Doggy Play: What Defines Healthy Interactions

Doggy play! It’s something we’ve all seen plenty of times but it still seems to be a magical event that most people can’t quite interpret. It’s understandable though, considering canine communication is largely based on body language, while humans rely heavily on our nuanced and intricate verbal language. Back in Houston, I taught a lot of off-leash puppy classes. (It’s my goal to offer this service in San Antonio too, once I find the right space!) I spent a lot of time explaining play behavior and body language to puppy parents. Some thought playing was fighting and some thought rough play was ok. I realized that there’s a lot of misinformation about dog communication out there (especially regarding playtime) but more importantly, many people don’t have ANY information to draw on. The good news is, when your baseline is zero, you can only go up from there! From that realization, this article was born. I hope you share this with other friends who have dogs – once you know what to look for, it can be fun to interpret what your dogs are thinking and feeling when you’re at the park!

Puppies and dogs don’t play with Barbies and toy cars; they play with their teeth and claws. It’s completely understandable that some people are scared of what their puppy is doing to another when you can count every shiny tooth in your pup’s mouth from 5 feet away. Here are some general characteristics of happy, healthy play:

Greeting ritual: Before dogs can even begin to play, they have to get to know each other. What happens after the greeting ritual is largely determined by the personalities (and moods) of the two dogs meeting, but the initial greeting between dogs is fairly predictable. A polite greeting begins with the dogs coming towards each other in an arc, not in a straight, head-on direction. They generally go straight to checking out and sniffing the bikini and booty areas. They’ll probably walk in small circles as they sniff, and you’ll be able to see their spines curved in a gentle arc as this occurs. If one of the dogs stands still with a stiff body and straight spine, that dog is experiencing stress at this encounter. Ease the tension by stepping in and redirecting the more outgoing dog. Get his attention on something else while the other dog warms up. If both dogs are at ease and want to play, one of them will initiate by making a sudden “chase me!” movement and then freezing, prompting the other dog to give chase. If one of the dogs wants to play, but the other doesn’t, the disinterested dog will move away or give other non-verbal cues that he doesn’t want to participate, which I’ll discuss later.

Play bows: Play bows are an invitation to play. This happens when a dog sinks her front half to the ground but keeps her rear in the air. It kind of looks like her front half is lying down but her back half is standing. This can happen before and during play.

Role reversal: Sometimes your dog is doing the chasing, sometimes your dog is the one being chased. Sometimes your dog is on her back, sometimes she’s the one on top. There should be frequent role reversals in a play session to keep things light and happy. If, for instance, one dog is always the one pinning the other to the ground, step in and make sure the “underdog” is still having a good time. If you pull the more exuberant dog away for a minute, does her friend come running back for more, or does she want to go explore other things by herself? It’s important to make sure that everyone involved is having a good time.

Self-Handicapping: Have you ever seen a big adult dog try to play with a little puppy? Sometimes you’ll see the bigger dog flatten herself on the floor in an attempt to match the puppy’s size. Or you’ll see the adult dog be just a bit gentler in her play sessions than with other adults her size. Maybe the bigger dog doesn’t pull so hard during tug-o-war. These are examples of self-handicapping. The adult dog is “holding back” her natural play style to evenly match that of the puppy. This can happen between adult dogs of different sizes too. If you haven’t seen it, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kvCc3rKOvA. Get ready to let out some “awwwws” as you watch the Great Dane lay down and even roll over to allow the puppy to play with her face.

If your dog is not skilled at self-handicapping, you’ll need to closely monitor play times with other dogs. If your dog begins to overwhelm the other dog, call your dog away, ask her to show you some self-control (a few seconds of sitting or lying down) and let her go back to playing. You might have to do this exercise many times, but eventually your dog starts thinking “Hmm, every time I start pouncing on my friend, my human makes me stop playing and sit. That’s no fun. Maybe I’ll try something besides pouncing!”

Frequent breaks: Healthy play comes in waves, and so play breaks should occur often. These breaks might only last a few seconds – you might see a dog break off from play to drink water or sniff the ground, and then go right back to chasing her friend. This is kind of like a dog catching her breath. Sometimes you’ll see the more mature dog take a break to calm the energy of the younger dog. If you see this happening, be sure to tell the dog you like their behavior! Just an approving word or two with a pleasant tone of voice will let your dog know that this behavior is encouraged. Humans often ignore good behavior, instead only giving feedback when their dog is misbehaving. Don’t miss your chance to tell your dog what behaviors you DO like!

Shake offs: Sometimes in play you may see a dog stop and shake off, kind of like she just got out of a bath. This is what I call the reset button. When I see a dog do this, I always imagine the dog saying “Well, that was fun!” Usually the dog will go right back to play, but sometimes this also communicates when the dog has had enough and is ready to move on. If the other dog doesn’t get the hint after a few brush-offs, it’s best to step in and redirect the tenacious one before your dog gets too annoyed.

