How To Play Safely With Your Dog

Play Safely with Your Dog

Why do dogs play? For thousands of years dogs have used healthy, active play to explore their world and learn important socialization and communication skills. Since we’ve invited them into our homes to coexist with us as bona fide family members (and insist they observe our house rules), active playtime still satisfies important needs:

  • It staves off boredom.
  • It gives dogs freedom to follow their natural instincts in polite society.
  • And it’s great exercise for us and for them, galvanizing the already-tight bond between us.

In short, safe, healthy play endears our dogs to us and helps keep these fully domesticated companion animals from becoming neurotic or developing other undesirable behaviors.

General Rules For Safe Dog Play

Playtime should be joyous time, whether it's a game you regularly play with your dog, or a new activity. Special rules should be observed whenever children are present to avoid unintentional injuries with dire consequences. But these basic guidelines will keep things on the up and up between you (and others) and your dog during active play situations:

  • Always be the alpha dog. YOU start the game, and YOU finish the game. There can be no exceptions to this very important rule.
  • A dog who attempts to start a game may be telling you he wishes to be in control. When he approaches you and drops a toy in your lap, give him a command: Sit! Down! Toss the toy for him only after he complies with your wishes: this is his reward. Now you are in control of the game.
  • You should always be able to take a toy from your dog. Before you engage in games with dog toys, make sure he understands and demonstrates competence with the “Leave it!” or “Drop it!” command.
  • Dog teeth making contact with a human is never acceptable, even when it is unintentional. This action automatically stops the game.
  • Lead by example. Play gently yourself: always use toys, never use your body. Your dog will learn undesirable rough play from you if you model rough play. He can also learn rough play from another human or dog. If you observe this, stop the play immediately.

How To Stop Dogs From Aggression During Play

Rough play between dogs is typical. You may have observed play-biting, lunging, hip-checking, swiping, and even barking during active dog-to-dog play, but it is usually relatively gentle and friendly. When a dog yelps or shows signs of damage, things have taken a turn for the worse and even the calmest dog may become aggressive. It is time to intervene.

Nip things in the bud. Know your own dog’s body language before playing becomes fighting: low-pitched growling and showing the teeth are precursors to an act of aggression. Supervise your dog closely during active play with other dogs, and particularly between a large and a small dog. When rough play gets out of hand between dogs, or between you and your dog, game over. This clearly tells the dog his behavior ended his playtime.

And things should never escalate to the point of injury during play between a dog and his human or a child.

  • Play often, and everywhere: play at home, and when you take your dog on a walk. Play in the park. Play with other dogs. But never force your dog to play when he does not want to.
  • Use a happy, upbeat voice during play, and offer your dog lots of encouragement.
  • Play in short bursts and stop the play or the game while your dog is still interested. This reinforces the notion that you are firmly in control.
  • During the course of normal play, take breaks at intervals to give your dog another “Sit!” or “Down!” command to reinforce his lower position in the pack.
  • Avoid dominance games (e.g., tug-of-war) with a puppy, unless you know you can win every time.
  • Only keep a couple of toys in play at a given time. A dog who is allowed to “hoard” toys can become power-hungry.
  • Keep toys below waist height to discourage your dog from jumping up.
  • Pick up the toys and put them away when playtime ends. You can even use this as a rainy-day activity, rewarding your dog with a treat when he successfully surrenders his toy to the toy basket.
  • If things escalate during play and your dog crosses the threshold between active and over-excited, take a five-to-ten-minute timeout. Ask him to execute a simple command (“Sit!” or “Down!”) to de-escalate and alleviate tension before allowing the play to resume.
  • Spay or neuter your dog. This simple and responsible procedure can moderate a dog’s normal impulses to dominate another dog, toy, or human.

A note about children: No rough play should ever be undertaken in a household where children are present, whether your own children or someone else’s. A dog can’t discriminate between you and a child. If he plays rough with you, so will he with children, with potentially dire consequences. Tossing a ball or playing hide-and-seek are more appropriate games for kids and dogs.

Observing these guidelines will help foster a safe play environment with your dog; safe play helps train him, and gives him meaningful boundaries and the security of knowing his place in the pack order. And healthy game play will help keep him happily active and mentally engaged for life.

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