How Puppies Play

How puppies play depends on a great deal on the breed. Socialisation and age also influence what games puppies play. It makes sense that sight hound breeds react more to seeing toys move while “gripping” breeds relish tug-of-war, and terriers like to play chase, grab, and shake games.

Play behaviour begins as early as puppies can toddle around—about three weeks of age. Puppies of both sexes may exhibit sexual behaviour as early as four weeks of age, mounting each other during play games.

Prey killing behaviour such as pouncing, and object shaking is also seen. Puppies at these early ages practice being both the top dog and the bottom-of-the-heap, so they learn how to communicate with each other. Temperament extremes—a bully puppy or shrinking violet pooch—expressed in play by young puppies is not necessarily a good predictor of future status. Temperament tests are more accurate when conducted on older puppies.

Social Play

Social play is interactive. In other words, social play involves playing with another puppy, the owner, or even the cat. Examples of social play include wrestling, biting, play-fighting, and chase games.

Puppies begin social play as early as three weeks of age, with play-biting, pawing, and barking. The intensity escalates and becomes more complex as the dog matures. The first play-eliciting gesture seen in puppies is the raised paw. The play bow—butt end up, front down— is the classic invitation for a canine romp and is used by older pups and adults, along with barking, leaping forward to nose-poke and then withdrawing, face pawing or licking. This type of play is particularly important in dogs social and behavioural development until they are 10 to 12 weeks old.

Self-Directed Play

Self-directed play, such as tail chasing or pouncing on imaginary objects, is thought to be a replacement for social play when a play-partner isn’t available. Puppies that indulge in extremes of tail-chasing or habitually target “invisible” objects—snapping at nonexistent bugs—should be checked by the vet. These may be indications of obsessive-compulsive or seizure conditions.

Locomotory Play

Locomotory play simply means the puppy is in motion. That can involve solo play or include interaction with others. Locomotory play in adult dogs usually involves a pair or group of dogs. But puppies may indulge in games of “ghost-tag” running, jumping, and rolling about when they’re by themselves.

Object Play

Object play is interaction with stuff. Chasing or pawing/grabbing a ball, rag, or stick are examples. Some puppies target water and love chasing the hose or sprinkler.

“Just Kidding” During Play

Dogs may “pretend” to be aggressive to invite play and indicate it’s a game by using exaggerated behaviours, called meta signals. For instance, the play-bow is a butt-in-the-air with a front-end-down position where the pup’s forelegs dance back and forth to invite play. When your puppy first play-bows, it’s telling you that any growls or wrestling that comes after are meant as fun and games. Adult dogs often “pretend” to be subordinate to a puppy—with play-bows or rolling on the back—to build up the pup’s confidence and invite it to play.

This “just kidding” game allows lower-ranking pups to practice being in charge with play bites, mounting behaviour, and wrestling games. When dogs are playing, it is normal to see role-reversal such as this, where the dogs take turns being on top.

Bad Play

Inappropriate play can develop when pups get too wound up or one of the playmates becomes a bully. Normal puppy play encourages taking turns chasing and pinning each other. But bully, dogs always end up on top during wrestling, and instead of play bites at the legs, the bites target the head or neck. Most of the time, growls during play are normal but if they turn to lower-pitched growls or the puppy-on-the-bottom yelps too much, break up the session until they calm down.

Play that seems to always end up on the hind legs may be a warning sign to have pups cool their jets. Some mounting and clasping or thrusting won’t be a problem, when these become the norm, play may have tipped over into bully behavior.

Play not only is great fun for you and the pup, but it teaches important doggy lessons. During play, puppies figure out what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, discover how their bodies work, and learn ways to interact with other animals and the world around them.

The Importance of Play

While some pet dog owners might not care if their dog is playful or not, but they are missing out as there are so many benefits centred around being involved in dog and puppy play:

  • Play offers dogs mental stimulation and to burns off excess energy.
  • Play is a great way to build a relationship/bond between you and your dog.
  • Play is a fantastic (not to mention, cheaper than food) way to reward your dog
  • Play is also a highly motivational jackpot reward when training new skills.
  • Play is fun! It helps to increase a dog’s quality of life.

