How to Hold a Successful Puppy Playdate

Are you a “helicopter mom” who hovers over your puppy, or is your parenting style more relaxed? When it comes to puppy’s first playdate, a little bit of both is the right approach. Playing comes naturally to puppies, but you have a critical role in making sure his first playdate goes well.

First, pick the right place. “Find a safe, fenced area on private property,” advises Dana Fedman, a certified professional dog trainer and the owner of Pupstart Family Dog Training in Central Iowa. Next, “Allow the puppies to do the ‘Dance of the Leash,’ letting them move toward or away and sniff each other nose to rear, without interference from a taut leash,” says Fedman. “If both puppies assume the pounce position after a few seconds, they’re ready to play and you can remove the leash to let them interact.”

Normal Puppy Play
Puppies like to mock-fight in doggie games such as:

  • “I chase you, then you chase me,” with butts tucked
  • Jaw wrestling or gently biting each other on the muzzle, ears and neck
  • Play barking and growling
  • Alternating who’s on top while wrestling and biting
  • Chasing and nipping at each other’s legs, tails and ears

Dangerous puppy play
You should step in and put distance between your puppies if:

  • Either puppy stiffens or you hear deep belly growls
  • One puppy repeatedly holds the other on its back
  • Either puppy bites too hard or aggressively
  • The larger puppy “body slams” with enough force to physically hurt the smaller puppy
  • The intensity ramps up to a level that makes you uneasy

Do your best to match up puppy personalities. “If one is shy and timid and the other is overbearing, the timid one can easily become frightened and forevermore be fearful of strange dogs. By the same token, a too-bold first encounter could encourage a puppy to grow up to be a bully,” says Fedman.

Common Sense Matters More Than Age or Size
Puppies around the same age -- especially those under 6 months of age -- generally interact well with each other. If the owners are consistently monitoring the play behavior, there’s little chance of injury. As far as size is concerned, you might not want a tiny Chihuahua puppy playing with a Mastiff, but this isn’t as much of an issue as energy level and personality.

“We have quite a few large-breed puppies that are timid, so we let them play with our Yorkie and Shih Tzu puppies,” says Lisa Collins, a certified professional dog trainer and the owner of Collins Canine dog training in Chicago. “I like to have puppies of all sizes exposed to each other, but it has to be done so that each dog is comfortable. If small dogs only encounter small dogs, they will grow up to be afraid of large dogs. And if large dogs only play with each other, they won’t learn to be more careful and gentle with smaller dogs,” says Collins.

If the first interaction doesn’t go well, separate the puppies and walk them away from each other and try again in a few minutes. If the second attempt fails, discontinue that playdate. “Pay attention and be prepared to step in if play gets too rough. Like human children, puppies can get overexcited, and that’s when a good playdate can go bad. Sometimes you need to intervene and give them little breaks,” advises Collins.

When it’s time to end your puppy’s playdate, reinforce the good socialization lesson with praise and a cool, rehydrating drink of water.


Picking Safe Puppy Toys

The world of dog toys seems virtually limitless. The selection at pet stores, in catalogs and online is mindboggling and irresistible.

So how do you choose fun toys for your puppy that are safe too? There’s no government or industry safety standard equivalent to human baby toy safeguards. However, you can make educated decisions based on expert advice.

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We asked Dr. Justine Lee -- a veterinarian, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, and the author of It’s a Dog’s Life… but It’s Your Carpet -- for some guidance in choosing the best puppy toys. She advises choosing products made in the United States, which don’t contain heavy metals, like lead. Select products that are very soft on puppy teeth, without hard rubber parts that can injure gums or teeth, like soft Kong and Frisbee brand puppy toys.

Pick Sturdy Toys
Puppy toys should be both sturdy yet forgiving of young puppy mouths, agrees Darcie Krueger, who owns, a canine retail website. “Look for toys that are generally more resilient than adult dog toys. You want toys your puppy can bite and chew on without damaging the toy or their teeth and gums, like Wubba and Tuffy brand products,” she says. “My favorites are made from a special teething rubber formula with a special shape that promotes healthy development of your puppy’s mouth and good chewing behavior.”

Steer Clear of These Toys
Unfortunately, you’ll find an abundance of unsuitable toys on the market. Lee advises:

  • Make sure toys have no small pieces that can fall or be chewed off, as these can get stuck in the stomach or intestines. Ideally, the toy should be made from one molded piece.
  • Avoid any toys with long string, yarn or similar construction. Your puppy can swallow these, resulting in a linear foreign body that your puppy might not be able to pass though his digestive system.
  • Don’t buy any toy that is just big enough to get stuck in your puppy’s jaws or lodged in his airway.
  • Note the size of the toy when it is new. Throw it away when it wears down.

Replace Toys as Needed
Be prepared to replace your puppy’s toys on an as-needed basis, advise Lee and Krueger. Toys help fulfill a puppy’s instinct to shake and kill small prey, so your puppy will delight in trying to destroy his toys. Puppies also simply get bored with some toys, just like human children. “I have a few baskets of toys for my pet, including soft discs, squeaky toys and balls. I just throw them out as they get shredded, chewed and used up,” says Lee.

Even if your puppy’s toys are very durable, you should always supervise independent and interactive playtime, because no toy is totally puppy-proof. “Many puppies like to toss and throw soft plush toys. I like them too, but toys like this can be torn to pieces,” says Krueger. As for washing toys, our experts agree: When toys are dirty and disgusting, throw them out and buy new ones.

Discovering toys your puppy enjoys is great fun. He might still love them as he transitions into adulthood. If not, you’ll enjoy finding new toys together!

Play That Trains Your Puppy

Playing with your puppy is a no-brainer, right? Your irresistible bundle of furry energy is willing to frolic with you at a moment’s notice.

Puppy play is instinctive. It harkens back to the time when wild canines learned valuable survival and social skills through playtime with other pups and adults in the pack. So it’s easy to use this ingrained behavior to your advantage to help train your puppy and teach him commands -- and to nip nipping (and other bad habits) in the bud.

Life’s a Game
Shows such as “Sesame Street” make learning fun for kids. You can provide the same learning experience for your puppy with the games and activities you do at home. To start, hide-and-seek is a good game for teaching the command “Come.”

Start by hiding just feet away from your puppy in a very easy place to be found, advises Yaiza Magdalena, owner and director of California K9 Academy in Los Angeles. Call your puppy’s name, say “Come,” and make a lot of happy, fun noises. Then reward him with lots of affection and a delicious treat. “He’ll soon make the connection between ‘Come’ and being rewarded,” she says.

As he gets better at the game, make it harder by hiding in a different room so he learns to come even when you’re well out of sight, suggests Magdalena. You can eventually decrease the treats and just shower him with affection for obeying you.

Like kids, puppies also need to learn boundaries. Structured play is a great way to encourage desired behaviors. “Fetch is a good game for teaching your puppy listening skills and obedience,” says Dr. Tiffany Margolin, a veterinarian and pet-health author/speaker in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area. “First teach your puppy the ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ commands. Then toss a toy and ask him to ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ before you verbally release him to run and ‘Fetch’ it.”

Your puppy’s play/learn sessions should begin as soon as you adopt him. Keep the sessions short when he’s 7 or 8 weeks old -- five minutes at a time, and not more than a few time times daily. As your puppy grows older, you can increase the session length and train as frequently as your patience -- and his concentration -- allows.

