Tug-of-War: Do it right and keep it fun

Tug can build impulse control and awesome obedience skills!

First, forget the myth

For decades, dog owners have been told never to play tug-of-war with their dogs because it increases aggression in the dog. This isn’t true—every study done refutes the notion. Playing tug-of-war doesn’t turn your dog into a predator; he already is one. The game simply provides a safe and enjoyable outlet for the behavior.

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Why it’s a good idea

Tug-of-war is:

  • A tremendous cardio workout and brainteaser for your dog.
  • A great way to teach your dog to listen to commands even when excited and distracted.
  • Exercise that can happen indoors, outdoors, in short sessions, and with little space.
  • Likely to lessen any behavior problems resulting from under-stimulation and boredom.
  • A potent motivator for snappy obedience.

The caveat

Tug-of-war, however, should be correctly trained and always played by the rules. Remember: Control the game and you control the dog. Follow the method and rules laid out here, and you are in for a great time with your dog:

If your dog hoards the tug toy, show zero interest. If, when your dog “wins,” i.e. you let go of the tug toy, he leaves and hoards the toy, play hard to get. Never chase your dog or get into a battle involving speed or agility. You won’t win and psych-outs work much better, so pretend you couldn’t care less.

Notice and reward steps in the right direction. If your dog tries to re-engage you in the game by dropping the toy in front of you, praise him and try again. The goal is for your dog to learn that the tug toy is infinitely more fun when brought to life by you than when dead. Patience is key here, especially with inveterate hoarders.

Before playing tug-of-war

Put the release on command.

Decide on a release command such as “Out,” “Give,” or “Drop.” Before getting your dog excited about playing tug for the first time, practice some low-key exchanges with him. The sequence is:

  1. Give the cue to release
  2. Your dog releases
  3. Give a food reward
  4. Give the cue to re-take the toy

Teach this: Start by trading for a treat. Give your release cue first and then hold a treat at your dog’s nose; when your dog releases the toy he gets the treat. After enough repetitions, your dog will begin to release the toy after you have cued his release and before you have brought out the treat. Immediately reward this great behavior! At first the reward will be the treat, but over time the reward will be another fun game of tug.

Every game has penalties.

During actual tug-of-war games, apply the following penalties:

A 30-second time out. For any failure to release the tug toy, stop play and leave the room for 30 seconds.

End the game. For a game misconduct like grabbing your clothes or your hand with his mouth, stop the game altogether. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this was an accident. Dogs can have exquisite control and I don’t believe that mistakes happen often.

When your dog knows, loves, and is hooked on tug-of-war, ending the game abruptly is by far the most potent motivator against rule breaking.

The 4 tug-of-war rules.

1. Your dog has to release the tug toy on command.  Of course, you have thoroughly trained the release command, so any failure to  comply should result in a stop play penalty.

2. The game only happens when your dog is sitting and you say so. Designate a tug toy as the one-and-only tug toy, reserved for this game only. Decide on a take command such as “get it!”  Then teach your dog that he has to sit before being given permission to get the toy.

The easiest way to train this rule is to practice it while playing. Wait for or ask for a sit. Show your dog the toy. If your dog gets up or goes for the toy before you have released him with his “take it” cue, the toy goes out of his reach or behind your back. Stand neutrally, quietly and calmly and wait for him to sit again. Once he has, release him to get the toy and have a short fun tugging game. When he gets good at the game, add additional time he has to wait before he’s released to get it, and then add distractions, such as waving the toy near him or slapping it on the floor while he remains in the sit and waits patiently with anticipation and excitement.

This rule infraction is extremely common in tug-of-war games, so don’t sweep it under the rug. If your dog continually goes for another retake before being invited, or is extremely aroused and is jumping all over you instead of sitting and waiting, end the game for a short period of time.

Building impulse control, where your dog is reinforced for making a good choice, is   an important part of the “It’s Your Choice” lifetime program for your dog.  (Check out this previous blog article).