Loose body language: This one is huge! You want happy, relaxed, “waggy” bodies. The tail moves side to side in a loose manner, the mouth may be slightly open with gentle panting, and in general, there is a very relaxed feeling to the way the dog walks. You need to stay very aware of this though, because body language can change in the blink of an eye. Standing stock-still with a rigid posture, a closed mouth, ears pulled flat against the head or the tail stiffly waving back and forth are signs that your dog is anxious, tense and not having a good time. Step in, call the exuberant playmate away and let your dog initiate play again ONLY if she wants. If it’s clear that she’s not having fun and wants to leave, then leave. Don’t stress your dog out because YOU think playtime is fun for her.

Growling isn’t always bad: People get scared when they hear their dog growl. Yes, it can be a warning for the other dog to back off and give space but it can also be a sign of play. You want to look at what your dog’s body is telling you. If they are engaged in the play activity, most likely the growl means she is very into the play session. Some people even growl when they play with their dog! Ever play tug-o-war with your pup and find yourself growling to get her more amped up? Contagious isn’t it? On the other hand, if her body is very stiff, or her mouth is closed or maybe twitching to show some teeth, that most likely means she’s not having a good time and you should step in to redirect the energy away from her.

If you got the impression from reading this that I want you to constantly be ready to break up play time, then DING DING DING – you’re right!! It’s not enough to just notice what your dog is doing from the corner of your eye, you need to be involved in managing her behavior from the start. Catch the early warning signs and avert a bad experience BEFORE it happens. Dog are just like kids. One moment they’re playing and laughing, and the next minute, little Timmy is crying. Always monitor play, even if it’s with your pup’s best friend. Do you have a best friend that you never got upset with at one point or another? Probably not. Play is a fast-paced event. Things can go from happy to “uh-oh” very quickly. I mentioned these signs and signals earlier but because these are extremely important, I think it’s worth outlining again. If you see any of the following, be ready to intervene before things escalate:

Stiff body: That moment you feel like your dog is holding her breath and you are too. Her body becomes very still, her mouth closes tightly and sharply at once, her tail is very high in the air, her ears are up and she has a hard stare in her eyes. You very quickly want to redirect her attention back on you. I like to do this verbally. If you decide to grab her by the collar at this moment, please be careful! Your dog is very aroused mentally and she might not react to your action positively.

Stalking: This looks just like it sounds. Your dog’s inner lion comes out as she slinks very close to the ground moving closer to her prize. For some dogs who know each other very well, this can just be part of their play. Faye, my chiweenie, does this to Sully, my schnauzer, all the time. For dogs that aren’t familiar with each other, this can lead to some trouble. If your dog is known to have a high prey drive, I would discourage this behavior and redirect to a different activity.

Mounting/Humping: Dogs mount or hump for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s a dominance display, sometimes it’s play, and sometimes it’s a sign that your dog is overly aroused mentally. Just like stalking, if this behavior occurs between two best friends, it might be ok. I worked at a daycare where two females would spend all day humping each other. Neither one of them ever got upset and they would take turns doing it to each other. But some dogs won’t tolerate this behavior from anyone. So to be on the safe side, redirect this behavior to a different activity.

Dogs will display many behaviors to communicate that they are not enjoying a certain interaction. Most dogs are good at picking up these cues and finding a new playmate, but some dogs (usually young adolescents) need a little more help. If your dog starts to avoid the situation, tries to disengage play, very quickly licks her lips, avoids eye contact, or maybe even growls, help her out by redirecting the other dog. If your dog is making another dog uncomfortable, redirect your dog. Call her over to you, have her sit, and get her involved in another activity. And remember – give good feedback when she is playing and not being overwhelming! Telling her when she’s doing well, not just stepping in when she’s being inappropriate, goes a long way towards teaching your pup manners.

Note: Never get mad at your dog for growling. It’s her only way of communicating that she is uncomfortable with the current situation.

Just like we had to learn as children what is appropriate or not in our society and culture, so do dogs. Puppies have a critical socialization period between 8 and 12 weeks of age. This is when they learn what is and isn’t appropriate play and interaction. Their litter mates and mom should begin the teaching but that responsibility becomes yours when you bring puppy home. It’s extremely important for all you puppy parents out there to get your puppy socialized with other puppies and dogs as soon as you get her. Find a puppy socialization class where puppies can do this safely without jeopardizing health. Or find a friend or family member who has an appropriate and healthy dog who wouldn’t mind having an overly exuberant puppy to play with.

If you want to see more videos of dog play while I continue to build up my own library, check out Patricia McConnell’s website: http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/appropriate-play-between-dogs.

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