Here, a few other essential playtime training do’s and don’ts:

  • DO be creative. Use different rewards to keep your puppy interested and engaged. Save special treats or belly rubs for new and/or difficult commands.
  • DO offer rewards. When your puppy obeys commands, reward him with kind words, loving touches and treats. Positive reinforcement is an excellent teacher and builds a stronger bond between you and your puppy.
  • DO pay attention. Keep your puppy interested in learning by choosing the right times to engage in play. Observe your puppy to see when he usually has the most energy and is most attentive.
  • DON’T engage in rough play. Don’t play-fight, wrestle or play tug-of-war with a puppy, because it encourages him to be aggressive with you and others.
  • DON’T be the toy! Don’t use your hand or other body part as a toy, because it encourages mouthiness and teaches disrespect for you. As your puppy gets older and stronger (and gets bigger teeth!), he could accidentally hurt you.
  • DON’T lose your cool. Don’t be frustrated if your puppy makes mistakes or disobeys your commands. At his young age, he tires easily and gets confused. Taking some “chill out” time will help both of you.

Incorporating training into playtime is the most natural way to teach your impressionable puppy good life-lessons. He’ll have so much fun that he won’t even know he’s learning. And best of all, canines never lose their love for play -- so you can continue to combine training with play as your puppy becomes an adult dog.

Capture Every Cute Puppy Moment

Richie Schwartz of Pets Photography Studio on Long Island, N.Y., has photographed more than 70,000 pets all over the country during his 30-year career. Whenever a call comes in from a puppy owner who desires pictures, he has certain expectations. “I know it’s going to be fun but also a lot of work,” says Schwartz.

Puppies might be among the cutest animals on the planet, but capturing them at their best can pose challenges. First, they bounce with energy. They also go to the bathroom a lot. No matter how adorable your pup is, a bathroom shot isn’t what you want to pull out at your next dinner party.

Schwartz, a former veterinary technician who turned his love of pet photography into a career, shares some tips on how to take perfect pics of your pup.

Puppy Portrait Preparation
You probably have a lot of shots from your cell phone or camera of your puppy doing cute things. To take a portrait, however, your pet needs to settle down. “The puppy should get exercise and go to the bathroom before the photo sessions,” says Schwartz. That’s especially true if you plan to take your dog to a professional studio. New environments can cause happy-go-lucky puppies to “either become really shy or overly playful,” says Schwartz, who last year was named one of the 25 Pet People of 2010 by NBC, sharing that honor with Betty White and other celebrities.

Schwartz often photographs celebrity pets, but no matter the owner, puppies like to be comforted by familiar objects. “Have a favorite toy or blanket nearby,” advises Schwartz. Los Angeles–based photographer Nick Saglimbeni notes that squeaky toys can serve double duty. The surprise of a squeak, says Saglimbeni, can cause the puppy “to prick his ears, cock his head and give an alert look.” Don’t overdo it, though, or else the element of surprise will disappear.

Next, consider what visual information you want to convey and accentuate in the photo. Ask yourself the following:

  • Is your puppy a male or female? You may want to photograph your dog with items that are associated with its sex. The goal is not to stereotype your dog but to inform your viewers.
  • What color is your dog? Both the lighting and backdrop will depend upon the color of your dog’s fur. Outdoor shots that use just ambient light are often easiest for home photographers.
  • How big is your puppy? Schwartz has a fantasyland full of props in his studio. Chihuahuas, for example, might be placed in an oversize teacup, creating the perfect contrast. The effect would be lost on a larger pup, though.
  • What’s your dog’s breed? Similar to the “male or female” question, you can convey information with your props. A Scottish Terrier puppy, for example, might be placed on a tartan blanket.

When to Bring in a Professional Photographer
Digital technology permits even novices to take decent shots, create YouTube-ready slideshows and more. “We professionals are not in competition with the home photographer,” says Schwartz. “Our images can complement those other pictures.” A pro probably would not be around to capture the little impromptu moments, like your puppy suddenly jumping on your lap or dragging in the laundry.” But when people start taking such images, it makes them more appreciative of what I do, in terms of capturing certain expressions, using the best equipment and lighting.”

Working With Your Photos
Whether you take your own photographs or hire a professional, you’ll want to share those images with others. Social media makes that possible, with many owners even creating Facebook pages for their pets and posting the photos online. If you input the images into slideshow templates, you can add music and post them to YouTube, then share your slideshows via Twitter and other services.

