Promoting Healthy Play (Part 2 of 3)

Last week I discussed the two main styles of dog play: wrestling and chasing. If you missed that post, please go back and read it before continuing onto this one where I’ll expand those ideas in the context of confidence, over arousal, and management techniques.

The biggest challenge we see in our Puppy Practice and Play classes is when a dog is over or under confident. Overly confident, but inexperienced, pups don’t know how to read signals from the other dogs telling them to back off or stop. Under confident puppies have a hard time learning to play as they constantly hide under chairs or are so easily overwhelmed that they can’t play. Depending on the puppy, it takes about two or three sessions for us to see shy puppies coming out, being able to play, and eventually finding their best playmate (the ones that they enjoy playing with because they have a similar play style). Over confident puppies start figuring out how to play nicely with others in two or three play sessions, too.

Once puppies and adult dogs do start playing, they need to know how to keep the game fun without getting over aroused. You know when your pup is over aroused when his normal play barks change tone and his body becomes tense. Play bites may become harder, and the bouncy and wiggly movements become a little stiffer. You’ll get the sense as you watch that one dog is being bullied or is uncomfortable with the play.

When bouncy and wiggly play becomes stiff, management is the key to teach the puppies or adult dogs when to take breaks and helps trainers and owners ward against play becoming too rough and dangerous. The handiest tool in my training toolbox to keep play healthy and at a good arousal level is the consent test. This is where I separate the dogs, by catching the perceived “aggressor” and holding onto the pup’s collar, and let go of the one we think might be feeling bullied. If he comes back to the other dog and offers play solicitation signals, then everything is fine and we let them continue playing. If he runs away, then we look for a different playmate for each of the puppies, one that is more suitable for each pup’s play style. As they have more and more play experiences, each dog learns to manage their arousal level by taking breaks themselves.

Next week I’ll conclude my posts on play styles with a closer look at the chasing style of play and how to keep any kind of play fun for everyone, including you. Feel free to ask me, or one of my trainers, any questions you have concerning dog play or any training topic by asking us in class, emailing, or by calling (719) 200-2636.

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