3. The game stops often for obedience breaks and calm behavior. Tug-of-war is one of the great recyclable rewards for obedience training. Alternate back and forth between the tug game and obedience to spot-check your control over your dog during the game and to teach him obedience when he is excited and distracted. This also teaches him to go from high arousal to a calmer behavior, which is an important concept for dogs to learn. Every initiation of the tug game is a potent reward you can use to select a particularly nice obedience response. Your dog will try fanatically hard to improve his obedience to get you to restart the game. For example, try using it as a valuable reinforcer for exercises such as coming when  called. What’s more, through repeated association over time, the two activities will blur in your dog’s mind, eventually making him love obedience training.

4. Zero tolerance of sloppy jaw control. Your dog will sometimes make contact with your hand or other part of you. Sometimes he might even latch on to you or your clothing as though you were a tug toy. Don’t let this go unnoticed. Screech “Ouch!” even if it didn’t hurt and abruptly end the game. This is game misconduct every time. Dogs can control their jaws with great precision if given a reason to do so. (Don’t use the loud “Ouch!” if it excites your dog more.)  With this rule you not only remind your dog of the sensitivity of human skin and the great necessity to keep his jaws off people at all times, you have also trained this while he is excited.

That’s it. Now have fun with it.

If your dog isn’t breaking any of the rules, let him get as excited as he wants. This includes head shaking, strong tugging, and growling. But maintain the rules through constant practice and testing.

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

A powerful tool to change your dog’s behavior.

This morning, after a ferocious clap of thunder, I was reminded of the power of classical conditioning.  Most of us know the story of how Ivan Pavlov in 1902 showed how classical conditioning can be used to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell. Every time a bell was rung the dogs in his lab got food. After a number of repetitions of this procedure, the ringing of the bell caused the dogs to salivate even before the food was presented. The dogs had learned to associate the bell with the food. This response was learned, or conditioned, so it is called a conditioned response.

Pavlov also discovered that for the association to be made, the two stimuli had to be paired together closely in time. For all of you science wonks out there, this is how it works.

classical-conditioning-scientific-infographic

Every time your dog runs into the kitchen at the sound of his bowl because he knows it’s dinner, gets excited when you pick up the leash because he associates it with a walk, gets anxious when you pick up your car keys and purse because he know you’re about to leave, gets happy when you pick up the clicker because he knows a training session is about to begin, or growls and barks at another dog because one time he was attacked, are all examples of classical conditioning.

So what does all of this have to do with thunder? In some dogs the sound of thunder may send them cowering under the coffee table. Early life experiences can contribute to sound sensitivity.  Very young puppies have little or no fear of novel sounds and experiences. From 3 weeks to about 8 weeks of age is an ideal time to introduce puppies to all kinds of sounds. Sounds they hear at this age, especially paired with something positive, will most likely not be scary later. As they get older, fear can increase. Puppies that are given early and positive experiences of novel sights and sounds are less likely to develop problems down the road.

Desensitization, gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus while keeping the dog below the fear threshold, is often paired with classical counter conditioning (changing the association of the sound or event from a negative to a positive). Together they can help restore a sound sensitive dog’s confidence. This entails exposing the dog to the upsetting noise in gradually increasing increments while providing him with positive reinforcement such as high-value food.

Here is an illuminating video on counter conditioning, or changing an association from a negative to a positive experience.

So what did my 7 year old border collie Decker do when that loud clap of thunder reverberated through the house this morning? He got excited and began to search for a toy. Odd behavior, right? Nope. From the earliest moment that I brought Decker home, every time it thundered, which is often in south Florida during the summer, I would become very excited and animated, quickly grab a toy and engage him in a short game of tug, one of his highest valued activities. Over a short period of time, he associated the peal of thunder with something fun, and actively searched out a toy to play with me. Preventing a problem, not waiting to treat one, is classical conditioning at its best. Thanks, Pavlov!

decker111-22-09
Decker waiting for a toy.

If your dog is suffering from a behavior problem, consult a behaviorist or a trainer who is familiar with working with phobias and fears.

It’s Your Choice: the game of self-control

Teaching your dog to make the right choices!

