Safe group play for dogs and puppies

Supervising a group of dogs at play is a big task: interactions are subtle, behavior changes quickly, and it's loud. How can you tell if the play is no longer playful? Follow these guidelines.

  • Play should be enjoyable for all dogs. A dog shouldn't participate in playgroups or daycare if they're reactive to other dogs or people — especially if they've caused injury. Playgroups aren't for every dog. Some dogs don't enjoy play and will hide, flee, or snap at other dogs in an attempt to keep them away. Some dogs make themselves as small as possible to avoid conflict. Putting a dog like this into a group play setting can often make a dog more fearful.
  • Play is important for puppies, while mature dogs (2-3 years and older) may show little to no interest. Play becomes less important as a dog ages. There are always exceptions, so observe each dog to determine if they find play enjoyable.
  • Puppy play, adolescent play, and adult play are different. This is critical to understanding which encounters are appropriate. Puppies are allowed to do (almost) anything with minimal consequence, while boisterous adolescents can provoke older dogs. Allow the older dog to react with a loud “snark.” It helps young dogs learn what is acceptable behavior as they mature. Intervene if the younger dog does not heed the warning or if the mature dog allows but is not enjoying the interaction.

Signs of appropriate play

  • Loose, floppy bodies with exaggerated movements
  • Relaxed, goofy, and smiley faces
  • Play bow: front half of body down, butt up
  • Consensual patterns: both dogs engage each other willingly, neither tries to flee
  • Self-handicapping: soft biting; tackling, then jumping off
  • Bouncy movements
  • Activity shifts: frequent change in play style (chase, wrestle, lie down, paw at each other)
  • Play freeze: dogs who play, pause, then resume playing
  • Playing in pairs. When more than two dogs are involved, it frequently results in inappropriate behaviors (ganging up on one dog or overstimulation)
  • Chasing in between two dogs only
  • Play that goes back and forth between dogs (although it may not be a perfect 50-50 split)

Warning signs of inappropriate play

  • Stiff, tense bodies
  • Small, spare movements
  • Non-consensual encounters (body-slamming a frightened dog). This includes play that may be benign on the “bully” dog’s part
  • A dog who prevents another dog from moving by standing over them or trying to keep them in one place
  • High or escalating arousal levels: loud barking, body slamming, lunging, and mouthing without freeze in play. This escalation can lead to a fight.
  • Fixation on a particular dog (especially in bully breeds)
  • Lack of behaviors above

When to intervene

  • When a dog becomes stiff
  • When a dog shows signs of distress (screaming, yelping, hiding, tail tucking)
  • When a dog "stalks" another dog (fixation)
  • When the mood of the group escalates upward — when all dogs become more aroused (noise, barking, chasing)
  • When dogs "yell" at each other
  • Humping: give the "victim" dog a chance to tell off the humper. Dogs learn this behavior is inappropriate a lot more quickly from each other than from our interventions. If the behavior doesn't stop and the victim appears stressed, remove the dog that's humping.

If a fight breaks out, go to the dogs (don't call from across the room), clap loudly or make a loud noise to startle them. When they release, grab the hips of the dog behaving inappropriately and pull the dog away. Don't grab collars or step between them. This can result in a redirected bite at you.

Consent test

If you aren’t sure whether an interaction is okay, remove the more “forward” of the dogs by grabbing their hips, restraining them from play. If the unrestrained dog returns for more play, let them loose again. If the unrestrained dog doesn’t engage the restrained dog, remove the dog from play for a few minutes or redirect them to another activity.

Puppy Playgroups

Puppy playgroups are held every week at AHS in Golden Valley for puppies under six months old. See firsthand how our trainers maintain a fun and safe environment for puppies to play and learn. 

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