Puppy Play Is All About Consent

Trainer Sandi Thompson (holding black & white pup) performs a brief consent test to let the tan pup vote with his feet.

Trainer Sandi Thompson (holding black & white pup) performs a brief consent test to let the tan pup vote with his feet.

Supervising puppy play is one of the most important things we do in all of our puppy classes and socials. It’s part of our sacred duty as puppy trainers to make sure that all pups are safe and are having a good time. We’re frequently asked by concerned pup parents during play time “Are those pups playing okay?”

Watching young pups interact is pretty darn fun, but it can also be a bit confusing. When you’ve got a mosh pit of wiggly bodies rolling around biting each other and making bizarre sounds, it can be hard to tell what’s going on. As professional trainers, we closely referee play sessions and track identifiable social signals including role reversals, paw raises, play bows, and facial expressions.

But whether you’re a puppy pro who spends all day watching play sessions, or you’re a first-time puppy owner who is learning the ropes, there are plenty of times when you might not be totally sure if the play is okay. Maybe one pup has been on the bottom a really long time? Maybe a pup has been getting chased a lot? Or maybe you’re just feeling kind of worried about what you’re observing? And you don’t want your pup to have any bad experiences at this early age because you know how important puppy development is.

Enter: The Consent Test
Performing a Consent Test is the easy-peasy way to evaluate what’s going on with puppy play. It’s like doing a temperature check with an instant-read thermometer, and it will zero in on the key information you need: Are both pups having fun, or is one of them not really digging it?

Consent Tests are simple to perform, and you can even do them solo–though it’s a bit easier to do with a second handler if you have super rowdy pups. Here are the steps:

Step #1: Take hold of the rowdier pup by the collar or by the rear half of its body so that play is effectively halted for a moment. This step assumes that you have already taught your pup to LOVE having his or her collar grabbed by pairing that activity with yummy treats (and if your pup hates collar grabs, please contact us for help!).

Step #2: Observe what the less rowdy pup does at this point. She has the opportunity to vote with her feet and DECIDE if she wants to stay or go. If the less rowdy kid jumps right back in and goes straight for the pup you’re holding, then she’s giving her clear consent to continue playing. But if she doesn’t return to play or walks away, then she needs a break from the rowdier pup.

Step #3: Depending on the results of your test, you’ll either let play resume, or you’ll play traffic cop to keep the less rowdy pup safely away from the rowdier one. You may discover that after a short break she wants to return to rowdy play once again. This may change from play session to play session, so monitor the consensual trend.

Step #4: Do another Consent Test! There’s no downside at all to this valuable technique so do as many tests as you want during puppy play time.

It’s important to remember that the pup’s consent is only half the deal. Consent between Puppy Owners is just as important. We’ll explore that topic in a future blog post. In the meantime, we urge you to monitor your pup’s play and when in doubt, do a Consent Test!

NOTE: If you want to bring your pup to one of our socials where you can learn all about healthy puppy play and doggie social development, you can register on our socials page.

(Originally published April 17, 2015)