Playing dead is a relatively easy trick to teach your dog. In fact, dogs of all ages and sizes can learn this trick. For “play dead”, a dog will learn to go into a down position and then flop onto her side with her head down on the ground after being given a cue. This gives the illusion that she has collapsed. Follow these steps to teach your dog how to play dead on cue:
Step 1: Cue your dog to lie down or use a treat to lure your dog into a down position.
Step 2: Get your dog’s attention with a treat and put the treat right in front of your dog’s face so you can use it as a lure. Slowly use the treat to lure your dog’s head back over her shoulder. As your dog follows the treat, she will naturally start to rock onto her hip and rotate her body.
Step 3: Your dog will follow the treat onto her side, at which point you want to stop rotating your hand (to prevent your dog from rolling over). Then, use the treat to lure your dog’s head down toward the ground.
Step 4: When your dog’s head follows the treat down to the floor, click, praise and treat your dog. Treat your dog while her head is on the ground as this is the final position for this trick.
Step 5: Repeat luring your dog from the down position, onto her side, and head down several times. When your dog is consistently fluidly following the lure into the position, you can start to introduce a verbal cue of your choice such as “dead,” “splat,” “bang bang,” or “zombie.” Start by using the verbal cue while luring and right before your dog’s head touches the ground. Then, click, praise and treat.
Step 6: Eventually, start to fade out the physical lure. To do this, lure with an empty hand into position, then treat your dog. After that you can slowly make the physical lure smaller and smaller the better your dog gets, and give your dog the click/praise/treat at the end of the behavior with your dog lying on her side with her head on the ground. With practice, you’ll be able to use your verbal cue to ask your dog to play dead when she is lying down, and eventually from a standing position.
Step 7: The final step to polish the play dead trick is to build duration with your dog lying still with her head down. To do this, very slowly add time — just seconds at a time — before releasing your dog by clicking/praising/treating.
Once your dog is confidently playing dead on cue in your house you can begin practicing this trick in more distracting environments. Build up the level of distraction slowly to keep your dog successful and make sure to treat your dog each time she does the trick. With a little bit of practice, soon your dog will be ready to play dead anywhere anytime!