Patience is your most important tool. But personally, we have never found a problem with introducing play to a puppy, using the right friendly attitude and of cause the right toy.

However, in some cases, it can take time for a dog to start to trust its owners and even more time for it to learn appropriate ways to interact. Young puppies one  the other hand, normally find toy play an easy and exciting way to play with their new humans once they have settled into their new environment.

There are several reasons a dog may not have learned to play.

  • Most common reason is a lack of early socialisation.
  • Some dogs don’t play simply because no one has ever engaged in play with them.
  • Another reason is that their instincts may drive them to do other things.

No matter why your dog isn’t playing, you should begin by slowly introducing it to toys. Start by leaving the toys around to sniff and get used to, rather than immediately trying to engage in an all-out game of tug-of-war.

Reward Interest

Start off with soft praise or a treat for any interest your dog shows in the toy. Your dog will quickly learn that toys mean good things happen.

Get Involved

Once your dog is comfortable with the toys, it’s time to start interacting with it. Again, start off slow. Sit close to your dog and shake a tug toy a little. If it shows interest, give it a treat and praise. It may take some time, but the more you engage your dog in play, the sooner it will learn what’s expected. Before you know it, your dog will be playing as if it’s done it all its life.

Teach the Rules

Sometimes teaching a dog to play involves more than simply slowly introducing it to the idea. Games like fetch, for instance, have more than one part. It might be easy to teach your dog to run and pick up a ball you throw, but it’ll have to know “come” and “drop it” in order for the game to continue smoothly without turning into a game of chase.

For the first few days I personally perform play games in a quiet confined space, where the dog can concentrate, and I normally have three of the same tuggy toys available.

This prevents the dog learning to run away and introduce the game of chase into the equation.

Problems and Proofing Behaviours

Proofing is the process by which you ensure that your dog can keep up new behaviors in a variety of settings and situations. It’s not easy for a dog to play properly when it’s in a new, exciting setting or playing with unfamiliar people or animals.

To proof your dog’s new play skills, you’ll want to place it in a variety of situations to see how well it retains its training.

  • Take your dog to the park and see if it can continue to attend and follow your rules of play when other dogs are in the area.
  • Have other people play with your dog, asking them to do the same things but using a different tone or set of toys.
  • Watch to see how your dog does when given commands by a young child who may not have the same authoritative tone that you do.

If you discover that your dog hasn’t really internalised the rules of play, you may need to go back to earlier steps in the process.

  • Be sure your dog is truly comfortable in your home and seems to trust you and anyone else that interacts with it regularly.
  • Reteach the commands you’ll be using, such as “drop it,” “come,” and “fetch.”
  • Take time to expose your dog to the various settings and people it’s likely to encounter on a regular basis. If necessary, reteach the skills with those people and settings.

For this type of training, patience is key; if you move too quickly, you may lose your dog’s trust.


Many dogs love to play tug of war; it’s a healthy display of their predatory nature. Tug of war provides great mental and physical exercise for your dog. It is also a wonderful way to reinforce the human-canine bond.

But if you’re going to play safely, you have to make sure you and your dog know the rules and parameters before you start playing. These rules keep the game from going overboard. As long as your dog is properly trained, you should have no qualms about playing this game together.

Teach a Release Command

Before you begin playing tug of war with your dog, establish a command to end the game, such as drop it. This will help you stop the game when necessary. You should be able to rely on the fact that your dog will drop the toy if things get out of hand. Make sure your dog has mastered your release command before you begin playing tug of war.

Choose a Toy

Pick a dog toy that is designed for tugging, and that you won’t use for other games such as fetch. The toy should be durable and flexible. The best tug toys are typically made out of rubber, fleece or similar material and have a comfortable handle that keeps your hand away from the dog’s mouth.

Pick a Spot

Play in a large area without distractions, clutter, or dangerous objects. Outdoors is great, but the beauty of tug of war is that it can be safely played indoors if you have a bit of space. Make sure there is room for you both to move about and that there is nothing in the way should one of you back up.

