As the owner of a new puppy, you’ll want to get off to a great start by teaching your four-legged bundle of energy the right way to play.
“Puppies can play rough. So to ensure a lifetime of safe and happy interactions, learn how to play appropriately with your new puppy from the start.” -- Wayne L. Hunthausen, DVM
Watch a litter of puppies interact and you’ll quickly notice they’re not exactly gentle when they play together!
In fact, many of the behaviors you discourage in your mature dog are exactly the things puppies do during play, including biting, growling, snapping, chasing and pouncing.
Is Your Puppy Just Playing -- or Showing Aggression?
A playful puppy will often lower his head and front end and raise his rear in a “chase me” pose. He might dash back and forth in front of you, wag his tail and make high-pitched yipping noises as he comes at you.
A puppy that is aggressive will often stand very still, fix his gaze and growl in a way that is clearly threatening, not happy or playful. Aggression in dogs is often a response to fear or an unpleasant or confusing stimulus, so this type of behavior is usually exhibited in specific situations and not out of the blue.
If you think your pup is displaying aggression, you should check in first with your veterinarian. Explain the behaviors you’re concerned about and solicit your vet’s help in determining possible causes and remedies.
How is Her Socialization Coming?
If your veterinarian agrees your puppy’s behavior could become a problem, you’ll want to nip it in the bud immediately. The best way to do this is through appropriate socialization. In fact, all pups should be socialized, regardless of whether they have behavioral issues or not.
Give some thought to the socialization your puppy is receiving to insure it’s enough, but not too much all at once. Socializing is crucial to your pup’s development, but you must take care not to overwhelm or wear her out in the process.
The goal of socialization is to expose your dog to a wide variety of people and stimuli so she grows comfortable with the world around her. The complimentary goal is to not over-stimulate her, since that can create fear and other behavioral problems that lead to aggression.
During this critical time in her development (from about eight weeks until three months of age) it’s important to let her set the pace, while you set the stage.
Provide her with as many opportunities as possible to experience the sights, sounds, smells and noises that will be a part of her everyday life. But make sure her exposure is not enough to frighten or exhaust her.
Curbing Inappropriate Play
Even a well-socialized puppy will play too intensely or aggressively at times. Steps you can take to discourage aggressive play behavior include the following:
- Stop playing immediately if your puppy is being aggressive with you personally. If he’s hurt you with either his teeth or claws, say a word like “Ouch!” loudly to let him know you disapprove of the behavior.
- Distract your pup with a toy to play with (or a different one, in case his aggression involves a certain type of toy).
- Use a harmless spray of water or a loud noise to startle and disrupt your puppy’s bad behavior. The idea is simply to halt the behavior, not to create a fear response.
- Use your puppy’s leash and/or head halter to control him, and therefore his behavior. This can be done during supervised play either indoors or outside. Remember to use gentle pressure during corrections to avoid causing injury to your puppy’s neck.
- If your puppy won’t stop the behavior despite your best efforts, remove him to his crate or another area of the house until he settles down. Give him a toy to keep him occupied.
Whatever you do, don’t try to manage your puppy’s aggressive behavior by acting aggressively yourself. It’s never appropriate or productive to hit or shake a puppy, or grab his muzzle.
Touching a dog roughly in any manner can cause injury to the animal, and can actually create or exacerbate the behavior you disapprove of.
Dos and Don’ts for Puppy Playtime
Play is vital for your pup. It’s necessary for her physical, mental and emotional stability and development. Play also allows your puppy to express some of her natural behaviors.
A lack of vigorous, appropriate playtime and regular exercise during which your puppy can expend some of her natural energy can result in a wide range of behavior problems – everything from attention-seeking activities to destruction of your belongings.
Here are a few playtime dos and don’ts for any member of the family who’ll be interacting with your puppy:
- Do engage your pup in retrieving games. A game of fetch doesn’t have to be strenuous or time consuming for you and your puppy will tire out within a few minutes. If retrieving doesn’t come naturally to your dog, incorporate treats into the game to reward her for returning the ball or Frisbee to you each time it’s thrown.
- Do stimulate your puppy mentally with a rubber toy like a Kong or Clever K9, which delivers treats when your pup bites it.
- Don’t play on the floor with your puppy. Being down on her level puts you in a vulnerable spot and can overexcite your pup, making her more apt to mouth you, pounce on you, or scratch you.
- Do incorporate basic obedience training into playtime with your dog. Have her sit and stay as part of your interaction with her. Make sure treats are used to reward a particular behavior and aren’t given “just because.” Only engage with your puppy when she’s following your lead. If she tries to take over ignore her for a few seconds. Take care not to reward any behavior you don’t wish to encourage.
- Don’t mimic the behavior of your puppy during play. In other words, don’t play with your dog as another dog would. Dogs play rough, and your pup could unintentionally hurt you. As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to wrestle or get physical with your dog. You might inadvertently encourage aggressive behavior in your pup, and in addition, it’s best to remain in a leadership role whenever you interact with her.
- Do consider agility training for your dog. Most dogs love it, and it’s a great way for you to spend quality time with your pup in a way that exercises her body and her mind.
Start a Healthy Habit
Many new puppy parents have been pleasantly surprised to discover that a commitment to their dog’s need for play and exercise helps them as well to stay active and engaged in activities they can share with their four-legged companions.
As you think about ways to involve your puppy in healthy activities, keep in mind that dogs respond very well to routine.
Consider scheduling play and exercise at the same time every day. Once a routine is established, your puppy’s excitement at that special time each day will sound your bell for recess, and you’ll both enjoy the benefits of a regular dose of fun and physical exercise.