How puppies play depends on a great deal on the breed. Socialization and age also influence what games puppies play. It makes sense that sighthound breeds react more to seeing toys move while “gripping” breeds relish tug-of-war, and terriers like chase, grab and shake games.
Canine play is composed of exaggerated and highly ritualized gestures used in doggy communication. That allows dogs to “play fight” for instance, yet avoid misunderstandings which might result in real fights.
How Puppies Play
Play behavior begins as early as puppies can toddle around—about three weeks of age. Puppies of both sexes may exhibit sexual behavior as early as four weeks of age, mounting each other during play games.
Prey killing behavior like pouncing and object shaking is also seen, and the language of dominance and submission is learned. Puppies at these early ages practice being both the top dog and the bottom-of-the-heap, so they learn how to communicate with each other. Temperament extremes—a bully puppy or shrinking violet pooch—expressed in play by young puppies is not necessarily a good predictor of future status. Temperament tests are more accurate when conducted on older puppies.
Social play is interactive. In other words, social play involves playing with another puppy, the owner, or even the cat. Examples of social play include wrestling, biting, play-fighting, and chase games.
Puppies begin social play as early as three weeks of age, with play-biting and pawing, and barking. The intensity escalates and becomes more complex as the dog matures. The first play-eliciting gesture seen in puppies is the raised paw. The play bow—butt end up, front down— is the classic invitation for a canine romp and is used by older pups and adults, along with barking, leaping forward to nose-poke and then withdrawing, face pawing or licking.
Self-directed play, such as tail chasing or pouncing on imaginary objects, is thought to be a replacement for social play when a play-partner isn't available. Puppies that indulge in extremes of tail chasing or habitually target “invisible” objects—snapping at nonexistent bugs—should be checked by the vet. These may be indications of obsessive-compulsive or seizure conditions.
Locomotory play simply means the puppy is in motion. That can involve solo play or include interaction with others. Locomotory play in adult dogs usually involves a pair or group of dogs. But puppies may indulge in games of “ghost-tag” running, jumping, and rolling about when they’re by themselves.
Object play is interaction with stuff. Chasing or pawing/grabbing a ball, rag or stick are examples. Some puppies target water and love chasing the hose or sprinkler.
"Just Kidding" During Play
Dogs may "pretend" to be aggressive to invite play, and indicate it's a game by using exaggerated behaviors, called meta signals. For instance, the play-bow is a butt-in-the-air with a front-end-down position where the pup's forelegs dance back and forth to invite play. When your puppy first play-bows, he’s telling you that any growls or wrestling that comes after are meant as fun and games.
Adult dogs often “pretend” to be subordinate to a puppy—with play-bows or rolling on the back—to build up the pup’s confidence and invite him to play.
This "just kidding" game allows lower-ranking pups to practice being in charge with play bites, mounting behavior, and wrestling games. Once the play is over, the higher-ranking dog again assumes his more "mature" behavior that tells the pup to respect his leadership.
Dogs also commonly drop toys at your feet—or in front of other pets—to invite play. Inhibited bites using open mouths aimed at legs and paws of other dogs also are common play behaviors.
Inappropriate play can develop when pups get too wound up or one of the playmates becomes a bully. Normal puppy play encourages taking turns chasing and pinning each other. But bully dogs always end up on top during wrestling, and instead of play bites at the legs, the bites target the head or neck.
Most of the time, growls during play are normal but if they turn to lower-pitched growls or the puppy-on-the-bottom yelps too much, break up the session until they calm down.
Play that seems to always end up on the hind legs may be a warning sign to have pups cool their jets. Some mounting and clasping or thrusting won't be a problem, when these become the norm, play may have tipped over into bully behavior.
Play not only is great fun for you and the pup, it teaches important doggy lessons. During play, puppies figure out what is and isn't acceptable behavior, discover how their bodies work, and learn ways to interact with other animals and the world around them.