You can also transform the images into more tangible and long-lasting gift items or keepsakes. At Schwartz’s studio, you can buy books, calendars, key chains and magnets that feature your puppy. But you can also make the paper items at home with some basic software and a desktop printer. Just like a wedding or baby album, a puppy photo album is an easy and fun project that involves putting a fabric cover over an otherwise plain photo album and adding fabric appliques and scrapbooking endpapers.

Puppyhood is such an ethereal stage in your dog’s life, and it lasts for just a short period of time. When your pet is only 18 months old, he or she will already be well on the way to becoming a fully grown adult dog. Now is the time to capture those cherished puppy moments in timeless images. Photographing puppies takes work, as Schwartz says, but you won’t regret it.


How to Plan a First-class Puppy Playgroup

You are your puppy’s best friend, but he wants and needs doggy buddies too. It’s perfectly natural and appeals to his pack instinct. And so a puppy playgroup is the perfect place for this socialization to take place.

Your puppy’s social development from 6 to 14 weeks of age is critical for his growth as a well-rounded, happy dog, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). During this time, positive experiences with other dogs can reduce the likelihood of fearful behaviors, such as aggression and phobias later in your dog’s life.

Find Play Opportunities
So, how do you go about finding the perfect puppy playgroup? “I love this topic. I counsel clients with puppies about how to find a good play match, or two or three, for their puppy,” says Amy Robinson of Florida-based Amy Robinson Dog Training. “You need look no further than your neighborhood or your local dog park to find playmates for your puppy. You’re bound to find other young dogs playing with each other.”

“Observe their body language. You’ll see the dominant dogs put their heads over another dog’s back. You’ll see submissive dogs flip onto their backs, and you’ll see other dogs mouthing each other and running side by side. These are the type of playmates you want for your pup, offering the real give-and-take of play.”

Robinson also says to not rule out friends and neighbors who have a kindly, patient adult dog. Adult dogs can help teach social skills and the give-and-take of play to a younger dog.

Look for Organized Puppy Playgroups
If you want your pet to join a more organized playgroup, look for a group that meets indoors and includes puppies of a similar size and age, advises Dr. Emily Patterson-Kane, an animal psychologist at the AVMA. Check with your veterinarian for recommendations. “Veterinarians have some training and oversight that can give you more confidence in making this decision,” says Patterson-Kane. “I also encourage anyone interested in joining or starting a playgroup to first educate themselves about socialization, immunization and dog behavior.” The AVMA offers guidelines and advice.

Not sure where to start? Check out these resources for finding or starting a puppy playgroup:

  • Your veterinarian’s office
  • Your neighborhood or local dog park
  • Dog training schools and clubs
  • Humane associations
  • Breed clubs
  • Doggie day cares and pet resorts
  • PetSmart and other pet stores that offer training services
  • Your groomer’s shop
  • Facebook and Twitter

Whether you join a puppy playgroup or start your own, our experts advise you to be present, aware and involved. It’s your precious pup, so if it doesn’t feel right, you should find another group. In general, a professionally managed playgroup is more organized and safer than an informal gathering.

Look for a puppy playgroup that has no more than 15 dogs, so your pet doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Make sure interactions are supervised by a human group leader to make sure smaller dogs don’t get “pancaked” by larger dogs. Take into consideration your dog’s age and stamina. Young puppies will mentally and physically tire out more quickly than adolescent dogs. If your puppy is pooped, it’s time to pull the plug.

You can avoid many play-related injuries by simply keeping dogs on leashes until they can be trusted to safely interact with each other. And it’s critical that your dog and all the other puppies in the playgroup are vaccinated against disease and wormed according to a veterinarian’s schedule.

Your pup will really enjoy becoming part of a puppy playgroup. Connect with the right group by doing your homework first, and then let the fun begin!