Puppy Play: An Essential Part of Puppy Class for a Well-Rounded Dog

Here’s why you should pick a puppy class that includes play – and what that play should look like. 

Why puppies play, like these three black Lab puppies playing together. And why play is an important part of puppy class (and how to get it right)
Photo: Iuliia Bondarenko/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Puppies have a lot to learn. When you bring them home at about 8 weeks, the breeder will have already done some socialization (provided you picked a responsible breeder). But it’s up to you to build on that early socialization, because the sensitive period continues until about 12-14 weeks. 

Puppy class is a great way to get some socialization. But only around 70% of puppy classes include play (Cutler et al, 2017).  

Here’s why puppy play is an important part of puppy class.

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When do puppies start to play?

Puppies learn a lot in those early weeks while they are still with their mom and littermates. In fact, from 3 weeks of age puppies spend a lot of time playing with their fellow pups. After around 8 or 9 weeks, the urge to play begins to drop off, although they will still be very playful. 

Why play is important for puppies

Why do puppies play? The short answer is because it's fun. But play serves a number of important roles.

Puppies need to learn to be dogs. While there’s a lot we still don’t understand about play, it seems that play is important for learning both social skills (how to behave with other dogs) and motor skills (how to move their bodies) (Sommerville et al, 2017). Play can help puppies learn how to deal with unexpected things happening such as when they get knocked over. In turn this can help them regulate their stress response when tricky things happen, so that they are more resilient. 

The social skills learned in puppy play help them to have good social relationships with other dogs when they are older. This actually applies to their relationship with us, too; when dogs play with their guardian it helps to build a stronger relationship.

One of the most important things puppies learn is bite inhibition. When playing with their littermates, if a puppy bites too hard the other pup will yelp and stop playing for a little while. The puppies will learn to be gentle with the jaws and teeth in order not to stop the play (Bekoff, 2001; Dietz et al 2016).

Why puppies play, like these littermates photod by Nickala Squire. Why play should be part of puppy class and how to keep it safe
Puppies playing. Notice the gentle bite. Photo: Nickala Squire/Carefree Canine.

They will also learn to play fair. Dr. Marc Bekoff, who has studied play in dogs, coyotes, and wolves, explains that if they don’t play fair (for example, if play turns to aggression) then others will not want to play with them (Bekoff, 2001).

While many canine social skills are learned from litter mates, it’s important for puppies to be able to build on those skills during the weeks after they go to their new home. It also seems possible that the sensitive period for learning about other dogs continues later than the sensitive period for learning about people, although we don't know for sure (Bradshaw, 2011).

On top of that, not all puppies get those early experiences with their littermates. Some pups are singletons. And many, many puppies are born in puppy mills, where the conditions include a barren environment that is not conducive to play. The lack of opportunities to play with littermates is likely one reason why puppies from pet stores (who originate from puppy mills) are more likely to have behavior problems when they become adult dogs, compared to dogs that came from a responsible breeder (McMillan, 2017).

So including play sessions during puppy class is important to help the puppies build on those early social skills they are learning; even more so if they may have missed those opportunities.


What puppy play looks like

Practice reading your pup’s body language and to recognize signs of play. Look for a delightful open-mouthed look called ‘play face’. The teeth are visible but the jaw is nice and relaxed and happy. Expect the puppies’ movements to be bouncy and fun. You’ll see play bows, when the butt is in the air and the front elbows are on the floor (pictured). These signals are known as meta-signals because they signal that play is happening (and that it’s not aggression). But, it’s also possible the play bow really works to keep the play going…   (Byosiere et al 2016).  

A white puppy does a play bow, one of the meta-signals of play
A play bow. Photo: Cryber/Shutterstock

You may also see growling in play, but it’s a play growl, not aggression.

There will be activity shifts, from wrestling to chasing to leaping up etc. 

And you should expect to see role reversals in play, when the pup that was being chased becomes the one doing the chasing, or the one that was on the floor becomes the one standing over the other puppy.

Dogs will also self-handicap in play. You might see puppies biting at each other, but those bites are inhibited. And if at some point you see a friendly adult dog playing with a puppy, you might see them self-handicap by lying down to play so that they are on the same level as the pup. It’s likely that learning to self-handicap in play helps puppies learn the social skills needed to defuse aggressive situations with other dogs. 


Protect shy puppies

The important thing about puppies playing together in puppy class is that they get to play with someone their own size and age.

Some puppies are shy, and others much more confident. It’s important to ensure that all the puppies are having a good time. Expect the dog trainer to keep the bold puppies and the shy puppies apart during play sessions. 

Of course, over the different sessions in a puppy class, it’s possible (even likely) that the shy puppies will no longer be shy by the end. A good dog trainer will keep an eye on all of the puppies to ensure they are enjoying play at all times, and intervene if at any point they aren’t sure. 

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Consent tests in puppy play

If you aren’t sure whether or not a puppy is enjoying play, it’s easy to check. A good trainer will demonstrate this for you many times during puppy class.