Initiate the Game

You should always start any games of tug of war to set the tone. You make the rules, and you should be the one to decide when you and your dog play tug of war.

While playing tug of war, your dog might get excited and begin growling. This is normal, as the game itself is predatory behaviour. However, it is important to keep your dog from becoming overly excited or aggressive and take breaks to keep the game from getting out of control.

  • A bit of growling with the tail still wagging is probably OK, but anything too intense warrants a break. In fact, if you are feeling uneasy or in doubt at any point, take a break.
  • If your dog’s teeth come into contact with you at any point, play should stop immediately. Let out a yelp, say your release command, and then take the toy and walk away for at least 30 seconds.
  • It’s OK to let your dog win while playing tug of war. In fact, it’s a great idea. Winning builds its confidence and rewards the animal. However, if the dog misbehaves during the game, you should be the one who ends up with the toy.
  • Two dogs can play tug of war with one another as long as they get along on a normal basis. The game should be supervised, and the same rules apply. Take breaks if they don’t follow rules, as this will help keep it from getting out of control.

To take a break, stop tugging and use the release command. Take 30 seconds or so to go through basic commands like sit and down. Once your dog seems more relaxed, the game may resume.

Problems and Proofing Behaviour

To ensure that your dog will always drop the tug toy without hesitation, practice the command frequently during the game. This is akin to proofing other tricks and behaviors you teach your dog, to make sure the training sticks.

If your dog bites two or three times, even if it’s accidental, the game of tug of war should be ended for the day. This is to remind your dog to be extra careful with its teeth. It is likely that teeth might graze you from time to time due to the nature of the game, but once your dog understands the rules, it will be much more careful.

Playing tug of war with your dog can be a quite rewarding experience. Games are mentally and physically stimulating for your dog, and pretty good exercise for you, too.

Start with a Favorite Toy

To start, offer your dog one of its favorite toys, saying, “take it.” If your dog is highly excited to see the toy, you might want to let it have a minute or so to play before you start training. Do not wait so long that your dog gets bored with the toy.

Swap the Toy for a Treat

While the toy is in your dog’s mouth, hold a treat up to its nose. As soon as your dog releases the toy, give it the treat. Repeat steps this several times until you feel your dog is responding well.

Add a Verbal Cue

Add the verbal cue, such as “drop it.” Say the cue firmly and clearly while still holding the treat near the dog’s nose. After a while, try holding the treat farther away. Gradually increase the distance if your dog still responds to the verbal cue. Then, try the command without the treat, praising your dog if it complies.

Drop It and Leave It

Once your dog has mastered the “drop it” command, the next, more complicated step is to get it to leave the item it has dropped, instead of picking it up again. If your dog goes to pick up the item it has just dropped, do not try to take away the item or yell at the dog.

Remember, dogs respond best to positive reinforcement. Give a “leave it” command and give the dog a treat when it doesn’t touch the dropped item again. “Leave” is not as easy for some dogs to grasp as “drop” so be patient and offer lots of praise when your dog gets it right.

Problems and Proofing Behaviour

Although it may seem instinctive, you should never pull a toy (or anything else) from a dog’s mouth or grab its head to try to remove something. Never try to pry open a dog’s jaws. This can send the wrong message, making the action seem like a game or punishment to the dog. Also, it will probably cause your dog to hold the item more tightly, or worse, swallow it. You also may get bitten for your trouble. If your dog has something in its mouth that may be harmful to it, the best way to get it to release when all else fails is to dump a handful of treats in front of the animal.

Another common mistake owner’s make when training their dogs in this behaviour is choosing cue words that too closely mimic other commands. For example, “drop” and “stop” rhyme, and will likely confuse the dog if you use both of them for different commands. Use a unique word or phrase that you can say in an upbeat, positive voice, and that your dog will come to associate with the “drop” behaviour.

To proof this behaviour, continue the training regularly, changing up the item the dog is supposed to “leave.” Once it gets to the point where the dog is able to obey “leave” for its favorite toy, you can feel confident that the dog has got the behaviour down.

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