What Play Looks Like

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What Play Looks Like

What Play Looks Like

I could write pages and pages about dog body language and the various nuances that dogs communicate with their bodies, but today I am going to focus on play behavior and what it looks like. The weather is finally cooperating and we have already discussed the different things you can do with your dog this season and the various hazards to be aware of. You may be using this great spring weather to take your dog to social areas like fenced dog parks to play with others. If you do allow your dog to play off leash with other dogs, and we definitely do not recommend on leash play, this blog will hopefully help you discern appropriate play behavior from inappropriate behavior in a social setting.

Let’s start with defining play. Play behaviors are essentially the way a dog practices instinctive life skills. While children may play “house” or “doctor,” dogs play hunting, foraging, fighting, fleeing and reproduction. These behaviors are often exaggerated and goofy looking, however, they hone the same skills a wild canine would need to survive. A great example of exaggeration is when you see a dog tuck their rump down and sprint around, rather than a long-legged lope, often in circles or around a perimeter. This is not really a necessary behavior, but an exaggerated flight response. You will often see meta-behaviors preceding play, such as bows, turns, etc. This lets the other dogs know that the instigator is interested and the following behavior is meant to be friendly, not aggressive. Since play often includes mock biting, growling and chasing, these meta-signals give the dogs license to play without being misinterpreted.

Appropriate play is often punctuated by pauses, trading positions and handicapping (letting the other dog “win” some rounds). You often see the handicapping behavior when friendly larger dogs play with smaller dogs or puppies. The bigger dog will lie down or roll on their back letting the puppy “win” for the moment. These little pauses in play allow the participants to catch their breath and ensure they are both still up for playing. You may even see one of the players throw in a random calming signal like yawning or scratching that seems out of place, but tells the other dog they need a momentary break. This is often followed by some social grooming or face cleaning.

Jaw sparring, or playing with open mouths, is a common play behavior that some owners are less comfortable with. Jaw sparring is practice fight behavior but involves inhibiting biting. This is a great way for dogs to learn how to modify their bite and only use mild pressure. Many dogs will play this way while lying down facing each other or as part of a wrestling match. Some dogs also look like they are nipping the back legs or feet of other dogs, but appropriate play includes inhibiting the strength of the jaws and can include grabbing or playing with limbs. As long as all participants are not stressed and are playing back, this can be part of normal play.

To some degree, the familiarity of the dogs playing does matter. Dogs who play together regularly will often play more roughly without escalating than new friends, since they have a history of trust and companionship. For example, housemates may grab each other around the scruff or neck using inhibited strength, but newly introduced dogs might become uncomfortable with this type of play. Play styles also matter. Different breeds and individuals play differently and it is often wise to try to pair your dog with a similar personality type. For example, a sight hound will often have more of a chasing play style with lots of sprinting and group running than a bulldog who would probably prefer wrestling and mouth play.

Normal play can include growling, chasing, jaw sparring, wrestling, and even jumping at or around other dogs. While some of these behaviors can seem intense, it is important to judge the play by the dogs reaction, not your own. Many people intercede their puppy’s play and stop games that would otherwise teach their young dog how to socially engage others. If all the dogs involved seem to be enjoying themselves, there is a quick test you can use to see if the play is fun for everyone. Simply remove the dog you think is being a bully. You can do this yourself if you know and trust the dog or you can ask the dog’s owner to please hold them for a moment. If the other dog, the one you think is being bullied, escapes than you might be right and they might have needed a break. If the other dog comes right at the removed dog or follows them, they were probably having fun and don’t want to lose their playmate. Making your dog take short breaks is a good idea anyway if you don’t see moderate pauses on their own.

Remember, play allows your dog to practice behaviors they would need to survive. It also strengthens relationships, stimulates mental and physical exercise, and allows your dog to be around their cohorts. While some play may look intense to us, it’s important to look at the players involved and if you are ever unsure, simply remove your dog from the situation. A few things to look for in play that has turned sour are prolonged growling or growling that exposes teeth, ears flattened against the skull or tail held low and still, or lunging with ongoing barking. If you see these behaviors, it may mean that the dog involved has become overwhelmed or stressed and it’s good time for a time out.

Happy Training!

Tamar Paltin
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator