What’s OK When Puppies Play?

I’ve accompanied friends with young puppies to puppy play sessions several times over the past few months. (Playing with puppies and then sending them home with someone else is the best …)

Puppies often play in ways that seem rough and scary to their doting parents. Those other puppies might hurt Precious, the new owners fret.

Relax. Puppies are pretty sturdy. They also tend to be quite vocal if another puppy is too rough.

Great puppy play includes:

  • Lots of chasing. One puppy leads off and others chase her. Within a few seconds, the pair or group change direction and another puppy is in front. When to worry? If only one puppy is chased (same for adult dogs) or if the chasee seems to want to end the chase and the other dogs ignore the signals. If too many puppies or dogs are chasing a single dog and seem intently focused on that dog. Good chase is fluid, not targeted at a single puppy.
  • Lots of wrestling, mouthing, and tugging. Yes, puppies have nasty, needle-sharp teeth. All the more reason to let them practice biting — and inhibiting their bite — on each other, not on our arms and hands. They let each other know what hurts and when to back off. This is one of the primary reasons why new puppy owners should insist that their puppy stay with his litter until he’s 8 weeks old. Sure, they’re weaned and yeah, the breeder might be pressuring you to take your puppy home. But those few weeks (with teeth) of play with littermates are essential to teaching initial social skills and bite inhibition. Single puppies and those taken from their litters at 6 or 7 weeks, which is way too common, are at a serious disadvantage.
  • Frequent pauses where puppies check in with their people, get a drink, pee, rest under a bench … puppies who know when they need a break are smart and self-protective. Puppy owners might need to enforce breaks, though, because the little ones don’t always make good choices. Call your puppy over, give him a treat, and send him back to re-engage.

What crosses a line?

  • Watch puppies for signs of stress. A puppy that is scratching a lot is stressed, as is one who’s constantly seeking to avoid other dogs, clings to a person’s legs, hides under a bench for long periods of time.
  • Yelps signal distress. Some puppies do vocalize while happily playing, but a distressed-sounding yelp is a call for human intervention. De-escalate the play, let the yelping puppy catch her breath, then let them all play again. Puppies usually recover quickly from a minor scrape and don’t hold grudges.
  • Too much mounting and other pushy behavior. This is a fine line. Puppies do wrestle and climb on each other, and that’s fine. Puppies of vastly different sizes can play happily together. But if a puppy seems interested only in humping or pinning other puppies and is doing it over and over, or constantly seeks out a specific puppy to mount, that puppy needs a break. And possibly larger, older playmates who will teach and enforce more acceptable play rules.

Puppy play groups are a great way for puppies to work on their social skills while working off a fraction of that endless puppy energy. Don’t avoid them because you are worried that your delicate baby might get hurt — but do pay attention and intervene when needed. In fact, that guidance serves beyond puppyhood and in any situation where dogs of any age are playing together.

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A New Puppy!

No, I am not getting a new puppy! A good friend is getting one though, so I have been thinking about puppy prep lately. In no particular order, here are some things we talked about.

Socialization

We visited my favorite local training school, Sit Happens, so that my friend could meet her puppy-to-be’s kindergarten teacher. We watched several young puppies play in carefully supervised small groups, and talked about drop-in playtime, classes, and, in good time, a more formal manners class. Little Maisy will be very well educated. Best of all, I get to go to puppy class, and I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night with the puppy!

Food

We selected a good quality, reasonably priced food for Maisy, making sure that it was from a brand on the Whole Dog Journal’s approved list. They do all the homework of choosing quality foods, checking on the manufacturing processes, where ingredients are sourced, and whether the foods are nutritionally sound and include high-quality, identified, meat-based proteins.

Toys

I suggested getting lots of chew toys, especially ones that can hide treats. Maisy will spend a few hours at home each morning and afternoon while her family is off at work or school. She’ll need to develop a hobby, preferably one that doesn’t entail thousands of dollars in repairs and remodels to the house. So. Chew toys.

A play pen

Little Cali, age 10 weeks, shares Jana's dog bed
Cali appreciated the comfort of her big sister’s dog bed from her first day home. She never chewed on or ripped it. Not all puppies are as wise.

I lent the doting parents an ex-pen to create a safe space for Maisy when she can’t be supervised. I suggested taping heavy-duty plastic to the floor, as my friends did when our girls (Cali and Dora) were young. Whenever the humans are away or distracted, I advised putting Maisy in her safe space with some chew toys. Of course, when they are home, they will spend lots of time playing with her and cuddling her outside the pen. And rushing her outside!

Maisy also has a large crate to sleep in, complete with cozy crate pad. And a plush bed for when she’s mature enough to sleep on it, not destroy it. Cali was ready for a big-girl bed pretty quickly, and Maisy might well show similar good sense and appreciation for creature comforts.

Grooming

I advised getting the puppy used to having her teeth brushed right away. It’s best to start slowly, letting her lick some tasty chicken-flavored dog toothpaste off the brush (or a finger), then gently starting to brush. Cali loved brushing her teeth as a puppy. Now she’s reluctantly willing to do it, for a cookie.

