How to Understand Dog Play

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Dogs who have an opportunity to play with other dogs are happier, and they have better mental and physical health. They become better socialized, more relaxed in a variety of settings, and more proficient in understanding canine body language. This leads to smoother interactions when meeting strange dogs. Whether you have a multiple dog household, regularly attend an off-leash dog park, or take your dog to a daycare facility, a basic understanding of what constitutes normal play will help you make good choices for your pet.

There are a few key differences in play between dogs who live together and those who don’t. Dogs belonging to the same pack have already established a relationship and a hierarchy. Each dog knows the play style of the others and their play tends to take established patterns. Dogs who don’t live together but know each other well will also exhibit these patterns.

Dogs who are meeting for the first time, or who are only casually acquainted, learn about each other’s play style and natural tendencies as part of play. Their games will be more trying out different activities to see what’s most fun, and may involve some moments of one or the other dog (and probably both) seeming to be unsure. This is all right, as long as they soon return to a relaxed state.

Always watch your dogs when they are playing, keeping an eye out for any warning signs that behavior is about to turn. Some of the signs are quite subtle, but the more familiar you are with your own dog’s normal behavior and play style, the more attentive you will be to these small signs, enabling you to stop play before it escalates into a scrap or fight.

Because dog play can involve biting, rolling, and pawing, there can be a misconception that things are “too rough” and dogs are prevented from enjoying their normal play style by overly-protective owners. To be sure, there are situations in which one dog bullies another, but with just a little experience, you can easily identify the difference.

In the course of normal play, dogs will typically switch roles. For example, in a game of chase, one dog will be chased for a while, and then will switch to being the chaser. This is a general rule; there are some dogs who prefer one role and will therefore switch less often during a game. This is still perfectly normal, for that dog.

Normal play is very fluid, with dogs moving easily in what is often described as “curved movements.” Tails and necks move loosely and backs and legs tend to curve in motion.

Warning signs to watch for include:

  • Stiff posture, especially the tail
  • Lip licking, yawning, or dramatic turning away of the head
  • Tension in the face (you will actually see veins or tendons standing out)
  • One dog tending to dominate the game and persisting in aggressive actions even after you have tried to redirect him

Many dogs will exhibit a stress signal at some point during normal play. In most cases, this is recognized by the other dog, who will change his own behavior to restore camaraderie. Allow a moment for this natural correction to take place. If stress signals continue, increasing in number, that’s your sign to call a halt to play.

Break up play calmly. Don’t be overly harsh or overly protective to any dog involved. Step calmly between them to redirect their attention, saying something like, “That’s enough,” or “Easy.” Don’t reach in to pull apart playing dogs, just as you wouldn’t reach in to separate fighting dogs. Use your body and calm voice instead.

Dogs with very different play styles may not play together well. For example, a high-energy dog may be intimidating to a dog who is more laid back. Neither dog is doing anything wrong; they are simply not compatible and that’s all right.

This is, to be sure, a very brief introduction to dog play body language. There are whole books devoted to the subject with much more detail than can be given in this short column. Your best teacher is observation. Watching not only your own, but other groups of playing dogs, will help you to refine your eye.

Dog play is a great activity for most dogs. Just as with people, there are some who prefer to watch from the sidelines, but every dog should have the opportunity to find this out for herself.

NR Tomasheski is a dog trainer who spent seven years as co-owner of a canine daycare, boarding, and grooming facility in Sherman Oaks, California. She has competed with her own dogs in agility, obedience, and rally.

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