What is Healthy Dog Play?

Healthy Dog Play

Most (not all) dogs need and want to spend time with other dogs, especially when they are young.  A dog that has positive dog-play experiences with a variety of dogs will usually make a better family companion because he is exercised and accustomed to other dogs, so providing play experiences for your dog can be important.  However, bad encounters with other dogs can lead your dog to become fearful or aggressive, if not immediately, later in life.  So what do you need to do to ensure positive play experiences?

Knowing what healthy play is, and what it looks like, is essential.  Dog owners will be better able to manage their dogs and keep them safe when they can recognize healthy play.

The signs of healthy dog play

Here is a video of two dogs (clients) who live together in the same home.  Look at it for signs of healthy play described below.

Play bows

Look for momentary pauses — some may be very short!  During this break the dogs regroup and seem to ask each other “You still playing? You still up for a romp?”  Often times these pauses will include something called a play bow, when the dog lowers his chest down on his front legs while his rear legs stay high.

Bouncy movement

During play dogs bounce and sometimes will do quick curved turn aways with their bodies.

Paw raises

Does your dog paw at you?  Paw raises are a request for engagement and are seen in play.

Swapping roles

Its good if one dog is not relentlessly bullying the other.  Though the brown and white whippersnapper in the video is very fast and the more assertive of the two, the dogs parry back and forth with their play bites and rolls.   The blond one seems to prefer a low attack to the legs.

Compatible energy and style

Some dogs are very mellow and do not like roughhousing.  Other dogs, like mine, are exuberant rompers and like to tackle and roll.   These two dogs have energy levels that are well matched.  The younger brown and white one is a little grabby, but he lets go and the older blond does not yelp or indicate that he is hurting her.

Some dogs enjoy playing with dogs that are more assertive than they are, but watch out for signs that the more gentle dog wants the other to back off.  Such signs would be snapping,  staring and standing ground, or even coming to you for shelter or support.

Similar size

When dogs that are very different in size play together, play is more risky.  A small dog can easily get hurt unintentionally by a large dog, and sometimes when that happens the dogs can become more amped up, leading to rougher play, fear, and possible aggression.    That being said there are a lot of dogs that play well with smaller dogs and vice versa; the big dog “handicaps” himself by doing things like rolling over onto his back or lying down while the other plays over him.

If you are going to let small and large dogs play, its good to supervise.  Its also good if the dogs get to know each other fairly well by walking or short play bouts together.

Wiggly bodies and faces

Hard, still, rigid bodies and stares are signs to stop play; loose play is good.

What do about inappropriate play

What to do if the play is inappropriate?  If there is a yelp, or one dog starts snapping at the other back him off?  Stop play.   It’s not uncommon to need to interrupt behavior that is going over the top.  I interrupt my big dog, Ginger, when she grabs at another dog’s collar.  It makes me uncomfortable and seems like it could make the other dog uncomfortable.  I do this with a “gotcha.” Its a cue that means “I am stopping play now by grabbing your collar and bringing you near me to sit for a moment.”  Its helpful if you can get the other dog’s owner to grab their dog at the same time.  (Good communication with the owner of any dog you are playing with is essential.)  Once play is interrupted, wait for the dogs to calm down, and either end play or release them to play again if you think they are calm.   If you have a  great recall, you can also call your dog away during a pause, as often when one dog has had enough the dogs will take a momentary break.  Give your dog something yummy after a “gotcha” or if the dog makes the choice to come to you during a play break.

Dog’s Play Changes as the Dog Ages

Its good to recognize that when puppies turn to adults, around 2-3 years of age,  their approach to play may change.  Perhaps they take things more seriously and it’s not “play” as much as it used to be.  Or perhaps they tire more quickly and become less tolerant of other dogs.  Take note of these changes so that you can better manage your dog’s play time.

To ensure healthy play for your dogs, set up good play dates, be mindful of how your dogs plays and with whom, and do be aware or your dogs changing needs and interests.

Want more information on dog play?

Check out Patricia McConnell’s web site  http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/appropriate-play-between-dogs  She has some nice videos

If you are interested in scientific research, check out the work of Marc Bekoff.

Thank you, Sue Sternberg, for thoughts on the video clip.


About Laurene

Laurene von Klan is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer serving West Los Angeles
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