Puppy Games: The Importance of Play

Behavior & Training
Puppy Games

All baby mammals play. Puppies wrestle and chew with each other and willing adult dogs. Kittens pretend to hunt and kill anything that moves, including your wiggling toes. Baby goats – kids – love to run, leap, and jump up on top of things.

Although most often associated with young animals, play is much more important than simply something they do on their own. Researchers know that if children or young animals do not play – either because of their living situations at the time or due to other factors – they are more apt to grow up with emotional and adjustment issues. They may be anxious, nervous, fearful, and/or socially inept. Play is much more than exercise or a way to pass the time.

Puppies Need to Play

Play usually begins in the litter. As the puppies’ eyes and ears open, and they begin to toddle on uncertain legs, they also begin to play. Initially the play is unformed and often only for seconds at a time, but gradually it develops along with the puppies. Through play, puppies learn to inhibit their biting and chewing on each other. If one bites too hard, the other puppy will cry and move away.

Play should continue in the puppy’s new home; both with the owners and any other dogs already in the household. Many puppy training classes offer a time when the puppies attending the class can have time to play puppy games with each other.

During play time, puppies learn social skills including the lessons about biting. They also learn cooperation and sharing – two puppies can play with one toy – as well as give and take. One puppy will be the chaser while the other puppy runs away for a few minutes, then they will exchange roles.

Dogs Playing Together

Well-socialized dogs that played with other puppies when young can often still play with other adult dogs when grown up. This isn’t universal, however. Some well-socialized dogs prefer to be the playground supervisor and will try to break up any play going on around them. Some breeds were also bred to be territorial and protective; both of which can often inhibit friendly play.

Therefore the decision to let your adult dog play with other adults must be made on an individual basis. Take into consideration your dog’s previous socialization to other dogs – especially when young – as well as his breed, temperament, and past history playing with other dogs.

If your adult dog is not a good candidate to play with other adult dogs, don’t worry. Play is much more important during puppyhood. As an adult, the things you and he do together are more important to him.

Play with Your Dog

The time you spend with your adult dog is vital to the relationship you share. Exercise is important, of course, as is training. But don’t forget play. Play is not just for the young; it’s also vital for adult humans and canines.

Active play with your dog is exactly that; it’s motion. Throw the ball for your dog and then, after he gets it, turn and run away from him, calling for him as you run. When he catches up, ask for the ball, throw it again, and then run again. Active play gets the body going – yours as well as his – and causes his tail to wag and you to laugh.

The commercial brain games are great fun for your dog’s brain, but most of the games are designed for the two of you to do together. You aid and assist your dog so he learns how to play the games. Once he knows how, then you can be his cheerleader while he plays.

Free play is silly, fun, and spur of the moment. For example, one day on a walk near a shallow, clear creek I picked up a small stone and tossed it in the water. One of my Australian Shepherds took that as an invitation to play and he jumped in the water in search of the stone. So as I continued to walk I kept plunking in stones and he dashed after them. He never found one and, actually, I don’t think he was trying all that hard; he was just playing with me and dashing about in the water. He was playing.

When to Stop the Play

There doesn’t need to be many rules for play time, but there are a few to keep in mind. Your dog is never to nip or bite you or your clothes. If he does, the game stops immediately. Walk away, go inside, or he goes outside. No arguing over this one; he has to learn that putting his mouth on you is not okay.

A bark now and then is okay, especially if you have a breed prone to barking. However, there should be limits. One bark is fine; a volley of a dozen loud pushy barks is not. Barking while he runs after a toy is fine; barking in your face is not. Again, stop the play if this happens.

If your dog tries to use his strength against you by jumping on you, grabbing things from you, or guarding the toy, the game stops.

You may find that at a certain point during play, your dog becomes over-stimulated or too excited. Learn where and when this happens so you can stop the game before this happens in future play sessions.

Help him be a good dog, then spend some calm time with him. Invite him to snuggle with you on the sofa (if he’s allowed), rub his tummy, or give him something good to chew on.