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How to play with a puppy: Tips and advice from a vet

how to play with a puppy
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Knowing how to play with a puppy is an important part of their behavioral and social development. It’s also a great way to bond and create wonderful memories with your new friend! To get the most out of your puppy play time, it’s important to establish some basic rules so that you know how to play with a puppy safely and appropriately. You may also need to experiment a bit to find the best puppy toys and types of play that your puppy will enjoy the most! Before you gear up for your next round of fun and games, check out these tips for making the most out of play time with your furry friend.

Offer plenty of toys to stimulate your puppy

Puppies have a variety of needs and play behaviors, including chewing, digging, tugging, and chasing. To help your puppy explore different types of play, try offering toys of different shapes, sizes, and textures. This is also a great way to find out what your puppy likes best! For added mental stimulation, add some puzzle toys and slow feeders into the mix. You can even make your own puzzle toys and obstacle courses at home! To help keep things fresh and exciting when thinking about how to play with a puppy, separate toys into a few groups and rotate them every couple of weeks. This will ensure your puppy never gets bored.

Avoid games involving your hands and body

One of the most common complaints from new puppy owners is when figuring out how to play with a puppy is nipping or biting during play. This is a normal play behavior. If you’ve ever watched a group of puppies playing, you may notice that they jump on each other, nip, or tug on each other’s ears, tails, and limbs as a way to initiate play. Your puppy may try to initiate play with you in the same way, which is why many puppies will go after moving hands or legs. Although this is normal play behavior, it still hurts, and is definitely not something we want to encourage!

To help your puppy learn to play more appropriately, make sure you aren’t sending mixed signals. Never play with your puppy using your hands or body – including wrestling, rough housing, or hand-chasing games. Doing so will teach them that it’s okay to use your body as a chew toy. Instead, if your puppy gets nippy during play, redirect your puppy onto a more appropriate chew toy. If that doesn’t work, put your hands behind your back, or simply get up and walk away. With patience and consistency, your puppy will learn that play time ends when he gets too rough!

Teach your puppy good play time manners

One common myth among pet owners when it comes to how to play with a puppy is that you should never play tug-of-war games or allow them to 'win' the game. Contrary to popular belief, this type of play won’t cause behavior problems, but it is important to establish some ground rules to teach your puppy good manners. Make sure you’re always the one who initiates and ends the game. This means that your puppy is not allowed to start a game by tugging on you or your clothes, or by keeping things away from you. 

While it’s fine for your puppy to 'win' the game of tug and wander off with the rope dog toy, it’s important to also teach your puppy a basic 'drop' or 'give' command so that you can take away any inappropriate items he may find without seeming like you’re initiating a game of tug. Finally, your puppy must learn that any contact of his teeth on you or your clothing – even accidentally – ends the game immediately. 

how to play with a puppy

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Teach your puppy new tricks

Many pet owners think of training as being boring, tedious, or time consuming. But training can also be a lot of fun. Play time is a great time to incorporate some positive reinforcement training into your puppy’s daily routine. Instead of using the best puppy treats as your training reward, try having your puppy do some work in exchange for a few minutes playing tug with a favorite toy. 

You can also incorporate basic commands during your play sessions, like asking your puppy to 'drop' a toy or 'sit' before you throw the ball. As your puppy grows and matures, you can even start to add more formal activities, like nose work or agility training, to your repertoire. Every interaction is an opportunity for your puppy to learn, so make sure you keep your play time fun, upbeat, and rewarding for your pup!

Don’t forget to socialize!

Playing is an important part of bonding with your puppy, but it’s also essential for your puppy to learn to play with other dogs, too. Exposing your puppy to dogs of varying ages and sizes will help him feel more comfortable with unfamiliar dogs in the future, and may prevent some puppy behavior problems. Always directly supervise your puppy while they interact with other dogs, especially if they're meeting them for the first time. 

While it’s normal for dogs to sometimes play a little rough, be sure to monitor for any signs of stress or anxiety in either dog, such as looking away, crouching, yawning, or baring their teeth. If you notice these signs, end the interaction quickly and calmly to prevent it from escalating. Puppy obedience classes are a great opportunity for your pup to make friends his own age – just make sure you check with your veterinarian and your trainer regarding your puppy’s vaccination status before they begin classes!

Get out and have fun!

Puppyhood passes all too quickly, so be sure to make the most of it with lots of play and fun experiences for both you and your pup. This is a prime time for your puppy to explore and try new things, so don’t be afraid to get creative! With a variety of toys and games – and a few positive rewards – you and your puppy will be having fun in no time.

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Since obtaining her doctorate in veterinary medicine, Dr. Racine has worked exclusively in small animal general practice. Her work has been featured in blog posts, articles, newsletters, journals, and even video scripts.