As soon as young puppies open their eyes, they begin to interact with their mother and siblings through play. Puppy play is a critical part of the physical and psychological well-being of puppy. During this early developmental stage in their lives, puppies are always learning and they are constantly gaining new information through play.
Why do Dogs Need to Play?
Puppies learn important life lessons as they grow up with their littermates and mother. After two to three weeks, when the puppy has opened its eyes, they begin to interact with their family and learn important dog-specific behavioral patterns. Through play they gain an understanding of verbal and nonverbal canine communication. From different postures to varying degrees of vocalization, puppies learn to “read” other dogs through these early interactions.
After five weeks, puppies begin to use their mouths a bit more in play. As a result, they also learn bite inhibition. When a puppy bites too hard, its littermate will likely yelp and withdraw from play. The puppy learns that if they want to continue with the play, they should measure the pressure used when mouthing their playmate.
As puppies interact with their mothers, they also learn discipline. The mother is responsible for overseeing the lessons of canine behaviors, and will typically offer corrections to the puppies in order to show them the boundaries of appropriate behavior. When puppies are separated from their mother and littermates too early, they may have problems with nervousness, over-vocalization, and lack of bite inhibition. With nobody shaping their early behaviors, they can also be difficult to train. It is generally suggested that puppies remain with their littermates and mother until 8 weeks old, with some breeds staying with their canine families longer, depending on their developmental needs.
Taking the Lead
Once your puppy comes home, it becomes your responsibility to continue shaping proper play behavior. Just as it did with its littermates, your puppy will continue to use play as a way to socialize, learn, and test their boundaries. Play, both with humans and other dogs, will continue to be important to their growth and development.
Exercise. A tired puppy is a happy puppy! Exercise is a fundamental part of play, and through play your puppy will learn body awareness and coordination. Play will offer an outlet for the seemingly endless energy of a puppy, and make them less likely to direct that energy in a more destructive way—like toward your favorite pair of shoes.
Training Tip: When playing with your puppy, avoid play that is focused on your hands. Roughing a puppy up with your hands might seem enjoyable, but can result in over-arousal and a puppy trying to mouth or paw at you in return. As the puppy grows up and gets stronger, this can lead to scratches and bites. Teach the behaviors now that you want them to show as adults. Direct play toward a toy, minimize rough play behaviors, and encourage your dog to settle by stopping play when they become too excited.
Mental Stimulation. Sometimes a good mental workout is more exhausting than a physical one! Playing, especially with games and toys like a Kong, reward your puppy for thinking of ways to get the treat out. Games like fetch or scent games can also be mentally challenging and rewarding.
Training Tip: A stuffed toy or treat puzzle is a great way of encouraging a “settle” behavior, and can be used to de-escalate play behavior that has gotten a bit out of hand.
Continued Education. Puppies this age are always learning! Just as they were learning appropriate behavior from their mother and siblings, they’ll learn what appropriate behavior is from you as well. You can shape their play manners by rewarding only the behaviors that are acceptable. When puppies come home, they should be learning the behaviors that will be appropriate for the rest of their lives. Essentially, if you don’t want your dog to do something when they’re fully grown, do not encourage that behavior as a puppy. If you have a young puppy that is going to grow up to be a large dog, you probably don’t want them jumping on you as an adult!
Training Tip: Play is a reward that your puppy is familiar with. Just as puppies learned that biting too hard would result in their littermates withdrawing from play (removing the fun reward of play), puppies will learn exceptionally well when they have to “work” to receive the reward of play. Training between play sessions is useful for preventing the puppy from becoming over-aroused, and also as a way of reinforcing training through a reward that they are always excited about.
Socialization. It’s important that your puppy’s socialization with other dogs does not end once they leave their littermates. Play time with other puppies is a critical part of their development, and helps them refine their bite inhibition, communication, and other social skills. Socializing puppies also helps dogs learn that interacting with furry friends is a reward for good behavior, encouraging behaviors that result in calm greetings and appropriate play as adults.
Training Tip: What about dog parks? Young puppies should NOT be exposed to high-traffic dog areas before they have received their full protocol of vaccines. Dog parks are NOT a safe place to socialize a puppy. Puppies are tremendously sensitive to experiences, and dog parks are not controlled spaces. An overzealous greeting or aggressive or poorly mannered dog can result in the puppy creating a negative association that will shape the way they interact with dogs for a lifetime.
The goal of socialization is to create positive interactions, and avoid anything that will be overwhelming or frightening. Instead of turning to dog parks to socialize your dog to other canines, it is suggested that puppies attend an age-appropriate puppy class.
Dogs in Harmony offers multiple solutions to puppy socialization, even in times social distancing. Harmony School provides structured play, learning and socialization to people, textures, sounds, and other dogs. It is the optimal learning environment for young puppies. Group puppy classes and puppy Learn and Play sessions are also excellent socialization options. For more information on our offerings for puppies, please email us at [firstname.lastname@example.org] and let us know your puppy’s needs and goals.
Encouraging Positive Play
Play has an important role in the development of your puppy, and learning to encourage positive play is a critical part of helping your puppy reach its potential. Here are a few DO’s and DON’Ts for encouraging puppy play.
DO: Control your energy. If you have a high-energy puppy and approach play time with the same level of excitement, you’re likely going to end up with an over-aroused puppy that begins directing that energy toward mouthing your hands or feet. This can unintentionally encourage “mouthiness” or biting behaviors. Meet high energy puppies with calm human energy. If your puppy is lower energy, you may need to increase your energy to encourage fun play.
DON’T: Continue play when your puppy is overly excited. This can lead to unwanted behaviors and puppy frustration. When play gets too rough, initiate a play break and let them settle in their crate or personal space with an engaging chew toy. Puppies should only be left with a chew when the you are sure that the chew is safe for them. Monitor your puppy's chew/play style when presenting a new toy or chew, and only leave them unsupervised with it once you've determined that the toy/chew is safe and will not cause blockage or choking hazard.
DO: Encourage basic training and obedience before and during play. Use play as a reward for practicing basic obedience commands. This makes learning a part of the fun!
DON’T: Respond to unwanted play behaviors with roughness or emotional responses. If your puppy is nipping or chewing on something they shouldn’t during play, it’s just part of the learning process. Don’t encourage those behaviors. Instead, offer better choices and better rewards.
DO: Seek out socialization opportunities to help your puppy refine their ability to read other dogs and improve their manners. Make sure the socialization opportunities are structured, safe, and controlled.
DON’T: Allow puppies to play or chew without supervision. Don’t allow puppies to have unsupervised play with other dogs or puppies, and make sure to not leave them alone with toys they can destroy and ingest.
If you have questions or concerns about your puppy, their play, or socialization options, get in contact with a Dogs in Harmony Professional Trainer to discuss your puppy’s needs or enroll in a puppy-appropriate class.