Does this sound like the situation in your house? If the front door is open, your dog bolts through it. If you leave some food on the counter for 5 seconds, you dog jumps up and eats it. If you open the car door to get your dog out, he tries to jump out onto a busy street.  Unless you constantly reprimand your dog (“No!”) or frantically try to grab him he does not behave as well as you would like.

You can change those behaviors! It’s Your Choice (IYC), a phrase coined by noted trainer Susan Garrett,  is about controlling the consequences of your dog’s choices rather than trying to control the dog. We start small and teach the dog she or he always has a choice. If your dog chooses correctly when working with you, good consequences will follow (the chance for reinforcement). If the dog makes an inappropriate choice, the consequences will be clear (no reinforcement). But the consequences will never be a function of you trying to coach or intimidate your dog in any way. In the end we teach the dog self control rather then imposed control.

A dog with self control has learned to have impulse control when in stimulating environments. Rather than leave you to chase the squirrel, steal a toy, or investigate every crumb that may be on the ground, the dog will play your game knowing rewards will be earned contingent upon following your rules. The It’s Your Choice game starts out teaching your dog to make easy decisions when faced with a chance to steal rewards. Building upon successes, you can grow this game into any form of distraction training you can imagine.

Eventually your dog’s impulse control becomes so brilliant, you can trust her or him unsupervised with a roast on the kitchen counter within reach, or not to grab the chicken bones found on the street or in the trash. The dog will learn to want to make the right choice. This is self control and does not require your eagle eye scouting every training horizon for distractions that may cause your dog to leave you in search of alternate rewards.

Choosing correctly earns the dog the reinforcement and teaches a strong foundation for self control. The dog learns to control himself. If an incorrect choice is made we control the reinforcement (not the dog); we prevent access to the reinforcement if the dog makes an incorrect choice.

For example, if your dog is sitting at the door (a good choice) and he gets up as the door opens (a poor choice), the reinforcement goes away. What is the reinforcement? It’s the chance to go out the door. How do we remove the reinforcement for this bad choice? It’s simply that the door closes. Your dog quickly learns that in order to exit the door, the butt needs to stay planted on the ground. There is no need to keep telling the dog what to do such as “stay” or “no” when he tries to go out the door. The consequence of his actions teaches him very clearly.

Here’s a video illustrating a simple way to start teaching your dog good impulse control. This is Bryn, a 9 week old puppy. Notice how she works through her desire to get the treats out of my hand.

These are the rules to follow when playing the IYC game.

  • Don’t move your hand (unless the pawing or chewing on your hand are painful);
  • Give your dog a treat out of your hand only if he is not moving toward your hand and is patiently waiting (reinforcing the good behavior you are building);
  • Quickly close your hand (removing access to reinforcment) as a consequence of your dog moving toward it.
  • Try to stay silent and give your dog a chance to think about the consequences of his choices. The time to speak is to cue your dog to get the treat when you reward him for making good choices (using”get it” for example).

Now go and try this with your dog and start building a strong foundation of self control!

 

 

 

(Sun) Dried Carrots – a Dog Chew

Since we live in Florida with lots of sun to dehydrate the carrots, I think this could easily work as a healthy dog treat!

A Vegan in Las Vegas

Hello everyone!

I have been experimenting with alternative dog chews for a while. Those store bought chews, and dental sticks can really weight on your pocket!

My dog is very picky when it comes to food, and treats. However, she has always been in love with carrots. I usually threw an organic carrot (with peel on) in the microwave, zapped it for a minute, cooled it, and let my dog have a field day. (The microwaving helps make the carrot more easily digestible, by the way).

As much as she was in love she was with these minute microwaved carrots, she’d eat about half of it and leave the rest behind. However, she’d come back to them once they were all dried up and super chewy. Since I live in Las Vegas, and it’s hot as balls here during the summer, I put some carrots out and let them sun…

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The Nose Knows!

There are lots of fun ways to harness your dog’s amazing sense of smell

Your dog learns about the world through his or heNose-Zanderr nose. As a matter of fact, dogs have astonishing olfactory powers. Sometimes dogs can be so engrossed in smells that we have trouble getting their attention. Instead if fighting it, why not harness it to play games! Our Nose Work Games instructor, Cheryl VanVoorhies, has provided some simple starter games that you can try at home.

