Dog-Dog Playtime

Puppies have a critical socialisation window between 5 weeks and 14 weeks. In this period, they are very developmentally delicate as they learn how to interact with the world around them.

Our role is to protect them from trauma, provide positive experiences, teach them self-control, and help them recover from challenges. 

Dog-dog playtime is part of socialisation but isn’t the only element. Before you focus heavily on this, please ensure you have worked through the SMART Socialisation for Puppies course! 

Preparation

First, we need to prepare the space for puppy play, whether indoors or outdoors:

  • Security Check – make a quick check of the play area to be sure fencing is secure and there are no puppy-sized gaps. Scan the ground and available surfaces (if puppy jumps up) and ensure that there are no dangerous objects are in the play area. 
  • Resources – if you plan on having resources such a toys or water bowls, ensure you have at least one bowl or toy per puppy present. This can prevent guarding issues. 
  • Cleaning Supplies – have the appropriate cleaning materials on hand, such as poop bags, enzyme solution & paper towels (if indoors), and lined disposal containers with lids.
  • Health Check – ensure that all puppies have at least one set of vaccines and are not exhibiting any of the following: vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, coughing, discharge from the eyes or nose, or any suspicious growths on their lips. If anyone is unsure, best to postpone. 
  • Obstacles – I like putting obstacles down so that shy puppies have a place to hide and so that we can slow down any high-speed chases. A lawn chair (or three), one tipped over on its side. 

Setting up Playgroups

For the most part, puppies playing with puppies is pretty darned safe. They’re basically newborns! I like to make sure that the puppies are grouped appropriately by a few different categories: 

  • Age – I like to keep pups of the same age-range together: 8-10 weeks, 11-13 weeks, 14-16 weeks, 17-20 weeks. It’s not always possible, so if it isn’t, try the next category:
  • Personality & Play Style – if you have a shy pup, pair them with another shy pup. If you have a rambunctious pup, pair them with another rambunctious pup (and be ready to do lots of arousal breaks!). 
  • Size – try to keep the pups’ sizes as close as possible – if one pup is less than or more than 50% of the other dog’s weight, we must watch closely and monitor play, OR chose a more appropriate playmate. 

Releasing your Dog to Play

Before “releasing the hounds”, it’s always nice to have everyone at a distance so that we’re not building frustration by allowing them to play on leash and THEN go off-leash. This creates a prediction for the dog that free time follows leash interactions and often, I’d like my dog to ignore other dogs on leash when asked. 

If your pup is frustrated, mark ANY disengagement or movement away from the crowd and reward at your leg.

Watch how Chloe rocks this exercise despite her frustration! 

…and “dad” keeps reinforcing her attention by backing away and feeding to increase distance from what frustrates/entices her. 

When it’s time, have a system in place – hold the harness with one hand and with the other hand, unhook the leash (tuck a treat in that same hand) but don’t let go. Immediately feed the treat so that your dog thinks that unhooking the leash does NOT equal playtime – it equals “food from human so stay close”. 

At this point, you’re still holding the harness and your pup has had their snack. Call out “FREE TIME” and that cues all handlers to say “go play!” and release the dog to play. 

Now, you might be inclined to mosey around, chatting with the other humans, but it’s best to follow your pup around so that you can be within a few steps to scoop up if need be. Monitor closely and take breaks with your pup so that they don’t go too bonkers! 

Consent Test

A “consent test” is what we use to determine if one dog is truly comfortable with the play. In this video, you’ll see a brown dog (the victim) and a white dog (the instigator) playing. We aren’t certain if the brown dog is having fun, so we hold the white dog back for a moment.

If the brown dog avoids, we redirect the white dog to play with another dog or take a little break and come back to try again. If the brown dog stays close and/or continues to play or initiate interactions, we let the white dog go and they continue the play. 

You can perform consent tests often in order to keep play running smoothly and ensure the happiness of all pups.

Arousal Break

An “arousal break” is what we perform during play when things get too rough, too dicey, or when one or more dogs seem too jazzed up. Whatever way you want to put it, it’s when the speedometer hits 60km in a 40km zone. We need to cool things down and chill for a minute. 

This is where having a cue for the humans is key – I like to yell “VETO” but you can choose any cue and agree upon it at the start of playtime so that everyone knows what to do when they hear it. 

It’s important that people do not try to call their dog for an arousal break – this is simply a silent harness grab and a quickly delivered snack. All dogs partake – not just a few. 

How it looks: 

  1. Someone yells VETO (or whatever cue you’ve agreed upon)
  2. All humans go straight to their puppy and hold the harness or scoop the puppy up
  3. All humans immediately feed their own puppy a treat to associate good things with this restraint
  4. Take a 1-2 minute break, leashing up, offering water, and keeping a distance from all puppies
  5. Someone yells PLAYTIME and dogs can be cued for release to play again.

