By Rita Viel, Dog Behaviorist
When you welcome a puppy into your home, it can be so thrilling – and overwhelming. There’s so much to do to help nurture your pup, from selecting the best beds, leashes, food and toys to finding fun ways to enrich your dog’s life.
A big part of enrichment involves play. Dogs go through different life stages, so they need different toys and games for each phase. Sometimes dogs will want to chew to relieve stress, but other times they’ll benefit from playing with you, sniffing out treats or solving a puzzle.
Just like human babies, puppies need to learn everything about themselves and the world. Responsible breeders and fosters have an enormous responsibility to expose puppies to the world in a positive way. In the litter, puppies will mostly play with one another but hopefully also get the chance to use their teeth on toys or something other than a sibling’s ears.
Puppies often explore their surroundings using not just their eyes, ears and noses, but their mouths. Their sharp little teeth can do a number on shoes, electrical cords and anything else on or near the floor, so be sure to puppy proof your home before your pup comes home. Otherwise, your favorite slippers could become your pup’s favorite chew toy.
Dogs are delightful at every stage, but in this article, I’ll focus primarily on puppies around 15-16 weeks old.
Play is a terrific way to bond with your dog. Dogs love working with people, and equate play with working together. When your bond strengthens, it motivates your dog to keep learning good behavior.
Through supervised play, a puppy will learn what she can bite and how hard she can pull. If she bites your hand – a no no, of course – remove your hand and replace it with a chew toy. When she bites the toy, reward her with praise or a treat to reinforce that biting the toy is preferable to your fingers. Play also helps dogs learn their own bodies better. Plus, it’s a ton of fun!
When puppies are still growing, they can easily injure themselves. So avoid playing on slippery surfaces. You don’t want the pup to accidentally slip and hurt himself. This is obviously bad for his body, but the puppy might also think playing with you leads to pain and stop wanting to play. So be sure to play on carpet or a non-slip rug to keep playtime fun and safe.
Remarkably, puppies need to sleep about 80% of the time to be able to grow. So it’s best to play together a few times a day for short periods rather than just once for a long time.
During playtime, use toys that are big enough so that there’s distance between your fingers and his teeth, try Bumi! If the puppy doesn’t want to let go of the toy, don’t get angry or rip the toy out of his mouth. Instead, offer a treat in exchange. Some dogs might prefer a chew toy as a reward; be sure to choose a toy that can be used safely for a short time (and be sure to supervise).
Shop our chew toys here.
Appropriate chew toys have an important function: teaching puppies to learn to chew instead of swallowing things whole. So make sure the toy is too big to be swallowed.
If you need to leave the room or if the chew toy breaks, exchange it for a different toy or treat and place the chew toy out of sight and reach. Remember, no dog toy is indestructible so supervise play at all times. It’s always important to choose the right dog toy for your pups behavior.
Keep an eye on your puppy’s reaction to her toys. If she doesn’t want to play with a certain toy, it might be too hard or somehow hurt her mouth. Tug toys made of strands of string can also cause pain if a tooth gets stuck while you’re yanking on it. Be thoughtful to keep things safe and fun. Shop safe and fun tug toys here.
Puppies usually aren’t gentle with their toys, so it’s smart to buy quality toys that are non-toxic (BPA-free and latex free, for starters) and flexible. Like our Zogoflex and Zogoflex Echo collections. Your puppy might like a mix of toys, including:
• Play toys - These are toys we use together, such as balls, tug toys and flying discs. Be sure to put these toys away – out of sight – when playtime is over.
• Chew toys- As noted above, limit chew-time to short bursts, and never let your dog chew on a toy without supervision.
• Puzzle Toys- These can be too tiring for very young puppies, but starting around 15-16 weeks old, your dog will love the challenge. This is a great way to get children involved by putting them in charge of filling the toy with kibble or treats and giving it to the dog. Be sure to keep an eye on the puppy and kids, and that they leave the dog alone while playing with their feeding toy.
(NOTE: The puppy/dog must first learn how a puzzle feeder works, so find a simple toy and spend a few minutes each day teaching them how it works to help set them up for success.)
Popular puzzle toys for puppies are Toppl and Tux. You’ll also want to select a toy’s durability based on your puppy’s habits – aka, how much damage they might inflict on their toy. Soft chewers might do fine with a plush toy, while dogs with a strong chew drive and puppies that haven’t yet learned how to chew (vs. swallow) will need the toughest toy you can find. Choose the right dog toy here. Shop durable plush toys and tough chew toys.
There’s nothing cuter than a child playing with a puppy – so long as they’re being safe.
• Your child might not be strong enough for tug and the dog might want to win at any cost, so stick with brain games for the little ones. It’s fun for kids to fill a puzzle feeder or hide kibble in a room or yard for the dog to find. Shop Puzzle toys.
• Show your kids how to be gentle with dogs and teach them to leave pets alone when eating or chewing on a toy.
• Talking about respect and safety beforehand and playing in an enclosed, supervised space can help ensure playtime is safe and fun for the entire family.
Written by Rita Viel, Export manager from West Paw and certified dog trainer and dog behaviourist in The Netherlands