Towel Search

Place food (real cheese or chicken) in a loosely folded towel. Let Fido try to open it and eat the contents. Eventually you should be able to tie the towel in a loose knot to keep your dog occupied longer and longer. If your dog starts to chew the towel, help him open it. Fido is still learning how to do this so be patient.

Muffin Tin Search

Place a couple of small pieces of food (cheese works well), into one well of the muffin tin. Let your dog find it and eat it. Repeat a couple of times. Next, cover the single well containing the food with a tennis ball or old sock rolled into a ball and then offer it to your dog. Let Fido figure out how to uncover the section and get to the food. As long as he is actively searching, resist the urge to constantly help. Gradually, add more more balls to the muffin tin to increase the difficulty as your dog searches for the single section containing the food. You can also feed your dog’s meals this way so he eats slower.

Here’s a fun video that demonstrates the game: https://youtu.be/QLKYCW83GZs. Thank you to the participants in this video, Jackie and border collie Bear, and Elyse with border terrier Lola.

Unroll & Treat

Roll small pieces of food in a cabinet liner or small, sturdy towel. Space the treats 5-7 inches apart. Roll the liner up tightly. Place one treat at the center of the rolled up liner so when she eats the treat she is also beginning to push the roll with her nose. Encourage her to push the liner, discovering more treats, until it is unrolled and all treats have been eaten. Increase the difficulty by placing fewer and fewer treats in the liner where Fido has to push it all the way open until he or she gets the treat.

Nose Work Basics

• Hold a cardboard box, place some treats inside, and allow your dog to stick her head in the box to eat them. Repeat and then do this with the box on the floor. Next, hold her by the collar, toss treats in the box, and while she is looking at the box wanting to go get the treats say “Find it” and release her to get the treats.

•  Place 3-5 boxes in the room and show Fido the box with the treats. Place the box on the floor about 3 feet away and tell Fido to “Find it”. Fido should run to the box and eat. While she is eating, drop a few more treats into the box to build value for the box. Repeat this 3 times.

• Place 3-5 boxes in a room while Fido is in another room, unable to have access to you.
Place food in one of the boxes. Let Fido out of the room and tell her to “Find it”. Once Fido finds the box with the food in it, place a few more pieces in the box to keep Fido’s head in the box. You can praise her as well.

• You can also play the Find It game by hiding a toy in the room and then telling your dog to find it.

Fun Facts

  • Dogs noses are way more powerful than ours. If you  make an analogy to vision, what we can see at 1/3 of a mile away a dog can see as well from 3000 miles away.
  • We can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee but a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water (two Olympic size swimming pools).
  • We have a measly 5 million olfactory receptors in our brain; dogs have up to 300 million. The canine brain devotes 40 times more real estate to smell detection than the human brain, proportionally speaking.
  • Dogs smell separately with each nostril; this helps determine the location of the odor.
  • Our best friend’s amazing sniffers are used to find cadavers, drugs, bombs, bedbugs, cancerous tumors, and missing children, to name a few.
  • Want to learn more? Here are some interesting resources.

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/understanding-a-dogs-sense-of-smell.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/dogs-sense-of-smell.html

http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/how-is-a-dogs-sense-of-smell-so-incredible/http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/U/UNP-0066/UNP-0066.pdf

http://wapo.st/2aQiLBm

http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/U/UNP-0066/UNP-0066.pdf

It is certainly fun to appreciate how our dogs experience the world so much differently than we do!

 

This Is Most Important Skill To Teach Your Dog

It’s fun when your dog is reliable and well-trained enough to go anywhere with you, even off-leash. The other day I was at the beach and there were several dogs playing. I could tell that an owner was getting frustrated as he called his large breed dog over and over with no greater success each time he yelled. The dog continued to play with the other dogs and completely ignored her owner. Why? Probably because there was no strong built up history for the dog coming when called and being rewarded, so the dog figured, “why listen when I’m having so much fun here?” Or perhaps the dog listens great at home but the owner was expecting his dog to respond under very new and difficult conditions, something for which the dog was not trained.

