The Importance of Moderating and Supervising Your Puppy’s Play

May 10, 2024

Supervising your puppy’s play is critical to teaching social skills, impulse control, and keeping everyone safe during play. Building impulse and self-regulation in puppies (and children) takes time. And yet puppies need to interact and play.

“I often joke we have to save puppies from themselves and this is precisely why it’s so important to interrupt them when play becomes rough, when it’s clear they are becoming exhausted, when so-called, “Play” is no longer what it seems.”

The thing to remember is that puppies do not disengage when excited. I often joke we have to save them from themselves, and this is precisely why it’s so important to interrupt them when play becomes rough, when it’s clear they are becoming exhausted, when so-called, “Play” is no longer what it seems. By this I am referring to play which turns into conflict. For both toddlers and puppies overstimulation and competitiveness will tip the scales into conflict – and it happens fast. In many ways puppies are toddlers have a lot in common, making poor decisions when tired, hungry, over-stimulated, afraid, or anxious.

How do we teach puppies to self-regulate?

Bruce Perry, child psychologist describes self-regulation as putting a moment between an impulse and an action. This is important and yet, taking time out of any stimulating behavior is not in a puppy’s repertoire. Nor is it in a child’s. We must all learn this vital skill and it takes time.

A great way to help a puppy begin to develop impulse control is to monitor his play carefully and interrupt it before things get too rough. Given many puppies’ competitive nature play frequently devolves into mock battle and outright combat. What I do is call a halt to play before things become too heated. I’ll have them come over for a treat and a break, then allow them to go back in if it looks like they can without amping up again. If they cannot disengage I call a halt and we go inside for a break.

The effect of momentary breaks in play is to help puppies understand what to do when  they hear me say, “Take it easy.” They also learn to slow down on their own when things start getting too heated.

“Listening and playing for puppies is a form of multi-tasking which requires thought as well as action. If I can slow life down a bit they have time to think, consider, change course, and (hopefully) throttle back when asked”.

Listening and playing for puppies is a form of multi-tasking which requires thought as well as action. If I can slow life down a bit they have time to think, consider, change course, and (hopefully) throttle back when asked. It is my voice I would like them to listen for and if they can internalize it’s call to slow down they can do so on their own. It’s the difference between a child making a decision not to join in an activity that mom may not like, or an adolescent puppy that resists a barking jag and a fence fight with the dog next door.

When we teach puppies to take a moment, we give them time to interpret how their body feels in a given moment and make a good decision about it. For example, does he need to go potty after playing? Does he need to stop, look at where he is, and get outdoors? That is perhaps the most primal form by self-regulation that puppies struggle with and there are several ways to teach them body awareness to make this life-long lesson easier.

If you struggle with potty training I have two treats for you. The first is a video called, “The Talk, A Primer on Potty Training”.

The second is my free ebook on potty training called, “Goodbye OOPS!, a Foolproof Guide to Potty Training Your Puppy”.

Here are some ways to help puppies avoid the dangers of rough play.

1)  Avoid Overstimulation

The dangers of rough play with puppies cannot be overstated. In the past, people believed a tired puppy was a good puppy. What we now understand is that allowing a puppy to reach a state of exhaustion is counterproductive, even harmful because they don’t learn to sense when they are tired, or hungry, or have to potty. Each of these signal impulses are critical for puppies to recognize, interpret, and cope with. Exhaustion hijacks discernment.

“What we now understand is that allowing a puppy to reach a state of exhaustion is counterproductive, even harmful because they don’t learn to sense when they are tired, or hungry, or have to potty.”

I find that when younger puppies attempt to engage and play with larger or older dogs they must work hard to stay in the game. This makes it difficult if not impossible for them to develop impulse control, bite inhibition, and good manners in general. Once they’re in, there’s no backing away without getting clobbered. Plus, they learn that pushiness works and they’ll bring it into their interactions at home – especially with children.

“Rough play makes it difficult if not impossible for puppies to develop impulse control, bite inhibition, and good manners in general.”

Over the years, I’ve seen formerly peaceful puppies return to the Nursery on a Monday and suddenly play roughly with other puppies. It never fails. When I ask the owners about their weekend, I always hear how much fun the dog park or play date was. Unfortunately, it only takes one time for puppies to discover their superpowers and weeks to teach them to throttle back – both at home and in our Nursery.

Though play is developmentally important for puppies it is important to match puppies carefully with regard to size, maturity, and confidence. There is always seem to be a mix of more timid puppies and rambunctious pups that have only recently discovered how big and powerful they are. The latter is not a sense of themselves that will help them get along with other dogs. Nor is the former belief that a shy or fearful puppy should expect to be overwhelmed by playmates. Different playmates require a more thoughtful approach and I find that most puppies can adjust their play styles and enjoy a range of playmates.

2) Put it on PAWS

Taking breaks from play is important for helping puppies catch their breath and settle whatever emotions or frustrations may arise during wild play. Left to their own devices, any unresolved frustration can easily result in serious combat. The reasons for this multiply quickly.

  • One puppy may want to stop, while the other misses or ignores his cues to do so.
  • Highly aroused puppies do not disengage from excitement or frustration (even if they’d like to, they are seldom aware of this when over-stimulated)
  • Over-tired, hyper-stimulated puppies seldom realize how tired they are and will continue to exert themselves to the point of exhaustion. This does not help them learn when they are tired and it’s time to stop and rest.

3) Take Breaks from Play

You can bring in treats and ask each puppy to sit and relax for a few minutes. This helps them calm down, lower their heart rate, and become aware of when they are tired. If you like, make this a game. I regularly have puppies stop playing and come over for a treat, then send them back to play. As they get used to these interruptions they happily leave the game knowing they’ll get to return after a treat. Sometimes I send them back in, sometimes we stop and go do something else. Either way they are learning to disengage, return, relax, and go on the next thing be it play, lunch, a training session, or a nap.

It takes quite the adult (dog or person) to walk away when emotions are high and tempers about to flair. Taking frequent breaks from play allows puppies to get a drink, take a potty break, discover how tired they are, listen to their body, and in time – to you.

 4) Be Picky about Your Puppy’s Playmates

I’m careful how we pair puppies for play. Size is one consideration, temperament and play style are others. Pairing a quieter puppy with an excitable one means he has to bring a lot of energy just to keep up and stay in the game. This means he’s going to be pushed past his natural limits quickly and he may not enjoy it. If you sense things are heating up too quickly, your puppy is getting trounced more than he might like (or more than you like), give it a rest. Take a breather and see if your puppy wants to go back in. If he doesn’t bound forward, game over. If he runs back in, keep an eye on them and be ready to interrupt the game again if things get too heated or rough.

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