We’ve all seen it, in the movies, on tv… bang bang you’re dead! How clever and super cute is it when you see a dog play dead? Playing dead also offers some light relief from those zoomies we’re all so familiar with. Who doesn’t want a dog that will lie perfectly still on command?

The play dead or ‘bang bang, you’re dead’ trick is popular and one that many people enjoy teaching their dogs and then showing off to friends. In the ‘play dead trick’, there are lots of parts that, we’re going to break it down for you step by step, so that you, too, can teach your puppy to play dead. Whilst not essential like toilet training or recall, teaching your puppy tricks is a great way to bond. Tricks are fun to learn, are low stress as we don’t put the same amount of pressure on our dog to learn them, as, say, loose lead walking.

In this article, we’ll be explaining what the play dead trick is, how to teach a dog to play dead, as well as troubleshooting reasons your dog may struggle to learn the play dead trick, and solutions to help them.  

Have you downloaded a trial of the Zigzag puppy training app? If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Not only will the app help you teach your puppy tricks like playing dead, but it’s actually a full training programme based around your puppy’s breed and age. It will help you learn all the really important stuff.  We even have a team of puppy trainers on hand to help you every step of the way, we are the gift that keeps on giving.

puppy lying down on blue bench
Photo by Jesse Schoff on Unsplash

What is the ‘playing dead’ dog trick?

So, what is playing dead? The play dead trick is pretty much what it says on the tin: a party trick where the dog has to pretend to die! There are a few variations on the play dead trick, from a drop and roll on your back, to a gun shooting with the cue ‘bang bang’ and the dog falling to the floor and laying flat lifeless. There’s also the more dramatic looking – being shot with a pretend gun, the dog staggering about, dropping to the floor, lying on their back, twitching or their leg moving slightly before they finally expire. Proper Oscar winning stuff!

How to teach a dog to play dead

If your pup’s a budding actor, we’ll help you work out how to teach a dog to play dead from start to finish in the easiest way possible. This is going to show you how to teach an adult dog to play dead, but if you have a puppy this can also be used to teach a puppy to play dead too. What are you waiting for? Let’s get cracking.

Firstly though just a reminder… all of the training that we do at Zigzag is with positive reinforcement and uses rewards. It really is how dogs learn best. Tricks are not things that dogs would normally do, so there’s got to be something in it for them, right? 

Step 1 – Gather your gear

You won’t need a whole heap of fancy equipment to teach the play dead trick, but we suggest the following:-

  • A comfortable surface for your dog to lie and roll on their back on. A Vet bed, a yoga mat or rug can work well for this. 
  • Soft tasty treats – tiny pieces of cheese, hot dog or cold unsalted meat work well. You can also try DIY home made treats or high-value commercial treats. Whatever your dog really likes and finds rewarding really! 
  • Some kind of marker – this can just be you choosing a word like ‘yes’, a clicker that makes a noise when pressed, or for a deaf dog it might be a small torch. Clicker training gives the dog instant feedback that they did the right thing, this makes training tricks much easier.
  • A willing puppy who’s been to the toilet and is ready and willing to train! 

Step 2 – Lure your dog into a down

Use a tasty treat and lure your puppy into the down position, mark with a ‘yes’ or a click etc then give them the treat. Clever dog! Repeat this a couple of times so your dog is following the lure down nice and smoothly. 

If you don’t know how to teach them to lie down, head on over to our article on teaching a puppy to lie down. 

Step 3 – Lure them to weight shift 

  • This time, lure the dog into the down, and hold the treat on their nose, don’t give them the treat just yet, it’s coming! 
  • Keeping your dog in the down position move the treat from their nose round the side of their body so that they roll onto one of their hips to follow the treat.
  • Once they do mark this and give them the treat. 
  • This is a small movement, and they’re not moving a great deal just yet. 
  • Repeat this a couple of times until that weight shift becomes nice and steady. It will take practice and patience but stick with it.

Step 4 – Practise over a few days

Dogs learn through repetition. Practise steps 2 and 3 over the next couple of days until they’ve really got the hang of it.

Step 5 – Bring your hand to the floor

Once your dog is following the treat and nicely tucking their hip under you’ll find they start rolling onto their side, at this point you can bring the treat down to the floor stretching their head out, so that they’re lying with their head down. Say your marker and release the treat. What a pup-genius!