Should the owner punish the dog when he finally gets him? Well, I think he should pick up a rolled newspaper and hit himself in the head for asking the dog to work above her level by placing her in a situation that she was not trained for! Coming  from off-leash play at the beach is graduate school or PhD level training. (And punishing your dog is a great way to get her to NOT come to you in the future.)

Last week I was walking my three high energy dogs off leash around our quiet neighborhood. All of a sudden a rabbit popped up and my Australian Shepherd mix, Runi took out after it. I let her have some fun for a moment and then called her. She returned to me immediately.  I rewarded her with a tossed tennis ball, one of her favorite activities. You know what? If I didn’t know she would respond, I would not be walking her off leash! That behavior took lots of time, patience and reinforcement to achieve; it did not happen overnight, but I’m so glad that I can trust my dogs.

I got a very quick video; sorry for the bad technique! You can see the rabbit running across her path; this was after she had chased it  up the street and then it turned and ran in my direction. When I called Runi she came immediately. Check it out.

Want your dog to come when you call? Check out my 5 tips.

Tip #1: Follow the 5 rules of recall

 If you adhere to some important training principles, you can begin to build up a solid foundation.

1. Never call your dog for anything unpleasant. Including nail clipping, bathing, or having his leash clipped on to go home from the beach or park. In short, anything that might give him pause the next time you call him. And even if it seems like it took forever for him to finally come to you, don’t punish him; it will make him think twice about repeating that behavior.

2.  Never call your dog if you are not sure he will come. All recalls should be successful recalls. Work at your dog’s level: If he has a kindergarten-level recall, don’t give him a graduate assignment like being called away from a fleeing rabbit. Here’s one way to test if you want to call your dog. Will you bet $50 that he will come when you call? If not, don’t do it. Instead go and get him.

3. If you call your dog and he doesn’t come, you must make it happen. Run over to him and put a treat in front of his nose, backing up as you get his attention so he follows you. Or clap your hands, make funny noises, or run the other way.  Do anything that will work. Then don’t set him up to fail again.

4. Never repeat the command. Resist the urge to call over and over and over. It only teaches your dog to tune out the command. Call once and, if necessary, use rule #3: Make the recall happen.

5. Fabulous rewards get fabulous recalls. If you want your dog to stop whatever interesting doggie thing he is doing and come running to you, make it worth his while. Use extra yummy treats—no dry biscuits here!—or a well-thrown ball, if that is your dog’s fancy. This is not the time to be stingy!

Tip #2: Reinforcement is key.

Reinforcement increases behavior so use the one that is meaningful to your dog and reinforce desirable behavior every time. For a difficult distraction use the best reinforcement and consider giving more of it to reward your dog (such as hand a treat to your dog every second for 10 seconds to pay your dog for a great behavior). Find the reinforcement that is meaningful to your dog whether food, toy, or other. This may vary depending upon the situation.

You have voice, body and food lures to get your dog to come. Another key is learning how to pay your dog. Lots of distractions compete for dog’s focus.

 Tip #3: Distractions & Timing

Smells and movement trigger a dog’s interest. Social dogs will be attracted to people or other dogs. Every dog is different. Anticipate what will be challenging for your dog: squirrels, rabbits, lizards. Plan to work at your dog’s level for that situation and distraction.

It’s easier to call your dog when you’re a few feet away from him than 50 feet; and it’s easier when the distraction is farther away. Timing is important too. The longer your dog interacts with or becomes focused on the distraction, the harder the recall becomes. Call quickly and before your dog gets too close or too invested in the distraction. The more difficult the recall, the bigger the reward should be, both in quality and quantity.

