Understanding Dog Play

As owners, especially in single dog households, the act of play between dogs can sometimes be confusing and stressful. Often, we misunderstand what is actually going on. Sometimes we see what is in actual fact, good healthy play, and think they are fighting, similarly, we can mistake what is actually over arousal and dangerous play to be just fun and games. It is really important that we know what dogs are communicating to each other during play.

When dogs play together, what we see is a series of activities and repetitive behaviours which, when performed in a different context, could have an entirely different meaning, so no wonder your average dog owner gets confused! In the right context, healthy play is how dogs learn to interact with other dogs and learn valuable life skills, gaining positive experiences which promote good mental and physical health. Good, healthy play relies on both the dogs and us as owners and care givers having the ability to read both vocal signals and signals given through body language. Play is so important in the social development of our dogs.

Dogs who do not have the ability to play are usually poor communicators and are unable to identify important communication markers coming from other dogs. Play, in itself, is a mock fight. Poor players often play rudely, mouthing too hard, body slamming, mounting or humping and generally causing chaos. This kind of play behaviour can provoke negative reactions from the dogs they are attempting to play with. Play is only fun if both dogs are enjoying what’s happening.

When one dog is not enjoying the experience, play becomes bullying. Most young dogs learn to play from their litter mates, parents and peers as they leave the litter and go to their new homes. Some, due to a lack of social opportunities don’t hone these skills as they grow. Some dogs are simply hardwired to play rudely and will always require early interruption from their owners and a low stimulus environment to keep play safe. A pushy dog, or one who plays too rough must not be allowed to continue this behaviour. It is not acceptable to take the stance of “the other dog will tell him”. This puts the other dog in a very negative situation which could have ongoing repercussions. It is your responsibility as an owner to ensure that your dog learns these life skills and that you have control over any play situations they might enter into. It would not be acceptable for toddlers to bite and hit if they don’t like the way another child is playing so why do we deem it appropriate for dogs to do it? As we keep saying, dogs have the cognitive ability of toddlers, yet we seem to expect them to be these all-knowing psychic beings. We have very unrealistic expectations of Man’s best friend sometimes.

One of the first steps that we, as owners, can take towards safeguarding play is to teach a reliable recall. If you have good recall from your dog you can call them out of a situation before things get too rowdy. You can then allow your dog to calm down a bit before reintroducing play. Good healthy play can often sound and look horrendous but providing both dogs are enjoying the experience and are exhibiting relaxed body language human intervention isn’t required. Conflict is avoided so long as the dogs are showing mirroring behaviours. One dog wins, then the other dog wins, one dog is on the bottom then the other dog is on the bottom, one dog is chasing, then the other dog is chasing. They create space through play bowing and body shakes.

Always be aware of arousal levels. Good players are confident and relaxed and maintain good order during play by using clear body language signals so that the other dog does not become too aroused nor overwhelmed. Play begins during puppyhood and helps pups to develop their coordination whilst also allowing them to practice these series of exaggerated behaviours which promote social ease. Most safe play between dogs relies upon a series of cut off signals which communicate their continued engagement in play and peaceful intention.

Play bows, displacement behaviours like sniffing, yawning, sneezing, scratching, fully body shakes for brief moments during play all help to communicate that they are still playing and this is still a fun game. The best part of play is that most dogs grow old still wanting to interact and play with others. Play works best when both dogs understand the rules and keep their arousal levels in check. When both dogs are mirroring each other and taking turns.

Vocal play is ok too. It’s not different from children in a playground squealing in excitement and loud chatter. We only need to be concerned when the chatter turns to shouting, as with dogs, you can hear the change of tone between play and aggression. If one dog is giving appeasement signals and trying to get away yet the other is still in full on play mode this situation could escalate without intervention. In well socialised dogs, these signals are recognised and the other dog backs off, there is good understanding between the players.

Understanding how dogs play and their communication signals ensures that play remains a fun and healthy activity.

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