Dog Play Puppies and play are virtually synonymous. The very thought of a group of young puppies conjures up a picture of virtually non-stop, fun-loving, boisterous and bumbling play sessions. In fact young pups spend over 90% of their waking hours playing. But aside from the fun-factor, puppy play is also serious business. Play has many important functions. Puppies spend most of their play sessions practicing all-important hunting, fighting and survival skills. At four- to five-weeks-of-age, puppy play is characterized by puppies bumbling around, bumping into each other with frequent and amusing, bungled ambush attempts. But by eight weeks, most pups have become good little hunter-fighters and are quite adept and stalking, chasing and pouncing on their littermates.
In addition to perfecting all the ingredients of an adult dog’s social and sexual behavioral repertoire, play affords puppies the opportunity to learn the relevance and appropriateness of each individual behavior. The choreography of early puppy play behavior is often hilariously inappropriate and utterly unacceptable socially. A young pup will playfully chase down and bite a littermate, only for the surprise attack to gently dissolve into ribald mounting sequence. Most young pups appear to adhere to the Puppy Prime Directive: if it moves, attack and/or mount at will. Soon they learn that animate objects are more fun to hunt and mount and that inanimate objects are best reserved for destruction. Thereafter, the puppy learns to further restrict his hunt and mount activities to animals that are in the mood. The puppy learns not to bother grumpy old adult dogs, not to bother people, not to bother the cat, etc. Eventually, the puppy learns to restrict his playful advances to like-minded individuals. And eventually he learns the relative social appropriateness of fighting versus mounting.
Invariably, puppies go “over the top” as they get worked up during the course of play-fighting, Many sessions are temporarily terminated with short time-outs, usually following a short spat or disagreement. How to recover quickly, or bounce back, from a disagreement and resume playing is one of the most important skills pups have to learn before they can confidently enjoy the world of big dogs. Puppies learn that play has many rules, that breaking rules has unpleasant consequences, but that the unpleasant consequences are not necessarily the end of the world. All the puppy has to do is apologize, resume playing once more, and not break the rules in the future. Play tutors young puppies in social savvy, enabling them to develop the requisite know how and confidence to become a player in the exquisitely complicated and sophisticated social scene of adult dogs.
From the viewpoint of raising domestic puppies, bite inhibition is the single most important lesson learnt from play. With their penchant for biting and their needle-sharp teeth, many owners consider puppies to be on par with seek and destroy missiles. It would be disastrous for this type of behavior to continue into adulthood. Paradoxically though, it is the puppies’ biting behavior which ensures that adult dogs develop soft mouths.
Puppies are veritable biting machines and their bites hurt. And indeed they should! Sharp teeth enable puppies to inflict pain with their weak jaws, so puppies have adequate opportunity to learn that biting hurts. Puppies chew and bite everything. The first thing they learn is the difference between inanimate objects and sentient beings (people and other animals) that feel and react to the bites. The negative feedback from the bitee (cessation of play) prompts puppies to tone down both the force and the frequency of their biting behavior. It is essential puppies learn this before they develop the strong jaws of adults.
It is a rare dog (as it is a rare person) that never squabbles or fights. However, just as people can resolve disagreements without resorting to physical violence and inflicting bodily harm, dogs can do likewise. Squabbling and fighting are quite normal for dogs. Causing harm to other dogs is not normal. Whether or not a dog harms humans or his own kind depends almost entirely on the level of bite inhibition he developed during puppyhood and adolescent play sessions.
Play sessions in puppy classes offer a wonderfully precise diagnostic tool for assessing the success of each puppy’s ongoing socialization and its developing temperament. It is easy to determine the level of confidence in each puppy — to spot aggressive and fearful pups, bullies and wimps and to recommend immediate remedial socialization.
As a word of caution, if a puppy’s socialization program is restricted to only one night a week at puppy class (heaven forbid!), the puppy is highly likely to develop into a rambunctious bully, or a cowering wimp. The level of energy within a group of playful puppies creates a chain reaction that quickly approaches critical mass. The play becomes excessively fast and physical. Those puppies entering into the fray are inadvertently trained as play-maniacs, which become extremely difficult to control around other dogs. Also, the sheer level of becomes too much for some of the more sensitive and smaller puppies in class, which quickly start to de-socialize. Play should not destroy obedience and it should not ruin temperament.
The hard and fast rule for puppy play sessions is that they should be temporarily interrupted every 15 seconds or so. At the very least, owners should take each puppy by the collar and wait for him to sit and acknowledge his owner’s presence before offering a food treat and allowing play to resume once more. In this fashion, the instruction “Go Play” rewards the puppy for sitting calmly and paying attention to his owner. Thus, rather than becoming a distraction to training, play is the best reward in training. In fact, play-training is the way to go.
Certainly, puppy classes are a fun night out for puppies and owners to socialize and have a good time. And certainly, the dynamic chain reaction of puppy play sessions is ideal to therapeutically re-vamp the pup’s dog-dog socialization program, which has temporarily been on hold over the past few weeks (while the puppy was confined indoors). But even so, puppy classes should not be considered an entire socialization curriculum. In order to become and remain fully socialized, puppies, adolescents and adult dogs must continue to meet and play with unfamiliar dogs of different ages. There is no socialization exercise that surpasses a good old dog walk to play in a local dog park.