For example, suppose a puppy is being pinned down by another puppy. You can do a consent test by separating the pups, and then watching what happens when you let the puppy that had been pinned down choose what to do. If they were enjoying the play, they will run back to start playing again.

The video below by Jane Sigsworth shows several examples of consent tests being done to check that a puppy or dog is happy with the play.

(Link to video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9862lQxgtc0?rel=0)

 


Puppy class is a safe place

Puppy class provides a safe place for your puppy to play, one in which they will be protected from unpleasant or unsafe experiences.

It’s not a good idea to take your puppy to the dog park or to let them mix with adult dogs that you don’t know. There is a risk of infection before they have had their full set of vaccinations. And there is a risk of an unknown adult dog being too boisterous or even unfriendly or aggressive. It’s very important to protect puppies from bad experiences that might make them afraid or even aggressive later in life.

One study found that exposing puppies to dogs in public spaces (e.g. while out on walks) during the first 8 weeks that they are in their new home is a risk factor for them being aggressive as a young dog (aged 1-3 years) (Wormald et al 2016). Another study found that when puppies who were being raised to be guide dogs had a frightening experience with another dog, they were more likely to be afraid of unknown dogs at 1 year of age (Serpell et al 2016). 

In contrast to meeting random dogs, puppy class is a safe environment in which puppies can get to practice their play skills. 


Play is a natural behaviour

Play is a normal behaviour for puppies to engage in and an important part of their development. One of the tenets of providing good animal welfare is to ensure there are opportunities to engage in normal behaviours (e.g. Mellor 2016). https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/01/the-five-domains-model-aims-to-help.html  Puppy class is the best way to give your puppy the chance to play with other pups in a safe environment.

Of course, play isn’t the only part of puppy class. It’s also about socializing with people, getting your puppy to habituate to the kinds of things they will come across in later life (like skateboards and loud noises), and teaching them life skills such as how to be handled at the vet. (See more on what to look for in a puppy class).

But while there’s a lot to fit in in that short time, puppy play is an essential component.


Getting help if needed

If you’re having trouble with your puppy (or dog), reach out to a good dog trainer. Because dog training is not regulated, ensure they are someone who will use only reward-based training methods.

The Academy for Dog Trainers has some case studies of puppies learning bite inhibition if you want to know more about how puppies can be taught not to bite so hard.  


Play in puppies: A summary

Although there’s still a lot we don’t know about play, we do know that it’s important for puppies to have opportunities to play with other puppies. They learn bite inhibition, motor control, and good doggy social skills through play. 

Even if you’re not the kind of person who likes to go to the dog park, you will still want your puppy to have good social skills. They will be meeting other dogs on walks and passing them in the street throughout their life. Maybe they will go to doggy day care at some point. So it’s important to pick a puppy class that includes play and give them the opportunities to learn from it.

And while they’re playing, supervise carefully. One thing’s for sure: it will be a lot of fun to watch. 

To learn more about how to have a happy puppy or dog, see my award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. “This is a book your dog will want you to read,”--Dr. Mark Evans. 


P.S. Sign up now to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Dog and learn how to have a better relationship with your pet. 


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, a BC bestseller and winner of the Maxwell Medallion for best book (behaviour, health or general care) from the Dog Writers Association of America. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

References

Bekoff, M. (2001). Social play behaviour. Cooperation, fairness, trust, and the evolution of morality. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(2), 81-90.

Bradshaw, J. (2011). In defence of dogs. Penguin UK.

Byosiere SE, Espinosa J, Marshall-Pescini S, Smuts B, & Range F (2016). Investigating the Function of Play Bows in Dog and Wolf Puppies (Canis lupus familiaris, Canis lupus occidentalis). PloS one, 11 (12) PMID: 28033358

Cutler, J. H., Coe, J. B., & Niel, L. (2017). Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 251(12), 1415-1423.

Dietz, L., Arnold, A. M. K., Goerlich-Jansson, V. C., & Vinke, C. M. (2018). The importance of early life experiences for the development of behavioural disorders in domestic dogs. Behaviour, 155(2-3), 83-114.

McMillan, F. D. (2017). Behavioral and psychological outcomes for dogs sold as puppies through pet stores and/or born in commercial breeding establishments: Current knowledge and putative causes. Journal of veterinary behavior, 19, 14-26.

Mellor DJ (2016). Moving beyond the "Five Freedoms" by Updating the "Five Provisions" and Introducing Aligned "Animal Welfare Aims". Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 6 (10) PMID: 27669313Serpell, J. A., & Duffy, D. L. (2016). Aspects of juvenile and adolescent environment predict aggression and fear in 12-month-old guide dogs. Frontiers in veterinary science, 3, 49.

Sommerville, R., O’Connor, E. A., & Asher, L. (2017). Why do dogs play? Function and welfare implications of play in the domestic dog. Applied animal behaviour science, 197, 1-8.

Wormald, D., Lawrence, A. J., Carter, G., & Fisher, A. D. (2016). Analysis of correlations between early social exposure and reported aggression in the dog. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 15, 31-36.


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