Understanding Dog and Puppy Play – when is it too much?

When I used to do puppy training classes a common question which owners used to ask was ‘my puppy was playing with another puppy and it looked really aggressive – how can I tell if they were just playing?’

Puppy play, or even dog play for that matter can look aggressive! Dogs play with each other by biting, nipping, barking and rough housing with each other, but this doesn’t mean that they are being aggressive.  If you take photos of dogs playing you may be slightly disconcerted to see how aggressive dog play actually looks!  I’m a keen dog photographer and have a plethora of photos of dogs in play with their teeth bared looking aggressive! But we must remember that dogs play with their mouths and so what may look like fighting may well actually just be dogs enjoying a good play session.

For puppies, the easiest way to determine if the play is escalating to them being over-aroused and it potentially turning defensive/aggressive is to restrain the puppy who looks like he’s being a bit over zealous and seeing if the other puppy still comes back for more.  If the unrestrained puppy was becoming nervous then they will retreat and move away from the restrained puppy.  And if they were actually enjoying the play session and return for more, then you can simply let them continue.

Puppy and dog play can sometimes lead to over-arousal and then one dog may become defensive if it’s feeling overwhelmed or just wants a break.  Again, you can just call back the instigator to give both dogs a time-out to defuse the situation and prevent it from escalating.  All dogs will have different play styles – some will be constantly moving forward towards the dogs they want to play with and some will move forward and backwards in a fluid motion… this is the best form of play as it allows for natural breaks.

It is really important to watch the body language of both dogs to ensure they are both comfortable with the play and to use a reliable recall if you think it’s getting too much for either dog.

With puppies it is especially important for them to learn how to play with adult dogs.  Those of you who have owned your dogs from puppies will know that some, if not most, adult dogs do not tolerate puppies!  Puppies can be incredibly annoying to the typical adult dog as they are constantly aroused and want to play and essentially get in the adult dogs face.  It also takes a while for puppies to actually learn what it means when an adult dog growls at them to tell them off.  I remember from my own experience my puppy trying to play with a Jack Russell on a lead in the common and this dog snarling and snapping at her and she just thought this was great fun and continued trying to play! I managed to call my puppy away from the dog before she potentially got injured but I did understand that she just hadn’t picked up on this dog’s unwillingness to play with her.  And this can be a steep learning curve for most puppies!

So it’s really important to keep your puppy safe from adult dogs while they learn what is the appropriate way to play and interact with others to avoid you puppy being constantly told off by other dogs.  However, this telling off process is crucial to their development so there is a fine line between being over-protective of your puppy and allowing it too much freedom to get itself into trouble!  So when you’re next out with your dog or puppy, carefully monitor any play sessions and learn to read the body language of both dogs and if in any doubt, call your puppy or dog back to you, or retrain the dog who you think may be getting over-aroused and see how the other dogs responds… are they relieved or do they still want to continue the play.  We can analyse dog behaviour but dogs are much quicker and smarter than us and they way they communicate with each other is often too subtle for the human eye to see, so let them decide… with your guidance and over-seeing eye!

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