Dog play styles: Get your game face on

Dog play styles

Dogs play for a variety of reasons. Not only does it help them learn motor skills, but it also teaches our dogs about social structure.

Dog play styles vary from dog to dog and breed to breed. And while many dog to dog interactions are positive, it’s important to recognize what normal dog play looks like. Often, we misread our dog’s play style and stop an appropriate game because it looks too rough. On the other hand, we allow inappropriate play because it seems like our dog is having fun.

So how do we know when our dogs and their playmates are enjoying themselves?


If you take your dog to a dog park, you’ll know that you don’t always get to choose your dog’s playmates. However, getting a compatible playmate for your dog can make the difference between a happy and relaxed dog or one that is stressed or scared.

Most doggy daycares, as well as dog parks, split groups by size. Although this is understandable, especially for small dogs like Chihuahuas that could get accidentally hurt by a much larger dog, it’s not always the best way to find a compatible friend.

More important are;

  • Playstyles
  • Energy levels
  • Age
  • Breed
  • Pairs

While it’s possible for dogs of different ages, breeds, and energy levels to be best friends, it does offer up more challenges than well-matched dogs. Likewise, a large group of dogs can have a lot of fun together, but you usually find two dogs gravitating towards each other.

Recognizing healthy play

Let’s face it; some dogs like to play rough. They show their teeth, growl, enjoy body slamming, neck biting, and pinning their friends to the floor. But how do you know that a) it’s an acceptable form of play style and b) the other dog is enjoying it?

If you watch dogs play together, there is a natural back and forth to their interactions. No matter how rough the dog play looks to us in a balanced game, dogs will take turns and pause briefly in between play.

So, if your dog meets a new friend and you’re not sure if they are having a good time, have a look for the following clues;

  • Look for loose body movements. Dog’s that are comfortable playing tend to be bouncy with relaxed limbs. The caveat to this is when dog’s first meet and are sizing each other up as a playmate. However, if they are comfortable with one another, they will quickly relax.
  • Dog’s that are enjoying their time together take turns. This doesn’t have to be equal as some dogs prefer to be chased or chase, but a dog that’s enjoying the play behavior will re-engage after a pause.
  • Even in rough high-energy play, your dog should come away without serious injury. Sometimes when dogs use their paws, accidental scratches happen, but they should be superficial. There’s also the likelihood that your dog will have slobber all over them – but as dogs bite inhibit, there should be no damage to your dog’s skin.
  • An even game doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog always has to have a playmate of the same size, although it does help. Dogs have ways of handicapping themselves to play. You’ll often see a much larger dog laying on the ground allowing a smaller dog to bounce all over them, as seen in the video below. The bigger dog is playing fair by offsetting his size advantage. You also see this type of behavior when adult dogs are playing with puppies.
  • If you think that your dog is not enjoying play style, look for signs of distress. If your dog clings to you, looks scared or yelps, stop the game.

How to spot a bully

Not to be confused with bully breeds, the type of bully we’re talking about is a dog that likes to intimidate other dogs and doesn’t take no for an answer. Unfortunately, bullying in the dog community is common, and dog parks are prime spots for a bullying dog to pick on its victims.

So how do you spot a bully, and what can you do to prevent it? None of us like to think of our dogs this way, but it’s important to be realistic. Signs to look out for include:

  • A dog that engages in aggressive or rough play even when the other dog isn’t interested.
  • Incessant barking at another dog despite lack of reciprocal interest
  • Standing over or pinning another dog to the ground despite the other dog’s submission
  • Charging, shoulder barging, or body slamming, or excessive mounting of another dog that isn’t enjoying the interaction
  • Constant attempts at engagement when the other dog is distressed

How to prevent bullying

If you suspect bullying behavior from either your own or someone else’s dog, you need to control it. If your dog is the bully, you can intervene by putting your dog on a leash and giving your dog a time-out until they are calm, and then allow them to re-engage.

However, after two time-outs, if they continue their bullying behavior, stop play and try another day again. If they begin to play appropriately, they can stay but stop before they become too excited.

If your dog is the victim of bullying behavior, you have two options. Firstly, remove them from harm, and secondly, have a conversation with the owner of the offending dog. While some people will be open to suggestions about appropriate play, this isn’t always the case. Rather than keep your dog in a situation they find stressful, find a dog that they do like and set up a private playdate away from the bullying dog.

Dog Playstyles

Dogs play in any number of ways. But these are the most common play styles and something you’ll regularly see at dog parks.;


Many dogs love to play this high-speed game. While some dogs prefer to be chased, others prefer to do the chasing, and even more, they will take it in turns. Rarely in this game is there any contact. The chased dog will stop at some point and face the pursuer, and then the dogs will either reverse roles or agree to continue as they were.

Danger signs to watch for are a chased dog looking scared or distressed: a larger dog with a high prey drive chasing a much smaller dog, and consistent and determined chasing without pauses.


Many dogs love a good wrestling match. A cooperative game may include pawing, jumping, mounting, pushing, nipping the face and ears, neck biting as well as shoulder barging, body slamming and holding on to one another.

Wrestling dogs often have ‘bitey faces’ in that there are teeth on show which is accompanied in many cases by growling. While it can seem like aggression, two dogs happy with this play style will have relaxed faces and loose body language.

Danger signs to look for are one dog looking distressed or actively trying to get away. Also, if the sound of the play changes, so the growls become harder or the tone changes.


Unlike wrestling, dogs that like to box aren’t into full-body contact. Instead, they will use their paws to initiate play. Boxing can range from stand-up paw to paw combat down to the gentlest of pokes. As this game mainly involves front paws, it’s relatively safe unless a dog has exceptionally long nails.

However, as with all play styles, not all dogs will enjoy being boxed. Danger signs to look for are hard stares, a dog that consistently turns away from the boxer, and growling that is not appropriate to play.

Body slamming

Perhaps one of the more controversial types of dog play styles. It involves the body slammer running at high speed at another dog (or human) and shoulder barging or hip-checking them. If you get compatible dogs, they love to play and will have a blast playing this game.

However, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of play, many dogs don’t appreciate it. This play style is very physical, and many of the dogs that enjoy it are sturdy breeds like Bully breeds.

If there’s a size or weight difference between dogs, it doesn’t take long for this game to stop being fun for the lighter party. Danger signs to look out for are avoidance or your dog using you as a shield?

Tug of war

Whether it’s a toy, stick, or sometimes even a tail, dogs that like to play tug can’t get enough. What’s even more fun than a tug, though, is when you have a friend on the other end. There’s a balance between the dogs, and neither is really interested in ‘winning.’ The act of tugging is a reward in itself.

You can often see self-handicapping in games of tug. A more powerful dog may choose to lay down to give the opponent a fair match, for example. There are a couple of dangers to look out for in a game of play tug.

Firstly, if either dog is toy possessive, they may not appreciate having to share their toy. Secondly, tugging usually means that dogs are face to face. As this can be interpreted as a ‘stare down,’ it’s important to keep an eye on this tug of war play style for any signs of tension.

Dog play styles conclusion 

Dogs who love to play with other dogs will often gravitate towards like-minded playmates without our help. However, a dog park can be overwhelming for shy, timid, or older dogs, and a playdate with the right friend is a much better way to build their confidence.

Play should be mutually beneficial and fun for both dogs. If you suspect that one of the parties is unhappy, give both dogs a short timeout before releasing them to see if both dogs start playing with one another again.

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