Play safety for dogs, young and old

To avoid injury and keep play fun, tailor the games your dog participates in to his age.

Dog play is one of my favorite topics. I love the joy on a dog’s face when he’s leaping and turning in the air to catch a flying disc. Numerous studies have been done on the effects that play has on a dog’s well-being and relationships, and they all point to play being good for the body, mind and soul. But it’s important to take your dog’s age into consideration when playing with him, and to choose games that are appropriate for his life stage — especially if he’s a puppy or a senior.

Best and worst games for puppies

Puppies tend to be the rowdiest and most exuberant of the bunch. Their zest for life and free spirit can have them jumping, spinning and slipping down the hallway. However, a puppy’s body continues growing and developing until around the age of two, which means serious injury can occur if care isn’t take during playtime.

“We need to be mindful of the fact that during growth, there are soft areas at the ends of a dog’s bones where growth of those bones occurs,” says veterinarian and animal chiropractor Dr. Mary L. Cardeccia. “These areas are more susceptible to concussive forces than calcified bones, and can be injured when the puppy jumps down from a height, repeatedly leaps over things, or plants weight on a limb and then twists. Injury to the growth plate can cause it to close early and alter the shape or length of the limb, so we really want to avoid this.”

With this in mind, that disc game I mentioned earlier would not be ideal for a growing puppy. If not a flying disc, then, what about a good game of ball? “Dogs of any age chasing a ball can flip end over end, injuring their backs, or can jam their joints from hard stops and starts,” says veterinarian Dr. Jim. D. Carlson.

Dr. Cardeccia recommends that puppies under six months of age only play gentle tugging games, always keeping four feet on the floor. “We always need to monitor tugging, and make sure to use the proper form and not encourage or engage with crazy head shaking and similar behaviors,” she adds. Dr. Carlson agrees that playing a heavy tug-of-war game can injure any dog, especially a puppy: “One big issue when it comes to orthopedic injuries due to play is the aggressiveness and intensity of the play.”

When playing tug, use a soft tug toy and do not provide your pup with a lot of tension on the other end. Release the tug if he starts to get too rowdy or forceful. Continue with the game, but calmly redirect your puppy to focus his attention on you.

Any game you play with your puppy should be low-impact and controlled. For dogs under six months, Dr. Cardeccia suggests “moderate, play-based, low-impact skill training (such as stay, sit, down, come); if adding any kind of controlled jumping moves, the jumps should be no higher than the puppy’s carpus (wrist).” Outside of play, she also recommends moderate exercise such as walks and gentle hikes in the woods or along nature trails.

When a puppy is between six and 14 months of age, you can moderately increase the intensity of his play and exercise. Dr. Cardeccia states you can now incorporate strength-training games and tricks into your young dog’s repertoire. A few fun age-appropriate tricks include “crawl”, “roll over” and “wave”. Any jumps can be increased to elbow height.

When your puppy reaches 14 months of age, you can once again increase the difficulty and duration of his play. More tugging can be played, but it’s important to always ensure your dog keeps four feet on the floor, which means no tugging in midair. Dr. Cardeccia suggests adding new games such as retrieving up hills. “You can start to introduce endurance training now, with sustained trotting for 20 minutes three times weekly, continuous swimming for five minutes, increasing as the dog is able.”

When your puppy reaches 14 months of age…add new games such as retrieving up hills.

Best and worst games for seniors

We can’t all stay young and agile forever. But just because a dog’s body starts to slow down, that doesn’t mean the fun has to stop. A study done in 2012 showed that older dogs who were provided a behaviorally-enriched environment, along with a diet rich in antioxidants, developed better cognition skills, with levels approaching those seen in young dogs. You just need to ensure your senior dog is playing the right games correctly.

“Among the major injuries I often see in dogs of middle to older age are torn cruciate ligaments,” says Dr. Carlson. He believes these injuries occur because people are playing too intensely with their older dogs. “A great way not to overdo things is to ensure your dog is obedience trained and will come when called, and will sit or lie down calmly,” he says. “Find distractions when things get too rough.”

“As our dogs age, their balance and core strength weaken,” Dr. Cardeccia adds. “Specific exercises that can help with this, and they can become a fun part of new games. However, games that require a fair amount of balance and body awareness (disc, ball, etc.) may be more likely to set an older dog up for injury if he isn’t kept conditioned to play those games. For example, tugging may not be the best game for dogs with intervertebral disc issues. Neither would be games that involve jumping on/off objects, or significant twisting/wrestling.”

“Tugging may not be the best game for dogs with intervertebral disc issues.”

Instead of playing rough and hard games with your dog, whatever his age, think of more controlled, low-impact and mindful forms of play. For instance, training and tricks are great ways to play and interact with your dog. Find-it games, in which your dog searches out specific objects, toys, or even family members are enjoyed by most canines. When in doubt, speak with your dog’s veterinarian to find out what type of play is a go or a no. When it comes to your dog, he just wants you time, so it’s important to make that time as safe and fun as possible!


Tonya Wilhelm is a dog training and cat care specialist who has traveled the US promoting positive ways of preventing and managing behavior issues with a holistic approach. Named one of the top ten dog trainers in the US, she has helped thousands build happy relationships with their dogs with humane, positive training methods. She wrote Proactive Puppy Care, and other books. Tonya offers group and private dog training classes, provides training and behavior services via phone and online, and does workshops at pet expos (