Tip #4: Work at Your Dog’s Level

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This drive and enthusiasm is such a joy to watch

Don’t put your dog in situations that he or she is not ready for. If your dog won’t come to you when she’s running loose on the beach, don’t let her loose at the beach. Figure out what is reinforcing the undesirable behavior and remove it. (For example, if she gets reinforced by playing with other dogs on the beach and ignores you, don’t allow her access to that reinforcement.) Build up your recall success, staying at each level in each different environment until you are near 100% successful. Then add more difficulty. Having problems? Make the exercise easier to gain success.

 Tip #5: Thinking Ahead

Eventually you want to trust your dog. Practice in these areas with a long line to give the illusion of freedom but maintain training control. When she is reliable on the long line, graduate to her dragging her regular leash so you can grab hold of it if things get too challenging. Take steps slowly always working at her level so she stays successful.

In this video, my dogs are in a down-stay and I call them one at a time (which you can’t hear in the video. I call using the dog’s name and the cue, for example, “Zander, come”. When they get to me they get praised and then I toss them a ball, a very high-value reinforcer for them. If I had not built up this solid foundation of stay and come, I would not be doing this in an unsecured area off leash. 

Training Tips: If your dog does not have a reliable stay, have someone hold him or her. Use a long leash to keep your dog safe if not practicing in a fenced, secure area.

Now get out there and practice, patiently build your dog’s skills, and have fun!

Puppy Playtime!

It’s healthy & important, but there are things to watch for to keep it fun for your pup.

What is cuter than puppies playing? Nothing! It brings a smile to the face to watch a bunch of furballs jumping around, mock fighting, and having fun. That is until one puppy is not having a good time. Luckily, in most cases, no harm, no foul and they quickly resume the fun. But what about when the puppy who got scared goes and hides. Should you push him back to play or let him be? It’s important to support your puppy’s emotional needs. When he is ready he will return, and if he is not, let him participate in his own good time. When we allow puppies to build their trust, their confidence will grow.

Play is important, especially in early puppyhood. Puppies are the most emotionally flexible until the age of 16 weeks, and the good experiences your puppy has now will help him grow up feeling safe and empowered. This is a critical socialization period . After that it gets harder, it takes longer, and your dog may never fully get the hang of feeling comfortable in the world and around other dogs (and other experiences).

My vet/breeder said to wait until my puppy has all of his shots

Early puppyhood is a critical time for socialization and learning. This time will set the stage for the rest of your puppy’s life. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show your puppy how to confidently relate to other puppies, unfamiliar people, and strange sights, sounds, and events. It is crucial that this developmental stage is used wisely! Luckily, the vast majority of modern veterinarians and breeders understand that puppies don’t just have medical needs, but behavioral needs as well and will instruct you to begin a properly run puppy training and socialization class as early as possible. Here are some resources for you:

Letter from noted veterinary behaviorist and Director Emeritus of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of Minnesota

Read the position paper on puppy socialization and vaccinations from the American Animal Society of Animal Behavior.

The benefits of play in puppies can’t be over emphasized.

  • Physical and mental exercise
  • Socialization
  • Teaching boundaries and rules
  • Emotional control
  • Bite inhibition- puppies with little or no bite inhibition tend to bite more vigorously and harder than normal. If they don’t learn it as puppies, their bite as an adult will inflict much more serious damage.
  • Teaching new skills

What is a Consent Test?

Sometimes a puppy in a group has a particularly aggressive play style and does not understand how to play appropriately. Most of the other puppies run from this over assertive puppy. Or this puppy always appears to be pinning another dog beneath it. It is necessary to intervene early with these puppies who are either over aroused or just have poor play skills. Make their play sessions brief, pair them with an adult with good play skills, redirect to toys, and teach an on-off (arouse/settle) switch. To see if one puppy is truly bullying another, use the “consent test”. Hold the tough guy briefly away from the other pup. If the other puppy comes back at the more assertive dog to continue the play, then it is safe to let them play again and it should not be considered bullying. If the other puppy runs off or hides, then  he or she was probably being bullied, or the top dog had a play style that was too assertive for the bottom dog.

consent test
Is the dog on the bottom having fun? Do a consent test to find out. Gently pull off the top pup; if the other puppy comes back for more, release for more play.

