Larry and I will graduate from our puppy class this week. We've enjoyed attending class with a variety of puppies, ranging from a tiny mixed breed to Larry, who is the largest class member. All the puppies were about the same age at the start of the class, between 10 and 15 weeks. While a few weeks may not seem like much, there is a tremendous difference between the play styles of a 10-week-old and a nearly 4-month-old puppy.
As part of the class each week, the puppies engage in interactive play. This play session has several goals in addition to the opportunity to play. The puppies practice playing appropriately, learn to come when called away from play and learn self-control around other dogs, while the owners learn and practice calling and settling their dogs whey they're playing.
This supervised play session is extremely helpful in teaching owners how to recognize appropriate play. When a puppy gets a bit too rambunctious or starts to bully another puppy, the instructor or assistant gently stops this inappropriate play, has the owner settle the puppy down a bit, and give the pup another chance to play. It's normal for puppies to wrestle and mouth each other, often vocalizing, but there is a line between play and confrontation. It's especially important for puppies at this age (before 5 or 6 months) to learn to play appropriately without crossing that line.Larry also attends The Puppy Place, our puppy day care, where one of his close friends is Andrew, an English cocker spaniel. Andrew is about a third Larry's size, but they're just a week apart in age and their style of play is similar - energetic and rambunctious. This friendship demonstrates that it isn't the size of a puppy as much as the puppy's age and play style that determines the best matches for play.One of the important things to watch for in any play group is pairings. A dyad (two) works well. A triad (three) does not work as well. This is true of any group of dogs. In our adult day care, when two dogs are playing together and a third joins in, the staff calls that a "third wheel" and knows that the balance of good play may well be tipped. It's helpful for staff to interrupt the threesome and distract one of the dogs. This is also a good thing to be aware of if you take your dog to a dog park.The next element that makes a difference in dogs playing together is the individual dog's or puppy's temperament. Some dogs are overly bold - rushing into a play situation without even saying "hello." Larry was like that when he first started in The Puppy Place. He would inappropriately rush up to another puppy and jump onto him. He wasn't being aggressive, but this reckless behavior can be upsetting to the dog that was jumped on, causing it to react self-protectively. The Puppy Place staff recommended that Larry come more frequently so he could learn to be introduced properly by the staff and practice appropriate greeting. After attending a few days in a row, Larry's behavior improved.
Another temperament characteristic is timidity. Some dogs are more cautious and take some time to get used to the other dogs they're exposed to. It's important to allow these timid puppies to progress on their own time. Trying to push them into interacting will likely increase the timid dog's apprehension. It's also important that the reluctant dog isn't put upon by an overly assertive dog.By paying attention to compatible ages, styles of play, temperaments and experience, many dogs can play well together. If you like to see dogs having fun, their play can be great spectator sport.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.