Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Play is fun. Correct? Everybody loves to play, don't they? It's something that both people and animals - especially the young or young at heart - enjoy. Puppies tug on the tail of a littermate to get their attention for a romp. Little kittens sneak up on one another, leap through the air and surprise a sibling. Little lambs play 'king of the castle' when they jump up on big rocks or climb onto their mother's back. Having fun at play seems just so natural. No one has to learn how to play. Wrong. Pets, in particular puppies, can play rough. To be sure throughout their life they have only safe and happy interactions with others, they should learn how to play appropriately.

If you watch any litter of puppies play with one another when they are between 4 weeks and 12 weeks of age, they play in much the same way. They chase and pounce on one another. There's lots of grunting, barking, growling, snapping and biting. When a puppy moves in with it's new people family, it's likely to play with them in a similar manner. So how can you tell the difference between this normal play and signs that may indicate true aggression in your new pup?

In normal play, a puppy often will bow to its playmate - lower its head and raise its hind end. It may present its front end or side to whoever is playing with it, to encourage a response. Often a pup playing with people will hold the front part of its body up, wag its tail, run back and forth and at the same time emit high-pitched barks and growls and spontaneously attack. An owner must be watchful to ensure that even with these normal play patterns, things don't get out of hand. Play routines learned and accepted now are likely to continue throughout the pet's lifetime. You need to be sure that you are going to be willing and able to play with your dog as an adult in the fashion you are teaching them to play as a puppy.

There are some signs you need to watch for when playing with your pup that may indicate a line has been crossed. The intensity of the play has escalated to a point that suggests aggressive behaviour is being demonstrated. A prolonged, deep-toned growl, a fixed gaze or a stiff posture are troublesome signs. It is also concerning if this attitude is repeated in certain situations - say, playing with a certain toy or when playing with a younger member of the family. If these aggressive behaviours are related to fear, possessiveness, conflict or pain, it should also be noted.

What is the correct response to a pup demonstrating more aggressive play behaviour? In some cases, just stopping play, ignoring the pup and walking away will discourage the undesirable response. Certain types of play that seem to initiate or trigger aggressive play may need to be avoided. Tug of war games or rather rough, intense owner interactions may need to be replaced by more calm, passive play.

There are other steps to follow to help prevent unwanted or inappropriate play. Puppies have lots of energy and they need lots of exercise to help lessen time for mischief. They also need mental stimulation. This is where toys and puzzles that yield a reward work very well. Puppy classes should be considered a must. They are essential in learning good social skills. Basic obedience lessons are taught. These, done as homework after classes, provide a great way for owners to interact with their pup. Choose proper toys and methods of play whenever playtime comes. It may not be a good idea to sit on the floor with your pup to play. This tends to make puppies more excited and more difficult to control.

Remember, young animals play in ways that may have other purposes when they are adults. Sneaking up on, attacking, pouncing on or mounting brothers and sisters, or playing with their people family, all are helping develop habits and skills that will be used differently later in life. Play is good and play is important, but do it correctly with a puppy right from the start. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at