Play is Essential
Play is essential to a dog’s social and mental well-being. Growing recognition of the importance of play is evident in the increasing number of dog parks and daycares, 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.
Dogs are social animals, so it isn’t surprising that they like to be together. Letting dogs play together runs out their energy and offers mental and physical exercise.
Where Can My Dog Play?
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 can be pricey, and dog parks can be unpredictable. Reading dogs’ signals can be difficult, especially with growly play styles, and stakes are high where multiple dogs are playing together.
You can never completely eliminate risk when dogs play, but by learning some signals and keeping a careful eye on playing dogs, you can greatly reduce the possibility of a fight or confrontation among the dogs.
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 that she prefers, never assume that 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. A glance or raised lip can warn away an overeager playmate or show possession over an object.
Communication displays are constantly changing but always present. If you watch a group of dogs closely you will see that they are always talking to one another.
In her book, The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company, Elizabeth Thomas delves deeply into the relationships between dogs, as well as the relationships dogs have with us. This book can help you to understand some of the complexity in the relationships your dog has. It is scientifically based, in-depth and is warm and sympathetic without anthropomorphizing.
Dog behaviorists consider positions of power between dogs to be ever-shifting. When a valued resource like a toy or bone is presented, dogs express how highly they desire that item and so determine who should have it. In this way dogs in a group can effectively avoid fights, which are dangerous to individuals and harmful to the group.
That said, dogs sometimes grow up without socialization or are by nature more timid or bossy than average. Get to know your dog well to understand her personality and play style.
Don’t be Afraid to Get Involved
Some dogs will never display pushy or aggressively dominant behavior, others will struggle with it and need lots of work. While breed does influence a wide range of behaviors, individuals of any breed may have any personality.
Never assume that a dog will act in a particular way because of breed, size, or anything else. Treat each dog as the individual she is. It is easy to get caught up watching a dog that you think looks dangerous, and overlook another dog that is actually displaying suspicious behavior.
If you are worried, intervene. You won’t regret working on your dog’s callback, but you will regret allowing a fight to happen. Don’t worry about other dog owners who may think that you are being overprotective. Safety is the most important thing. A few bad experiences may cause both you and your dog to be afraid to go back.
Visiting the Dog Park, by Cheryl S. Smith, has some great straightforward advice on taking your dog to the dog park safely. The dog park is a unique environment, unlike anywhere else that you may go with your dog, and it isn’t a bad idea to take some time to get acquainted with them before you bring your dog.
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 that dogs are playing. If in doubt, intervene.
1. Play Bows
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.
In this picture, both dogs have their ruffs up, which is something to watch for as a warning sign in play. Furthermore, these dogs 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 that 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)
2. 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.
3. 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 can tell you a lot about how she is feeling. 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. A high, stiff tail and raised ruff indicate insecurity and a dog who may assert itself.
Below is a video of dogs engaged in positive, although intense, play. Pay attention to the facial expressions and body language. Although one of the dogs does have her ruff up, her open, smiling mouth and play bows show that she is having fun.
How to Intervene
Practice pulling your dog out of play, even when play is going well, so that you will easily be able to intervene whenever necessary.
Intervene by putting 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 and feels natural for you.
Don’t be afraid to push into the group of dogs if your dog doesn’t respond, and don’t hesitate to use your body to push other dogs gently out of your way
Work on callback 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 your dog with high value treats when she comes back when you call, especially when she is immersed in play.
Never reprimand or punish your dog or any dog for rude behavior during play. If your dog isn’t responding to your callbacks, work towards finding something that can motivate her, like a tasty treat that she associates with a particular sound. Try associating a beep from a remote collar with a treat to get your dog back when she is highly distracted.
Punishment can’t teach self-control and won’t help your dog resist that specific behavior again, although it may deter her from play all together or elevate her negative emotional responses.
With careful observation and participation on your part, your dog will enjoy playing safely with her friends at the dog park.
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/