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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