Step 6 – Practice again and remove the treat

Yes, you’ll need to practice this quite a few times with the treat, then try doing it without the treat to lure. 

Make the same movement with your hand coming down to the floor, then get them to roll and lie on their side. Use your marker word and reward.

Repeat this several times, so that your dog truly understands that this hand signal means I want you to lie down and roll on your side, head on the floor i.e pretend to be dead! 

Step 7 – Add a verbal cue

In order to say ‘Bang’ or ‘pretend to die’ and your dog performs the trick on verbal cue alone, you’ll need to add it before you use your hand signal so that your dog starts to associate the word before the action.

It looks like this: 

Verbal cue (bang) —–> Wait 3 seconds——> do the hand signal——->dog plays dead—–>mark and treat

Repeat this 10 times then let’s make it a bit trickier

Verbal cue (bang) —–> Wait 5 seconds——> do the hand signal only if your dog doesn’t play dead on the verbal——->dog plays dead—–>mark and treat

If your dog played dead on verbal cue before the 5 seconds then work just on verbal cue.

pug lying on floor looking at camera
Photo by Mink Mingle on Unsplash

Why my dog doesn’t want to play dead

There can be reasons why you might struggle in teaching a dog to play dead, let’s troubleshoot and find out why that might be, and how to help them, so you can wow all of your friends…….

You’re trying to teach play dead on a hard surface

It will be much more comfortable to teach your dog to play dead on a non-slip soft surface, yoga mats and vet bed material are great for training on if you have hard floors. 

You’re making it too hard too quickly

Following the steps above to teach your dog to play dead will move you through the training systematically, so you and your dog don’t get frustrated and make learning slow.

You’re trying to weight shift the wrong way 

It’s worth looking at your dog when they lie down, they will often naturally relax and shift with their weight to one side. Work with this, not against! 

If you’re head on to your dog and you see the left hip (as you’re looking at them – their right hip!) tuck under a little use the treat on their nose to go over their right shoulder (as you’re looking, again, to the dog it’s their left shoulder), or vice versa. 

Treat placement is going too high and your dog stands or gets up

Keep your treat hand quite low so your dog doesn’t go up into a sit, or a swivel to get at it. We want them following our hand, so we need to make sure we’re luring where we want them to be. 

You’re using the wrong treats

There is a saying, ‘the dog decides what’s reinforcing’ and it’s true. Use treats your dog really likes to teach this trick. 

You’re training in the wrong environment.

Look at where you’re training, is it somewhere calm for them that they know, or is it a busy place? Dogs learn best without stress and in low-distraction environments, generally without other dogs around.

Your dog is having an off day

Have we ever thought about how our dog is feeling that day? Check their mood out before you train, do they seem a bit quiet?  There will also be sensitive periods in your pup’s life where they’ll be less inclined to train. 

Your dog is in pain

If you have a dog who is reluctant to play dead/roll on their hip in a certain direction, or just not keen to be on the floor, check for other signs they might be in pain through their body language. 

Did you find your answer to why your dog might not want to learn the play dead trick? We hope so! 

Golden retriever on wood floor
Photo by Ana Martin on Unsplash

Teaching your dog to play dead is obviously a great, fun party trick, and can be taught quite quickly if you follow our step- by- step guide above. Removing the food lure from the play dead trick and turning it into a hand signal, then adding a verbal cue can take a little while longer, but if you do it methodically, your dog is smart enough to get it, we promise! 

If you’re up for learning some more tricks, how about teaching a dog to roll over? It’s similar to how to teach a dog to play dead, but instead, they’ll do a roly poly! If recall is more of a pressing concern, then how to teach a puppy to come will be more up your street.

We have a full programme of puppy life skills inside the Zigzag app. Not only do we have some fun tricks, but we also lay out a great foundation of essential behaviours you will want your puppy to learn, like how to teach your puppy to cope being alone, where to go to the toilet, and how to sleep through the night, as well as socialisation lessons. We understand that puppy raising is rarely ever plain sailing. That’s why we have our team of dedicated puppy coaches ready to answer all of your questions along the way.