Using play as a training reward

Puppy (and dog!) play is valuable and can be used in training as a reward, but it is important not to allow the release of the puppy back to play until he or she is calm and mannerly. Insist upon fair play to prevent play from escalating to high arousal and then aggression. Be sure that there are frequent pauses in play to avoid over arousal; know when to allow them to work it out and when not. Bites should be inhibited and directed to the legs and lower body, with short mouthing to the neck and head area. Batting, brief pounces and pauses are all parts of good play. We suggest interrupting puppy play every minute or less to briefly get your puppy’s attention back to you for brief moments. At  those these times, expect your puppy to focus on you and follow simple cues; be sure to reinforce your wonderful pup with high value treats. Then again reinforce your puppy’s calm, attentive behavior by releasing back to play. This also teaches them that coming to you from play does not mean it’s over. (If play ends each time you call your puppy, you will find your puppy not wanting to come to you.!)

Gotcha! 

collar grab- Sly crop
This dog is leaning away from the hand that is reaching for him. He is showing additional signs of stress including the raised paw, ears pulled back, and the furrowed brow. He needs lots of positive gotchas!

Teach your puppy a collar grab. Simply start by touching the collar with one hand and then giving your puppy a treat with the other. Work up to grabbing the collar, and while still holding it, deliver the treat. Your hand should remain on the collar as you give the treat, then release and repeat a few times. (If your pup is really shying away from the hand, back off on the intensity and nearness of the grab until your dog show no reaction or is actually happy to see the hand nearing him.) Do several session throughout the day, choosing different locations within the house or yard. Do 10-15 collar grabs per session, breaking it up into several collar grabs (always with reward), then play, then several more. It’s great to add in a collar grab when you call your dog to you. Call, grab, reward. Once your puppy is happy with your hand coming at his collar, you can use the collar grab to help you call him out of play.

Know when to interrupt dog play

There are specific signs that indicate that play between dogs should be interrupted, including:

  • Dog is showing signs of distress;
  • Excessive mounting and other challenges; however you should not get too excited over the mounting behavior, it’s just that sometimes other dogs don’t like it. Mounting can indicate anxiety or over stimulation;
  • Excessive vertical play;
  • Excessive vocalization including throaty growls (most good play is actually pretty quiet);
  • No interruptions or pauses in play (leading to high arousal);
  • When one dog is avoiding the situation; watch for head or body’s turned away from the other dog;
  • When one dog is attempting to diffuse the session;
  • When competing for a resource such as a toy or treat;
  • Pinning;
  • Tandem sneezing (which indicates stress);
  • Continued orientation to the other dog’s neck or throat;
  • Body slamming or other hard physical contact;
  • Grabbing/biting with head shaking;
  • Full mouth biting;
  • Hackles are raised (piloerection);
  • Snarling;
  • When the body language of a dog shows that he or she is afraid, including ears back, mouth closed, tail down or tucked, lip licking, and trying to get away. Intervene immediately.

In this video taken at Ideal Puppy Training & Socialization class at Lucky Dog there are some nice examples of play. The yellow lab/great Pyrenees mix, Riley, is inviting play using play bows (front feet down and hind end in the air). Harley, the Akita, has nice soft body language in response. In the other puppy play group, you can see that Cody, the yellow lab pup, is unsure of the interactions and comes in for a quick sniff before retreating. He also does a lip lick, which is often a sign of stress, or an appeasement signal (“I mean you no harm”). The instructor is giving frequent breaks from play and having the owners do collar grabs before releasing back to play. This was on class one. In future classes the puppies will be asked to give attention or listen to obedience cues before being reinforced with more play.

What about dog parks?

Choose you puppy’s play group carefully to set your puppy up for success. If you do not know the play style of the other dog(s), proceed with caution. I do not recommend taking a puppy to a dog park (that’s an entire blog post in itself!). That can be a recipe for disaster. One traumatic event with an adult dog with poor socialization skills can convince your puppy that other dog are unsafe and not to be trusted. This can potentially set your dog’s emotional development into a tailspin that is not easily changed.  But once you have found some perfect playmates, or a good, well-run group, enjoy the fun!