Play is extremely important in animal development. Lion cubs use play as hunting practice, and antelopes that play chase as youngsters seem to be better at evading predators; even the human animal uses play. Think of the expression “learning something new is easier when it’s fun”. The same expression holds true for your dog. In this article I will be continuing my series covering natural behaviors of dogs, or, as I like to call it, following your instincts.
This subject is special because play is something we love about dogs, but it can also have its pitfalls. Play can easily get out of hand, especially with puppies. It very common to have questions about puppies nipping, growling, and snapping, and it is very difficult to tell the difference between normal play and a serious problem. In fact, research shows that there is no significant difference between the audibility of aggressive growling and play growling in dogs (Taylor, Reby & McComb, 2009). The good news is that it is most often normal puppy play, and by inserting a few rules we can make play fun as well as a teaching mechanism.
Puppies learn proper play from their siblings, this is why it is so important that they stay with their mother and siblings until they are at least 8 weeks old so they don’t miss out on this crucial developmental period in their lives. When two puppies are playing and one bites too hard, the other will yelp and play will instantly stops. This may only last a few seconds and the two go back to playing, or sometimes play ends to be continued another time. The important point here is that the biter learned what the threshold was, which bites were appropriate and which were not. This isn’t something a puppy can instinctively know, he must be told. Unfortunately for us, our skin is not as thick as a dog’s, so your puppy will have to learn to be even more sensitive when playing with you.
Don’t expect your dog, especially if it is a new puppy, to never play nip. Instead of getting upset when he or she does nip, use it as a learning opportunity. When your dog nips you, play ends. It is as simple as that. You can even get up and walk away. Once your dog is calm, go back to playing even if it’s only been a few seconds. Once your dog gets the message you can start playing again.
You can also combat this by giving your dog other ways of playing by using interactive toys or playing a game of “Find it”. Find it is a game we teach in our classes and involves hiding a treat and letting your dog use his nose to sniff it out. I’ve never met a dog that didn’t love this game! There are also many interactive toys/puzzles that you place treats in and your dog has to work to get the treats out. In the past I have Googled “Interactive Toys” and found a plethora of choices.
These rules will help you use play to your advantage by essentially turning it into a training session with play as your reward instead of treats!