May issue

May issue
May issue

Sunday, 19 February 2012

I wish they'd play nicely!


I have three dogs, an 11 year old male Greyhound, a two year old Greyhound bitch, and a 6 month old Lurcher bitch puppy. All get on well, and have never been aggressive to people or dogs. The older two are neutered/spayed and the pup will be once she is older.

The older boy is an angel, it's the two young girls that I am having a problem with. They constantly play fight! I know they are only playing, it looks and sounds like world war three has broken out sometimes, but they are definitely playing, and they have never hurt each other. They just can't seem to play in other ways, they only way they will play is by biting and pulling at each other, growling, chasing, jumping up/on each other, with the odd bark thrown in too. I don't mind it too much, but it would be nice if they could learn to play with toys instead. Separately, they play fine, will fetch toys, chase toys etc.

The problem is, the believe other dogs want to play this way too. Most of the dogs we are connected to are larger dogs, and they also quite like a rough game, so when we meet a smaller dog, it usually ends up with a disgusted look from the owner, as the girls try to play as they do with each other, which most dogs, and small dogs, don't appreciate. It means they have to stay on lead because I don't want to upset other dogs and their owners. I know they are not going to cause any harm (certainly not on purpose) but some people don't realise that.

Do you have any tips on getting them to play nicely? They don't behave like this while on the lead, only off lead.

Thanks in advance for any help!
Sarah Bell, by email


  1. Hi Sarah, what a well thought out question - it sounds like you know your dogs really well. It can be a real issue and is quite common with dogs that live together as they develop their own rules for play as you can tell. Usually the way to prevent this problem is to make sure young pups get to play with lots of other dogs as well as their household friends. You may have done this, too, but I suspect they spend most of their time playing together. First of all I would develop a switch off command when the dogs are playing at home. You can do this by teaching an instant stop such as a sit. Train one dog at a time to play excitedly with you, perhaps use a toy or treat to get them bouncing a bit - then instruct them to sit, and stop the game until they do so. Reward/praise and then, play again. Keep this going several times, then stop the game. Swap dogs, and repeat until all three dogs can be playing with you and all three sit and wait when you say 'Sit!'. This will help get their attention when they are super-excited and stops things getting out of hand.

    Next, teach an absolutely rock-solid recall. It might help to teach one dog at a time again, but this time call them away from something exciting such as a toy that you have just thrown, a titbit, a person helping you, and so on. You will probably need to use a long line (carefully) to insist they return at first. When they do, wait a few seconds, then let them return to the exciting thing again but only on your say so.

    In both these training exercises, the reward becomes a return to the game itself - this is pretty powerful as a motivator!

    Gradually bring the dogs together and practice so that you can call them to a halt or away from each other anywhere and everywhere. It may take time but the more motivating the reward and the fewer mistakes you allow, the faster you will progress.

    As you progress always intervene early and try to never let things get out of hand before you regain control. This allows your dogs to anticipate a 'switch off' moment and will also teach them to keep an eye on you, too.

    Finally, ask a friend to help you with their own dog(s) and practice the same exercises with this dog around as well. As you can see by extending the distraction levels gradually, you will gain compliance at even the greatest moments of enthusiastic play!

  2. Siblings and housemates tend to play harder than most dogs. If you are not used to it and happen to see close dog's playing but didn't know they were 'friends', it can look almost like a fight. It could be described as 'hard play'. I had a rule in my house where 'hard play' goes outside, where it can continue until I may decide to interrupt it.

    However, many siblings that have grown up together and housemates that I have witnessed still put out relatively good social signals to unfamiliar dogs in the park. They tend to recognise the difference and so approach a new dog very differently to their housemates.

    We have therefore got the main issue which is inappropriate greetings and impolite social skills. This may or may not have been an issue whether the dogs are single household dogs or multi household dogs. So perhaps focus on the greetings that occur in the park rather than the 'hard play' at home.

    Maybe you can work on a solid sit/stay or down/stay (as Greyhounds don't always like to sit). Build up a solid sit or a down at home, in the garden and eventually in the park with few distractions. You could use long lines in the park initially. Once the stay has been built up it can be used in the presence of other dogs, which then allows the other dogs to approach your dogs. This is an alternative to your three charging at dogs and not allowing for all the social signs that should usually occur. It will make the play a little less chaotic.

    Along with the sit/stay or down/stay you could also work on a good recall, strong enough to call them away from the group play. A gun dog whistle is a option. Pip the whistle close to them all and follow it quickly with a tasty treat to each dog. You need to do this many times before you really need the strong recall. Condition the whistle for a week or so in the house, garden, on walks and in the park steadily building up the distractions/attractions. The whistle will eventually provoke a reflex. With multiple dogs you could start to reward only the first dog that responds. This can create a bit of competition to be first for the treat. You should then be able to build up a really strong recall. If after the initial greetings at the park, the play becomes inappropriate for the other dog involved, you can pip the whistle and call them away for their tasty treats.

    I'm sure a professional dog trainer could assist you. Perhaps check the APDT (UK) site to find one near to you.

    Hope that helps Sarah.

    1. Thank you. I will definitely try this. They completely ignore other dogs whilst on leads, which is how I was originally trying to solve this problem. So whatever I was achieving on the lead, only seems to apply on the lead.

      We tried the gun dog whistle, perhaps I didn't try it long enough, so I will give that another shot. The older bitch is hard to reward as she is not interested in eating when she wants to do something, she's not big on food full stop. Or toys. I guess I need to keep hunting for the perfect treat for her, so at the moment, all I can offer her if she comes back is praise.

      My nearest APDT trainer is 3 and a half hours away, I had already looked into it, but its a lot in transport costs. I've been keeping it in mind though, incase we need it for the future.

  3. Thanks for your advice. I think part of the problem stems from the pup (Katy) being away from her mother and siblings so young (she was found straying at around 4 weeks old), so we feel she likely didn't learn how to play nicely with her siblings. I got her when I had only had the 2 year old (Lucy) for a month (which I realise was not a good idea now, it was done during a grieving process after losing my other young dog, but I am trying hard to work through what I took on!). So basically both were new, and somewhat 'damaged', Lucy had been a 'pet' for a month, and Katy had been abandonned.

    Will standing still work as well, for the switch off command? Lucy cannot sit, her legs just don't bend that way (as is common with hounds!). Katy is very good at sitting and can be very focused on a tennis ball, so I think that will work nicely. I had never heard of that technique before.

    Recall is a tough one. Lucy doesn't get off lead at all at the moment, she has such high prey drive and we are in the middle of the country, which means rabbits, but we can definitely start on it in the garden. However Katy is very good at coming back if we have something nice, and as she is usually the instigator, I will start with her.

    I'll keep you updated on how we do! This one was totally stumping me, so I really do appreciate your help!

  4. Hi Sarah,

    I just wanted to add to the excellent advice by Karen and Tony by saying that this style of play is very common (and normal) sighthound play. To many dog owners it might look out of control and aggressive but the 'rarrs' and 'bitey face games' is exactly how all the lurchers and greys I have owned and met play. If they are well socialised with other breeds then they can learn how to adapt their play to suit but if they are only used to playing with each other then it is a lot harder and as mentioned above you will need to work on some solid training.