Play is the thing at 'Puppy Bowl'

The referee blows the whistle. "Puppy foul!"


Unfortunately for Andrew Schechter, this call means just what you imagine. In real life, Mr. Schechter, a production coordinator for Animal Planet, is training to be an actor. He probably never expected to have a role that requires so many paper towels and plastic bags. But they're part of the deal at the channel's Puppy Bowl , today for Super Bowl Sunday.

Puppy Bowl consists of a pack of puppies turned loose to play on a miniature football field. There's no script or plot, just all puppies, all the time -- except for the kitten half-time show.

Watching it can teach you lots about puppy play, an important part of a dog's development.

"One of the best parts of Puppy Bowl is watching the pups figuring out how to interact with one another," says dog trainer Victoria Schade, who works on the show. "Pups are constantly testing the mechanics of social interaction."

You can see dog body language in action, for example the "play bow," which Ms. Schade calls "the universal 'game on!' gesture" for dogs. Watch the responses to the bow, she says: "a return bow, a hop, or a quick stare then a dash away, which are all affirmative play gestures. Sweeping, exaggerated movements usually indicate playful intent."

To the novice dog owner, puppy play can seem surprisingly rough, but all that chewing, jumping and wrestling contains important lessons. Hearing a loud yelp from a playmate in response to a nip helps a pup learn his own strength -- and that he'd better not bite so hard next time if he wants the fun to continue.

Allowing this type of play is crucial if you want a well-socialized adult dog. The trick is to learn to judge when any behavior has gone too far.

"Sometimes it looks awful, but if the other puppy is coming back with the same intensity, it's OK," Ms. Schade says. "What's inappropriate is when we see relentlessness -- when a puppy keeps coming back when the other puppy is trying to get away."

When evaluating playmates, size might matter less than you think. During the show's taping, there's an Alaskan malamute who's perfectly gentle with the little guys on the field, backing off when they show discomfort by a yip or a rapid retreat, while a couple of the smaller players need frequent time-outs for what referee Mr. Schechter calls "Unnecessary rrruffness!"

All of the puppies on the show came from shelters and rescue groups, and part of the show's goal is to inspire viewers to adopt pets of their own. With personalities like these, watchers might find doing such a thing easy to imagine.



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