AKC Gazette Columns

AKC Gazette - April 1999

A "Jungle Gym" for Puppies

The litter of three young Berner puppies loved the variety of toys in their indoor playpen. They would drag their toys around, challenge one another for this or that toy, and play tug-of-war with a fleece dolly. It was big sport to bite or grab one another in mock battles, but the puppies' play was relatively gentle. None of them was a bully. These three puppies had been marked with their parents' gentle nature.

As they got older, the three puppies welcomed the move to a newly constructed outdoor pen for gradually extended periods of time during the day. Here, there was plenty of room to run and play. This pen offered improved safety for the puppies, as compared to giving them free range of the yard and woods. The puppies were given new toys to enjoy as they were introduced to the outdoor play yard. They explored their new space gradually, with cautious curiosity., They gained confidence quickly as they examined their new toys and checked the play yard's perimeters. On their first outings, the puppies seemed content to entertain themselves, occasionally squeaking a toy or carrying it a short distance. But a routine soon became evident to their breeder: When put into the play yard, the puppies would do their business right away, then post themselves side by side and watch the house with a "Can somebody come play with us?" look. It was great that they enjoyed human company, but they weren't playing together when left on their own.

Analyzing the differences between this setup and that enjoyed by past litters, which had access to the yard and woods, the breeder soon found an answer to the puppies' behavior boredom. The puppies needed an entertainment center! But everything had to be absolutely puppy-safe.

With some ingenuity, the following elements were arranged in the play yard to offer the puppies some challenges: a small doghouse, a tunnel, some up-ended lawn chairs for peek-a-boo games, a log to climb over, a carefully selected branch with safe ends that one or two puppies could carry, and a raised platform with different levels. The puppies' toys were placed in various locations. Everything was checked and rechecked for safety, with every possible thing a puppy can do thought through before the puppies were allowed access. An area for potty training was retained off to one side.

It was decided to let the puppies discover this adventure-land on their own rather than escorting them through it. An attitude of "Wow! What's this?" characterized the puppies' behavior this time. Soon they were venturing on their own to explore and play their version of keep-away. Later, the cacophony of happy barks and the sight of the puppies playing tag and heaping one upon the other in joyful celebration were ample rewards for all our efforts. Amazingly, the puppies rarely soiled the new play area, and this only during their first day of exploring it. By the time they were ready to begin real-life adventures with their new families, the puppies had mastered every inch of their playground and relieved themselves only in the area set aside for it.

In constructing and maintaining such a play yard, consideration of safety is paramount. Each day the yard was inspected, toys and play equipment were checked, and newly fallen acorns were raked and removed. (They can be toxic if too many are ingested.) Each area and each season has its own hazards. With careful planning, an inventive play yard can be created that will give puppies hours of pleasure.

While maximum socialization of puppies with people is essential, so are experiences shared with litter-mates that teach them independence, self-awareness and poise. Providing a unique setting for the puppies to happily interact with one another in their "free time" results in optimum benefit.

- Miss Julie Crawford, 26591 May Twilley Road, MD 21875; breed Web site: www.csn.org/~pshaffer/bmdca (Note: website no longer functional.)