Same goes for nail trims and brushing. Start right away but introduce it all very gradually and use lots of treats. It’s so much easier to trim a dog’s nails when she’s used to having it done. Cali doesn’t love it, but I can Dremel her nails in a few minutes with minimal fuss. I know several people who cannot touch their dogs’ nails and whose vets or groomers need at least two helpers. It shouldn’t be that traumatic. If you are fortunate enough to get your dog as a youngster, take advantage of the opportunity to introduce grooming early and painlessly.

Sleep

I advised the new puppy parents to rest up, since Maisy will demand a lot of time and energy during the first days as she settles in — and even more throughout her adolescence. I was exhausted for several weeks after getting Cali, and she was a pretty easy puppy.

It’s worth it though; Maisy will no doubt be a great addition to the family.

Too Young to Leave Mom

Tiny Cali immediately tried to take over big sister Jana’s bed

Last week, I fumed about puppy mill “rescue”; this week, I’ll take on  unethical breeders.

In the months I have been in Montana, I have been lucky enough to meet and play with many puppies. I’ve noticed a distressing pattern, though. Several of these puppies — all different breeds or mixes — were really tiny. Upon asking how old they were, I have heard, over and over, that the proud new owners got their puppies at six weeks of age. Six weeks!

That’s too young. Some states even have laws prohibiting the sale of puppies under a minimum age, usually seven or eight weeks. Not Montana, sadly.

Puppies are generally weaned by five or six weeks; their sharp little teeth are coming in, and Mom wants nothing to do with them. They’re also getting to be rambunctious; they move around well and their eyes and ears are fully open. Both the canine mom and the human family may be ready for the puppies to move on to their permanent homes. But that doesn’t mean that the puppies are ready to leave the litter.

Weeks six, seven, and eight are important weeks in their social development. They play and wrestle with their littermates. Those new, sharp teeth are tested out on siblings’ ears and limbs. Puppies learn that biting too hard elicits a sharp yelp and a temporary shunning. Puppies who persist in biting their siblings find themselves left out of puppy games.

Singleton puppies and those taken from their litters too soon do not learn these important lessons. They may never develop the appropriate interdog social skills that they need to be “easy” dogs — dogs who can go to parks and people’s houses and be walked without the humans having to fear encountering another dog.

Another consequence is that the puppies don’t learn bite inhibition from their siblings. Who is around for them to try out those new needle-like teeth on? The human family, of course. Many of these besotted new puppy owners sport dozens of scabs and scrapes on their arms and legs. Ouch. They’ll need to put a lot of painful effort into teaching the puppy not to mouth or nip.

If there’s an older dog in the home, that dog might be able to teach the pup some manners, but he’s not likely to be as effective as a whole litter of biting siblings. For one thing, the puppy won’t experience being bitten and gnawed on, as she would in her litter. For another, adult dogs tend to give young puppies a lot of license before disciplining them. The puppy could develop some bad habits before the older dog (or human) loses patience. The rough-and-tumble of a litter is the best place to get that initial bite inhibition training.

I know many people who will only get a dog from a breeder because they believe that all shelter dogs have “issues.” My response to them is that any dog can have issues, and that many breeders cause those issues, either through poor breeding or poor handling in the pups’ early life. Breeders who send home puppies at six weeks are at the top of that list.

A law shouldn’t be necessary to keep puppies with their mom until at least seven, but preferably eight to nine weeks of age. A responsible, caring, knowledgeable breeder would do that — would insist on it. Sure, there might be cases where a lone puppy or a few puppies wind up in a shelter; in those cases, taking them home might be better than leaving them in a crowded, noisy environment. But when you’re getting a puppy from a breeder or family? Steer clear of the person who presses you to pick up your puppy too early. There are likely other ways in which that person is not acting in the puppies’ best interests.

In case you are wondering, Cali came home at eight and a half weeks. My friends and I picked her up, along with her sister Dora, and flew home with them. Our biggest worry leading up to that date was whether our pudgy little furballs would still fit into their travel kennels when we got to the home of their wonderful, wonderful breeders.

 

 

The Best Big Sister!

play

I was worried about Jana’s reaction to the new puppy. She’s never been fond of puppies, to understate the situation. Usually, she pretends any nearby puppies simply don’t exist. If a puppy gets in her face, she usually raises a lip in warning and puts considerable distance between herself and the little brat. So, I wasn’t at all convinced that bringing a puppy into our one-room temporary home was a great idea.

Then Cali arrived with all her sunny friendliness and puppy charm.

Within a few days, the first miracle: I caught them tugging on a toy, Cali’s comical puppy growls mimicking Jana’s play growl. The next day, the truly impossible happened: Jana forgot her elder-dog, anti-puppy dignity and actually invited Cali to play. It’s happened a number of times since then. In fact, when I start playing with them, they quickly re-engineer the game — to exclude me. I am beginning to feel like the waitress / doorperson / spa attendant. See them in action here: Cali and Jana playing.

