Why is play important?
Through the simple act of play, puppies learn and reinforce bite inhibition, develop tolerance, learn to control excitement and develop social skill. Puppies that have left the litter too soon or are kept in isolation, typically have poor bite inhibition and often feel overwhelmed in dog-dog interactions, either shying away, losing their temper or getting too rough.
It can not be emphasized enough that reliable bite inhibition (a gentle mouth) is the most important skill your dog can have. Any good help you can get teaching your young dog this skill is invaluable. Puppies playing with other puppies is the way nature intended to teach bite inhibition. Puppies will quickly let one another know when the biting is too rough. By giving your young puppy the opportunity to play with different puppies throughout their development, they will get the practice and reinforcement they need to curb their bite before stronger adult jaws and teeth are in place.
While your young dog is still maturing it’s very important that you carefully direct their interactions with other dogs. By allowing your young one to play with dogs that do not possess good social skills themselves, you may be doing more damage than good. Bullying or rough play can be intimidating – your puppy may become defensive when meeting new dogs. Some puppies will begin to copy the rough play and you’ll have a playground bully on your hands.
You are your puppy’s guardian. You are the one to keep them safe and teach them what they need to know to be successful and comfortable in our world. By carefully selecting your young dog’s playmates and supervising their interactions, you can help them to develop good social skills.
Just as with our best friends, dogs tolerate more from their regular playmates, and it is important that they have the opportunity to meet unfamiliar dogs to keep their confidence and skills developing in a positive direction. Different breeds of dogs often have particular ways of interacting with one another. Allowing your puppy to interact with lots of different kinds of dogs will help them to fine tune their skills and increase their tolerance. If you are able to supervise their interactions with the help of the other dogs’ parents, short play sessions are great.
Remember, that it is not necessary or useful that your puppy greet or play with every dog you come across. First, not all dogs dig puppies. It is an important but sad lesson for your puppy that some dogs want nothing to do with them. Overly outgoing puppies need to learn that it is not polite to go barging into another dog’s space. Ask the parent if their dog is comfortable meeting puppies before you presume to go say hi. If there’s no one in sight perhaps it’s best to skip that dog. You’re the one responsible for keeping your puppy’s socializing positive. There’s no need for getting bitten on the snout! Secondly, you will teach your puppy tolerance and reinforce that you are directing all their activities by allowing them to say hi to some but not all the dogs you come across. And don’t forget to praise your dog for smooth greetings – this will help to set the tone for future encounters if you let him know she’s making good choices now.
Parents all too often throw away the training tool of using greetings or play as a real-life reward by allowing their young dog to automatically interact with every dog they come across without first setting the dog up:
- Before you let your puppy say hi to another dog (or person), make sure they’re calm. Ask or wait for them to sit – or even better, wait for them to check in with you before you tell them ‘go say hi!’
- Before sending your little one off to play, practice getting their attention with some really groovy treats. Throughout the play session call your puppy back to you, praise them (feed a treat if safe) and then send them off to play again. This will help with recalls and show your puppy you’re part of the fun!
- The other dog stays calm during initial greetings – this allows your puppy to meet in a calm fashion.
- Pick calm, secure playmates for rowdy puppies – this will discourage them from bullying and learn to control their excitement during playtime.
- Choose gentle playmates for shy puppies – this will allow them to develop confidence.
- In general, it is best to avoid putting young puppies with puppies more than two months older than them. The older puppy will typically have the advantage and tend to be domineering.This again will likely lead to fearful behaviour or rough play.
Keeping Play Positive
It is normal in play for one dog to assume the more assertive role of ‘being on top’ at times. Although some personalities prefer to be this way all the time, it’s good play for both participants to have a turn at this. Also, some dogs love to chase while others love to be chased. It’s great play for dogs to switch roles regularly. There should be balance in play. One player should not be be using the other like a toy. Good players pay attention to each other, adjusting their intensity and behaviour based on what the other dog is doing.
If your puppy’s starting to feel overwhelmed, give him a break by keeping the other dog away for a time – don’t rescue him by picking him up. He’ll learn to recover more quickly and realize he can do it on his own.
During play, there should be frequent breaks when the dogs (using sits, shakes or sniffs) take a moment to cool down before resuming play. If you sense that one or more of the dogs is not allowing this to happen, either step in and separate the group or call your puppy over to you and give him a short break.
And keep in mind:
It’s important that your puppy’s adult playmates have good bite inhibition. Corrections to an unruly puppy, such as growls or posturing are a normal part of a puppy’s education, punctures are not. (Please note that dogs do bite on occasion. The important thing is that they do not do damage.)
During adolescence, increased size, confidence and hormones can often lead to rough and inappropriate play. To discourage these behaviours from being reinforced and becoming a habit, it is important that your young dog has play time with dogs that have great play and social skills. Just as in early puppyhood it is vital that they have good role models.
As your dog matures it is essential that you continue providing appropriate play opportunities and greetings with other dogs. Although a regular group of friends can help to stabilize and encourage adolescents through their difficult and often traumatizing ‘coming out’, they must be exposed to a variety of new dogs to maintain good social skills and remain comfortable meeting unknown dogs.
Remember that all your young dog’s interactions with you, other people and other dogs are influencing the way they look at the world and the skills they’re developing to cope with everything in it. Simply allowing them to play with any dog and thinking they’re getting the positive socializing they need may be setting both of you up for trouble. Choose wisely.
For more information on supervising play, check out Dog Park 911
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