Play Skill Deficit

Most dogs learn how to play as puppies. They learn “dog language,” how to interact appropriately with other canines, and how to inhibit their bite. As adults, these dogs develop good socials skills, effectively communicating their desires and feelings to other dogs.

There are some dogs, however, that do not learn how to play well with others. Sometimes this occurs because the dogs did not have an opportunity to play frequently with other puppies. In cases, the dogs seem to have been born without a social awareness. Such dogs have difficulty shifting roles in play, as most dogs can, and may be “stuck” in a repetitive behavior. Often this behavior will be an assertive one such as placing the head or leg over another dog, bumping with the muzzle or mounting. And when the targeted dog objects or “corrects” the behavior, dogs with play skill deficits tend to disregard these social cues or signals to calm down or disengage.


As with all behavioral problems, the best

* If possible prevention should begin when the dog is a young puppy. Be sure the dog is exposed to other dogs, many types of people and new situations. The best time to do this is when the dog is 2-3 months old and its reactions to novel experiences are still forming. See our handout entitled Sociable Dogs are Happy Dogs for suggestions.

* A good puppy kindergarten class or puppy play group can facilitate socialization. When puppies play together they learn to be comfortable around other dogs, to communicate in dog language and-most importantly-to inhibit the pressure of their bite. This ability, called “Acquired Bite Inhibition” is the most essential skill for dogs to learn, and after they acquire their permanent teeth at about 6 months of age their bite pressure is fixed for life.

* Once your dog has learned good play skills as a puppy, continue regular play sessions. Friends with well-mannered dogs may be interested in play dates. A good doggy day care facility, where dogs are screened for appropriate behavior and closely supervised, is ideal. Well-run dog parks may also provide good play opportunities, but some of these facilities are poorly supervised and attended by owners and dogs whose behavior leaves much to be desired! It’s a good idea to watch the interaction at a dog park for several days before deciding whether it’s appropriate for your dog.


If your dog did not have these opportunities to learn good play skills, or if it seems to be one of the dogs with a genetic predisposition for inappropriate play, there are two steps to helping it learn to interact with other canines.

  1. Learning self-interruption: Play skill deficit dogs don’t know how to stop themselves, so they have to be taught. Arrange for your dog to play one-on- one with a well-socialized, “bomb-proof” dog. Whenever your dog is “stuck” on a behavior for 30 seconds, or ignores a social signal from the other dog (tail down, ears back, snarl, cowering, snapping, trying to escape), give a cue like “easy,” “back off,” or “gentle.” Remove your dog from contact, using a food or toy lure, or a tug on the collar or leash. Use a happy voice. Cool your dog down by doing a little simple obedience, using rewards. Then calmly send the dog back to play and wait for the next incident. Over time, you should notice a reduced need to interrupt, and more incidents in which the dog disengages voluntarily. When this occurs roughly half of the time, move to the next step.
  2. Negative punishment: Negative punishment means removing something the dog desires. It is effective, and gentler than verbal reprimands and physical punishment. To use it with your play deficit dog, select a cue that you will use to interrupt inappropriate behavior, such as “off,” or “cool it.” When you see you dog start that behavior, say the cue. If it stops, give some verbal praise and allow play to continue. If the inappropriate activity continues, use a “Time Out” as described in our handout on that subject. Be sure to mark exactly the behavior you want to diminish, quickly isolate the dog for a minute or two and use the negative punishment every time. The inappropriate behavior should begin to diminish after 15-20 repetitions.

While you are treating play skill deficit, it is important to manage your dog’s activities so that it doesn’t have an opportunity to practice inappropriate play. This may mean temporarily suspending play sessions, and finding alternative exercise routines. But with persistence, there is a good chance that your dog can learn to play well with others

Source: Jean Donaldson, Fight: A Practical Guide to the Treatment of Dog-Dog Aggression.

Reprinted by Shaggeypaws