing something not quite right; that also goes for other unwanted behaviors during a training session.

Always remember, training your dog should be a fun experience and is never going to be a straight forward process.

Benefits of Learning the Play Dead Trick

By training your dog to perform this amusing trick, you not only get to entertain your friends, and neighbors – you’re strengthening the bond between you and your best friend, and you’re stimulating your dog’s brain. Learning the “Play dead” trick is one of those rare opportunities in life where everyone seems to win.


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