You can perform arousal breaks often in order to keep play running smoothly and ensure all pups drive within the speed limit, so to speak.

Healthy, Relaxed Play

“Play” looks different to every dog. The goal with playtime is to really just have positive interactions where no dog is stressed or scared. 

Sometimes the best interactions are the boring ones where they simply co-exist happily! 

Let’s look at some videos! The first is three puppies, brand new to each other, loose, wiggly bodies and tails, sniffing the ground and each other’s bums, moseying around. I love it! 

Next up, let’s watch Piper (Bernedoodle) and Rosie (Dachshund) play – they were both very shy upon first meeting each other and then it escalated into the most beautiful interactions. 

Rosie is doing a lot of “handicapping” to encourage Piper to play with her, since Rosie is actually the one who is more outgoing! Handicapping play means to lie down or make yourself smaller to allow the other dog to be on top and build confidence. They take a lot of turns and do a lot of forward and then backward bouncing with a few barks to egg the other on. 

If Rosie were rolling onto her back a lot more or seeming nervous in any other way, I might do a consent test with Piper to be sure Rosie really wants this interaction.

Remember – rolling onto the back is part of play, but it can also be a sign of fear and needing space. It’s always good to test!

Now for the shy puppies. Here, you will see a black/brown dog who is new to play and nervous. The Husky (who is normally very rambunctious!) proved to be a most understanding and compassionate playmate. He approaches her and has a little sniff, but then sniffs the ground with a flirty/happy tail (counterclockwise wagging) as if to say “I won’t bug you – you can join us when you’re ready!” which is basically the nicest thing a dog has ever done to a dog in the history of dogkind. 

Notice how the black/brown dog stays sitting and avoids direct eye contact, turning her head away slightly? She’s not ready for rambunctious play and might do well to watch other dogs play, while eating something tasty to associate great things, and behind a safe barrier like an exercise pen or fence. 

We must ALWAYS protect the shy ones. Exposure isn’t enough – we have to be so proactive with these ones so that they don’t develop a negative or neutral association. These ones take much more work to build confidence and it has to be at their pace, not ours. Pair them carefully so that they are never spooked. Being spooked at this age equals trauma. That’s how sensitive they are when they’re puppies.

What about dogs who are conflicted? They want to play but they’re not sure. They are often mistaken for “hyperactive”, unfortunately. Hyperactivity is often a displacement signal – a coping mechanism for stressful situations. 

Watch this Klee Kai (looks like a mini Husky) in her interactions where she has a tucked tail and a bum-scoot-run. She wants to play but she’s nervous. She tries and then runs away. She needs a very calm and respectful dog to let her work this out and build her confidence…NOT a rambunctious dog who will ignore her signals. 

This upcoming video is lovely play! The Corgi (tri-colour) loves to roll around and be on the bottom and the white and caramel coloured dog is building confidence since it’s his first day. There’s a lot of jumping, rolling, sitting-on, nibbling, and biting. It’s all normal and perfect. 

What about humping? 

Everyone freaks out about humping, but it’s really harmless in puppies. It’s not sexual – it’s excitement, anxiety, or an invitation to play. Oftentimes it’s reciprocated and they take turns. Other times it makes the humpee uncomfortable and the humper needs to be gently removed. 

Let’s look at these two humpalicious pups, having a blast: 

The Bottom Line

If you match the play well and you protect your pup from negative experiences, and always take it at their pace, you can really master the art of dog-dog play before they hit adolescence. 

If you have a dog who is over the top in play, use a long line and only match them with dogs dogs who are already social and play well – never dogs who are shy or nervous. Do a LOT of arousal breaks. Get in touch with us if you’re concerned. 

If you have a dog who is shy and is not improving after 3-4 playdates with other calm and respectful puppies, get in touch with us and we can help guide you. Don’t assume they’ll grow out of it. This is a red flag that needs to be addressed early on. 

If you have a dog who is showing signs of aggressive play (don’t mistake this for aggression): “scary growling” during play, pinning other puppies until they squeal, biting other puppies hard and not backing off when they squeal, or bullying puppies who just want to get away, stop and get in touch with us so we can help. This CAN be modified but should not be allowed to continue into adolescence. 

What NOT to do

  • Don’t wait for your puppy to outgrow it – puppies do NOT outgrow behaviour – they grow into it. 
  • Don’t ignore red flags or concerns. What you see in puppyhood will be amplified in adolescence and again in adulthood if it is not properly treated in puppyhood. 
  • Don’t allow other dogs to “teach your dog a lesson” – this is like asking someone else’s (learning) child to punch your child to teach them a lesson. It’s not acceptable. 
  • Don’t allow dogs to “figure it out” if one or the other is upset during play – this is YOUR job, not theirs. You have to be educated enough to know how best to teach and shape your dog. 

You have to be your dog’s greatest advocate and protector from day one.