Dog’s Eye View: Puppy play — stay involved
February 9, 2018
We are in the midst of teaching our Head Start Puppy Class. At this point we caution owners to be very particular about how and with what dogs they might let their puppies play.
We are all so much better informed about puppy socialization in general. Everyone seems to be asking about how their puppy becomes friendly or socialized to dogs. Also, how can their puppy learn to leave the extreme attraction of other dogs and come to their owner.
A common situation happens when good friends who have nice dogs may say, "Sure bring him over and we'll let the dogs play in the back yard."
What usually transpires is the dogs are put together in the yard and after a bit are left out there to play for an hour or so while we wait inside and visit and have coffee. These are all good intentions but may not serve your puppy well.
Puppies can be a lot like little kids on a play date. Sometimes things go pretty well but there might be a moment when tempers flare or one might be a bit of a bully or perhaps be a bit overwhelming. We teach our students how to stay involved in puppy play.
Rather than leave our dogs outside to play uninterrupted by us, we stay outside (or inside) with them and monitor the play very carefully. We start by choosing puppies that are close in size so one cannot hurt another by merely mashing them. Puppies are really fast so we keep the puppies on leash and do what I call the maypole dance.
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It's kind of fun and the owners quickly become quite adept at this. The leashes are kept loose always and the puppies are allowed to act very normally as dogs do when they are not restrained by a tight leash.
Dogs usually greet first by sniffing nose to tail in a curved body position. At this time the owners are usually slipping their leashes under and over each other. They keep moving with the puppy's movement so as not to inhibit their learning. At some point the puppies will start to want to play a bit. This is where it gets interesting for the owners. Keeping their eyes fixed on the two puppies, they move around the room trying to stay out of the way, but still close.
At some point we may introduce one or two puppies, and at this time we may ask the owners to just drop the leashes. What we are watching for is any puppy that is trying to hide under a chair or escape the advances of a puppy that is too pushy. If you watch carefully you will quickly see how one kind of fun play can morph into not so much fun for one of the pups.
When the play starts to ramp up and get frantic, we ask the owner of each puppy to step in, put a tasty food treat right at the end of the puppy's nose and lure them back out of the fray. We then coach the owners to have their puppy sit, lie down and sit giving them something to focus on.
This has the effect of calming down the whole environment. You can actually feel the energy in the room go down. When the pups have relaxed, we quietly say, "go play" and let them go back to play with the others.
In one play session we may repeat this step two or three times. It gives the owners experience in how to handle these situations and what to look for, plus it teaches the puppy skills in play behavior. More than that, the puppies learn that when they are called out of play by their owners, it doesn't mean that the fun is over. They learn that coming to their owner away from the other puppies pays well in treats, plus they usually get to go back to their canine buddies.
Note that these play sessions usually last about 20 minutes. This is a far cry from an hour in the backyard with no intervention. And as our students could see, the puppies were really tired. The combination of exercise and mental stimulation can't be beat. Everybody is learning new skills and everyone is safe.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training LLC with more than 30 years of experience.