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.