Play Smart

By Sharon Naylor

February 29, 2012 5 min read

According to Carol Byrnes, pet training specialist at Diamonds in the Ruff, "A large number of behavior problems seen in adult dogs can be traced back to the games they played as puppies." When they're young, puppies are especially quick learners, and games that encourage biting or grabbing could lead a puppy to develop dangerous, aggressive tendencies as he ages. In addition, rougher games played with a puppy might cause injuries to your pet. For instance, a roughhousing session could lead to broken bones and tendon injuries.

Puppies are playful by nature and can bring out the playful side of you and your children, so make it a household rule to avoid these four types of games, preventing your puppy from growing into a biter, a chaser or an unruly dog.

1) Tug of war. Any game that encourages biting down with force can be confusing to a puppy. At such a young age, he doesn't understand that he can't bite down on an extended hand the way he can bite down on a "tug toy," such as a length of rope from the pet store.

According to Leah Hatley, trainer at The Family Dog, puppies should never play tug games until they are trained in social skills such as "bite inhibition," which means the dog obeys the command to release and understands that biting is bad. A puppy who is excited in play, and perhaps overstimulated, may refuse to release that on which he's biting down.

Don't assume your puppy knows the difference between a toy and a child's hand or between his own toy and a child's expensive and beloved toy. To the puppy, it's just a game -- as is grabbing your pricey suit jacket, tie or dress from the floor and biting down on it while you try to pull it away. Your wardrobe item gets demolished, and the dog is battling you for control. Tug games teach your puppy aggression and dominance, two things a well-mannered family dog does not display.

Tug of war also could cause neck and jaw injuries, perhaps even broken teeth, in your puppy. So avoid this game -- and teach children to avoid this game -- until your pet is professionally trained.

2) Keep-away. Byrnes says, "Avoid games of keep-away, taunting the dog with the toy before it is thrown, dangling the toy out of reach or behind your back to keep the dog from grabbing it away from you" or tossing a toy over the dog's head to another player. "These games increase dominant, pushy behavior," and they also frustrate a puppy, who doesn't understand why you would keep the toy from him and laugh and smile while doing so.

It's a common misconception that a puppy who is panting and appears to be smiling during keep away is having fun; that panting could be a sign of aggravation. Building a trusting relationship with a puppy and delivering consistent behavior during these essential training months help your pet grow into a smart, obedient dog.

3) Wrestling or roughhousing. Getting down on the floor at eye level with the dog and wrestling with him delivers a message to your puppy that you are a littermate, or a lower pack member, and not his master. Never growl at your dog thinking it's cute to get him to growl back. This "game" actually teaches aggression. Children, especially, should never be allowed to wrestle with or growl at the puppy, as the puppy may naturally begin biting or scratching to assert dominance in "the pack." Encouraging your puppy to howl or bark will quickly turn your pet into a menace.

One of the worst things you could do is wrestle with your puppy to the point of rolling him over onto your stomach, belly-up. That's a submissive posture for the pet, and there's a chance he could come back fighting or develop a type of inferiority complex, seeing you as the equivalent of an abusive owner -- even if you were just playing. Your puppy may learn to distrust you, which could result in distancing or refusing to accept training from you in the future.

4) "Catch me." This is actually a game your puppy will play with you , one in which you might not realize that you're being trained. When a puppy has a ball in his mouth and dances in front of you trying to get you to chase him for it, he learns that he can manipulate you, outrun you and outmaneuver you, says Byrnes. This game reinforces the wrong message that he ranks above you in "the pack" and that he can "win" by engaging you in a game of his choosing. Byrnes suggests that you engage your puppy in games of hide-and-seek, in which you hide and the puppy must come find you. The power is then in your hands.

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