Play is essential to your dog’s social and mental well-being. Growing recognition of the importance of play is evident in the increasing number of dog parks and day cares, as well as programs like Aimee Sadler’s “Playing for Life” which has revolutionized the experience of dogs in shelters by allowing shelter dogs to play together. While it is easy to see why socializing is important, in practice it can be challenging to find safe venues in which to socialize your dog. Daycares and trainers that offer socialization classes or meetups can be pricey, while dog parks can be unpredictable. Reading other dogs’ or even your own dog’s signals can be difficult, especially with growly play styles, and stakes are high where multiple dogs are playing together and a fight could be catastrophic.
While there are no absolutes, and every rule has an exception, by watching dog behavior very closely and staying involved, you can choose a play group for your dog and guide your dog towards playing safely. Each dog is an individual, and not every dog will play well with every other dog. Even as your dog makes recurring friends and you become confident about the type of dogs and play styles she prefers, never assume you know how a play session will go. Your dog is constantly changing, developing, and getting new ideas. Watch closely and keep an open mind to stay one step ahead of behavioral changes.
Dogs press together side by side or butt to butt in a show of solidarity. They lick faces when they are showing friendship or making up for a social misstep. They lower themselves when they are showing submission, and stand over or put their paw or head on dogs to whom they are displaying dominance. Positions of dominance and submission are ever-shifting.
Dogs without social understanding think themselves attacked when they are reprimanded and fight back for their lives, or respond to rude behavior with attack instead of reprimand because they have not developed bite inhibition. Some dogs think themselves the Play Police, and will step between play they think is too rambunctious by reprimanding other dogs. Some dogs, overwhelmed by social interaction, shut down completely and seek hiding places.
Don’t be Afraid to Get Involved
Perhaps because of my years working with groups of other people’s dogs at the dog daycare, when I brought my reactive rottweiler to the dog park I was unafraid to get involved. I tried not to notice the other owners looking offended as I bodied my way through their dogs. I knew how critical it was that my rottie learn to socialize correctly. Her initial reactions to everything, including other dogs, was fearful. As she gained confidence, she also began to explore ways of responding to rude behavior with other dogs, as well as being rude herself. As she tested her limits and control, I intervened constantly and worked on her recall and restraint with treats and affection. While there were tense moments, we never had a fight or a serious incident. There were some dogs she didn’t play well with, and some with whom she had to be watched, but when she found her forever home, with two happy pit mixes, she got along fabulously with them from the beginning, and the family hasn’t had a problem with her and other dogs ever since.
How to Intervene
Intervene by keeping your body between your dog and the dog you are concerned about, by calling your dog, by walking your dog away for some time, distracting with a toy or treat, or whatever works. The goal should be to find something that can motivate your dog to leave play of her own accord. Work on call back with your dog as much as possible, as this is the easiest way to intervene and check to ensure that play is not too intense. Reward well for good call backs, especially when your dog is immersed in play. Don’t be afraid to push into the group of dogs, and don’t hesitate to use your body to push other dogs gently out of your way. Dogs will respect you for taking their space and will respond by giving space to you and your dog. Never reprimand or punish your dog for rude behavior during play. Punishment can’t teach self control and won’t help your dog resist that specific behavior again, although it may deter her from play altogether.
When to Intervene
Intervene as often as needed so that you feel confident that your dog is playing well and learning good social skills. Following are some things to look for to know if you should intervene or not, but if in doubt, intervene.
Play bows are the quintessential proof that dogs are playing. If both dogs bow, no matter how intense their game sounds, you can feel confident that they are playing. For instance, in the picture both dogs have their ruffs up. Generally, ruffs up is an indicator of potential aggression. Furthermore, these dogs’ play had been noisy and intense up to my taking this picture and after. A clear bow like this, however, showed me that they were playing well, and they never had any issues in the many hours they played together.
Marc Bekoff, while at the University of Colorado, did a study1 showing that dogs are most likely to play bow just before or immediately after performing an especially assertive behavior, such as a bite accompanied by a head shake. This pattern suggests that playing dogs recognize moments when their behavior can be misinterpreted as serious aggression and compensate by reminding their partner, “I’m still playing.” (Smuts & Ward, 2011 ¶3)
Breaks and Balance
Dogs have different play styles. Some are growly and like to wrestle, some are yippy and spring around, some just like to run like mad. No matter what the play style, all dogs should stop and initiate play, chase and be chased, and take breaks. Play should have balance. If one dog is always running or chasing, or if no one takes breaks during prolonged intense play, intervene to make sure everyone is enjoying playing.
They Seem Happy
Dogs at play are having fun. They should look like it. They should be frolicking, easily distracted, varying their game and engaging with toys and their environment. The AKC describes it this way:
A big, silly open-mouthed grin.
Exaggerated, bouncy movement. The dogs are acting silly.
Loud, continuous growling and snarling; again, exaggerated.
Do not trust tail wagging as an indication of happiness or intention of play. Dogs wag their tails to show excitement and anxiety, as well as happiness. Watch your dog’s face, the expression of her eyes and the carriage of her mouth and ears. A relaxed mouth and eyes are good indicators of a happy dog. Ears should move naturally, not be held perpetually laid back. Excessive yawning or lip licking indicates nervousness, while a high head and tail show confidence.
Learn your dog’s communications and play styles by staying involved, and enjoy watching your dog play.
Are they playing or fighting? A guide to evaluating rough pup play. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.akc.org/content/dog-training/articles/are-they-playing-or-fighting/