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Following Your Instincts: Play Time!

Author: Sarah Tulicki | Date: December 4, 2013

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.

Let’s start from the beginning.

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.

Rules to proper play

  • Give Feedback
    If you don’t communicate what is appropriate how will your puppy know? Bear in mind that what is appropriate will be different for each person. So discuss play dos and don’ts with all members of the family, and know that sometimes we have to make sacrifices, such as when the human loves to rough house; that way of play may not be in the best interest of your dog. This leads to…
  • Set your dog up for success
    If there is a type of play that turns your dog into Cujo, then forgo it. Often this involves rough housing, but it could also be playing tug. I even had a client whose dog went nuts for tennis balls; after playing with a tennis ball she would put the ball away and he would go nuts looking for it and bark at her in a demanding matter. The first task is to develop appropriate behaviors. Once you have these behaviors under control you may be able to go back to your favorite type of play, but first things first.
  • Know what you want before play
    I’ve always found it helpful when training anything to know your end goal. For example, if you want your puppy to play without grabbing your fingers instead of the toy, be prepared to end play if this happens either by saying “Ouch,” dropping the toy and walking away or by saying “Ouch” and folding your arms. Same goes for jumping, snapping at the air, or anything that makes the dog over-enthused. I also like to make a dog sit before I throw a toy. If you are consistent, your dog will begin to sit automatically, because he has learned he doesn’t get the toy until his butt hits the ground. This is a great way to curb jumping during play.
  • Know your levels
    Think of it this way: your dog has levels of excitement. All too often puppies reach a level where nothing you say or do will affect them, and they are in a sense no longer in control of themselves; this is where I often get the Cujo references from clients. Going back to our second rule, set your dog up for success, and don’t allow play to escalate. At the first signs of your dog getting overly excited, stop play or control your own excitement level. This is probably the number one reason play tends to get out of control when involving kids; their excitement influences the dog’s excitement.

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!

Play can be a great way to bond with your dog. Please share with us your dog’s favorite game!


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