Jana eagerly shows Cali what to do in training sessions and is teaching her all kinds of ways to have fun — roll in the grass! Eat mulch! Ignore Mom when she calls you to come inside! Drive Mom crazy by asking to go out every 5 minutes! Especially when it’s raining!

Cali watches worshipfully and carefully mimics everything Jana does. She so badly wants to be a big girl just like Jana.

There are lines though. Carrying the paper up the long, long driveway is Jana’s job, and Cali really needs to learn that. In fact, after wrestling the paper away from Cali this morning, Jana showed her outstanding work ethic: As we rounded the corner of the house, she spied a cat! She lunged, barked, lunged again, barked some more — all without letting go of the paper. I suspect she was putting on a show partly for Cali’s benefit.

There are minor areas of tension. Certain special bones are Jana’s. Only Jana’s. When Jana is choosing a toy, Cali had better stay away from the toy box, no matter how long it takes Jana to choose. And if Jana changes her mind and wants the toy Cali has, well, she is the big sister. Like most big sisters, Jana is often bossy and never lets Cali forget who is in charge.

At the same time, she’s amazingly patient with Cali’s boundless energy and need to play, bounce, cavort, run, jump, spin, and generally demand attention. Cali has gone too far only once, and she got a slightly nipped ear to impress upon her the foolishness of disregarding Jana’s warnings. Mostly, though, they are polite and appropriate with each other, they wrestle and tug and play happily together, and they share their toys far more amicably than most human siblings.

They are both girlie girls; their favorite toys are all pink. Small, purselike toys are popular, as is the bright pink pig that Jana selected on her first trip to a PetSmart several years ago, and a huge (pink) owl. They both like to play tug (with the pink rope), and both are highly food motivated. In some ways, though, they couldn’t be more different. Jana is very analytical and extremely selective about which people (or dogs) she’ll allow into her personal space. Cuddle? Hands off, please. Cali, on the other hand, has no concept of a “stranger.” Each human and dog on the earth, she is certain, was placed here to be her best friend — especially you. In fact, she just can’t wait to meet you. And you, you, and you. When she does, she’ll smother you with kisses, her tail madly wagging the whole time.

Come to think of it, how could Jana resist? How could anyone?

Introducing Cali!

on janas bed

Our family is growing! Meet Cali, the newest member of the Hogle and Elliott household. Except, of course, she’s in California with me and Jana now, not home in Florida with Deni.

Single puppy parenthood is a challenge! Cali is wonderful about asking to go out when she needs to … but that means that I have to be quick to respond, whatever the time of day — or night. How do parents survive months of this? After just over a week, Cali is waking up pretty consistently around 1 a.m. and again between 4 and 5 a.m. The second time, I just let her cuddle with me until it is time to get up at 5:15 or 5:30.

Yes, mornings begin early with a puppy. She’s full of energy, happily greeting her toy box like a long-lost friend, bouncing from one end of the small studio to the other, trying to get Jana to play, turning somersaults, and generally being a puppy. All while I am trying to find the ON button for the coffee pot.

By the time dogs go out, dogs come in and wipe their feet, I build a fire in the wood stove and take a shower, dogs have breakfast, we all walk down to fetch the paper (Jana does all the work here), I have breakfast, we play, puppy goes out again … well, I am ready to go back to bed. And it is only about 7 a.m.

The good thing about puppies is, they take a lot of naps. But, many of these are power naps, which means that, after 20 short minutes, Cali is wide awake, full of energy, and eager to play. I, having tried to get 3 hours’ worth of work done during those 20 minutes as well as pay some attention to Jana, am less refreshed and eager to play. Sometimes, she’s lucky she’s so cute.

She uses her cuteness on others as well. At Bergin U, where I am teaching this semester, Cali has charmed the students, staff, and volunteers. She is easily the most popular girl on campus. The benefit for me is that, the more people who come play with her, the more naps she takes! In fact, she’s taking one now, having been thoroughly worn out by a dedicated volunteer who drove in from more than a half-hour away — to play with Cali!

I was a little worried about her the first few days she was home. She didn’t show much interest in eating and even left food in her bowl! She has adjusted quickly, though, learning the attraction of food-filled Kong toys, solving her Brainy Bone puzzle (to get at the hidden Charlee Bear), and begging for meals and training treats.

Speaking of training, this puppy is clearly a genius, well on her way to learning several cues and tricks. I think she’s a lefty; she shakes with her left paw about 3 times out of 4. She’s got a nice “sit” and is catching on to “down,” “turn,” and a few others. She’ll even pick up a wooden dumbbell, but is not quite reliable about giving it back to me yet.

Most miraculous of all, Cali seems to be on her way to charming big sister Jana. She is definitely the annoying little sister sometimes — clamoring for attention, bugging Jana to play, appropriating Jana’s bed and toys. But, yesterday morning, something momentous occurred. Jana asked Cali to play. The two romped and tugged with her for a few minutes before Jana remembered her older-dog dignity and her opposition to puppies and went back to bed. The puppy tires her out too!

Tug