Dear Inquisitive Canine:

I recently adopted a new puppy, who can be described as rambunctious at best. She was a stray, found on an Indian reservation.

My family has had a golden retriever for 13 years. Once very playful, she is now old and has chronic arthritis problems and tires easily. At first, the two dogs got along great, but now their “play” worries me.

When they play, they are viciously biting each other, especially in the neck. My golden retriever hasn’t pierced skin yet, but I’m afraid that one day she will. My puppy wants to play all the time, which is not a good recipe for the older dog.

What should I be doing in this situation? My family is gone a lot, so I’m not sure what to do. Any help would be appreciated.

— Clueless in Eugene

Dear Clueless in Eugene:

Allow me to commend you on helping this puppy by rescuing and bringing her into your loving home, for being a concerned and “aware” dog guardian, and for wanting to educate yourself about your dog’s behavior. Bravo!

It seems you have a “preschooler” meets “retirement home” situation. Not a bad combination, but your concerns are certainly valid. After all, as our mothers once said: “Horseplay leads to tragedy!” (They also warned us about running with scissors, but I’m sure you haven’t trained your dogs to do that.)

From the interactions you have described between your two dogs, learning how to recognize the common characteristics of appropriate dog play (including biting) will help you manage your situation. You can visit my dog training blog to find out how to recognize aspects of proper dog socialization play and better understand these behaviors.

Like many elements of dog play, biting is certainly one that relies on feedback from others, especially those of the same species. This is where your older dog can act as a “teacher.”

Your golden retriever will be the main coach who will let the younger pup know when the biting (pressure mostly) is OK, and when too much is too much. As a teacher, she will relay this very important information in one of two ways: either actively with a “Hey, knock it off!” usually seen with a growl, snap or yelp, or passively, often seen as “I’m outta here!” by walking away, avoiding or trying to escape the younger one’s instigations.

Dogs are born with an intrinsic know-how of proper dog play. Sometimes it’s difficult for us humans to watch, especially if a dog’s specific play style is rough. Teeth being bared, fur flying, low growls and other assertive posturing can be overwhelming at times — at least for us. What do we do? We tend to freak out and interrupt. That’s normal human behavior (our mothers’ voices are programmed into our brains). The problem with us interrupting all the time or not allowing our dogs to play is that they don’t end up developing the proper socials skills necessary for adapting to their domestic lifestyle and our human world.

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Dogs are born with an intrinsic know-how of proper dog play. Sometimes it’s difficult for us humans to watch, especially if a dog’s specific play style is rough.

As a certified professional dog trainer, here are a few things I recommend for you to do in your situation, as well as those times when your dog has play dates with other dogs:

» Let your dogs play, but be there to monitor the playground to make sure everyone is safe and happy.

» Watch for reciprocal behavior between the two dogs. Chasing, being chased, biting, nipping, pinning, chest banging, mounting and stalking are components of dog play. Some dogs enjoy elements more than the others. It’s all personal choice. But you want to look for each dog playing both roles: chaser/chasee, biter/bitee, etc.

» Most dogs will self-interrupt so they can regroup and take a break. Watch for the dog(s) stopping and “shaking it off,” going for a drink of water, lying down to rest, pausing and standing still, or sniffing the ground if outside. If one dog, especially your older one, is wanting to take a break, and the younger one is relentless, then it’s OK to interrupt so you can give both dogs a break — but allow them to play if both dogs consent. If one doesn’t, then you can ask the other to do something else, such as go for a walk or play a game with you.

» Another interruption option is to call the dogs out of play, ask them for a couple of focused behaviors such as sit or down, run them through a few drills, then let them go back for more play.

» Monitor for nonconsenting play. If one of the dogs has had enough, and the other isn’t “listening,” then I’d interrupt them. The way to test this is to remove the one who you think is going too far, then watch what the other one does. If the other one looks at you as if she were saying, “Why’d you stop the fun?” then you can presume it was consensual. On the other hand, if she looks at you as if to say, “My goodness it’s about time! Thank you!” then you’ve done the right thing.

» As an added bonus you could use praise and food rewards for both dogs when they are playing nicely. Consequently, you’ll get more nice play and your dogs will like playtime even more.

» Since your family is gone most of the day, it would probably be in the best interest of everyone to find other outlets for your young pup’s energy, such as doggy daycare, professional pet sitter or professional dog walker, or enrichment such as interactive food toys and chew bones, a dog training class in manners or a canine sport such as Rally-O or agility.

Dog play and the development of social skills through play are key in helping your dog mature into a well-adjusted, confident pooch. Your observations skills and the inclination to ask questions and gain knowledge make you more inquisitive than clueless, and I commend you for that. Now, let the games begin!

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail advice@theinquisitivecanine.com.

Joan Hunter Mayer

Joan Hunter Mayer

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and founder of The Inquisitive Canine. She and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Joan offers training and behavior consulting services both in person and online, dedicated to strengthening the human-canine bond. If you are feeling inquisitive and have dog training questions, email advice@theinquisitivecanine.com and click here for more training tips. The opinions expressed are her own.