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What Do I Do During Inappropriate Play?

When our dogs start striking out of puppy-hood and into adolescence, and even a little before that in some cases, play with other dogs can start to get a little inappropriate. Inappropriate play can be a little scary when we aren’t sure what is happening, and it’s not ideal anyway. So it starts to land on us to help manage our pups play while they mature and learn better ways of associating with the world.

First, let’s start with the most important question. What exactly is Inappropriate Play?

When our dogs are playing appropriately vs inappropriately the body language is very different. When play is appropriate it can still be rough and tumble, but you will notice the dogs taking turns on who is “on top” and who is getting pinned. Body language will usually be loose as well and the dogs should naturally take lots of breaks. Whereas in inappropriate play it might be one dog being pushier and ending up on top more. Often it will go with more stiff body language and the dogs not really taking breaks. You might even notice that one dog seems very uncomfortable with the play that is happening and might be trying to get away. Or both dogs might be super into it. 

It is important to note that just because both dogs are enjoying the play doesn’t mean it is appropriate or should be allowed to continue. With two young dogs who are engaged in inappropriate play and aren’t sure how to diffuse the situation it can spiral out of control into a fight fairly easily. It’s also important to keep in mind that growling doesn’t necessarily mean the play is inappropriate. It can be an indication of inappropriate play but not always. Some dogs just growl when they play.

The bottom line is that if the play makes you uncomfortable or you are unsure if it is inappropriate or not, it never hurts to interrupt it. 

Okay, so, how do we interrupt play?

This is a time when having practiced the Name Game with your dog will really pay off. Ideally, especially if the play is appropriate, you should be able to easily call your dog out of play with your usual recall. If you can usually do this but your dog is not responding, this is a good indication that the play has drifted into inappropriate territory. It might also be that you need to practice that skill a little more. (Hint, that up there links to a handout!)

If using your dog's name or recall cue isn’t working to get them out of the play, you may need to step in physically. Now, this can cause things to escalate, so I will often try to distract them first by squeaking a toy, or shaking a container of treats. Sometimes this can be enough to get their attention then I can call them over. If neither of those work either it is definitely time for us to break up the play, so try to get in there and grab a collar. If this is a situation where one dog is kind of bullying the other, try to grab the bully if you can. 

If you aren’t sure how a play session with another dog is going to go it can always be helpful to have them drag their leashes for a bit so that they are easier to grab.

Okay, we’ve got them apart, now what?

If you have had to go in and physically grab the dogs, we definitely don’t need to go back to playing until we can at a minimum be calm around each other and respond to cues in a more managed situation. This means spending some time with them on leash together practicing their settling skills. When they are able to settle around each other, graduate them to long lines in a large space where they still can’t reach each other and practice calling them away from each other. It may also mean that those two dogs just don’t need to play for a while, or ever again. But you can use these tips to allow them to be calm around each other and maybe be buddies for more structured activities like walks. 

If you were able to interrupt with the squeaker or shaking a bag of treats, great! Each person should call their own dog in and gently grab their collar as they treat for the recall. (This will prevent the dogs from just snagging their treat and immediately heading right back to play mania). Once you have their focus ask for a few behaviors, the simple stuff like sit, down and touch or other skills your dog finds easily. When they are settled and working nicely with you, release them back to play. If you are in this category I would also recommend calling them back to you again a little sooner in the play, before it reaches the same point. 

If your dog was able to respond easily to their name, treat them when they get to you and let them go back to play! 

What if both dogs respond differently?

If one dog has a harder time being called away from the play, or staying focused on their owner outside of the play, you should always work at the pace of the dog who is having a harder time. If your dog is easily disengaging from the play and their playmate is not, it may mean that they have a couple of play sessions that are more boring for your dog, but it means that in the long run they will have a better friend!

Breaks never hurt.

One of the important things to remember with adolescence in general is that breaks never hurt anyone. This is absolutely an okay time in your dog's life to take a break from making new friends and sticking to playtime with dogs that you know they do well with or good adults who have good social skills. We want to focus on quality interactions over having a lot of opportunities to play. Practice makes perfect and if our dogs go through adolescence practicing appropriate play with appropriate dogs, then they will be much more likely to become an appropriate adult dog as well. 

Pop Quiz!

Can you tell if the play in these photos is inappropriate or not?

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