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 play looks like.
Often, we misread our dog’s play and stop an appropriate game because it looks too rough. But 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 play groups by size. Although this is understandable, especially for tiny dogs like Chihuahuas that could get accidentally hurt by a much larger dog, it’s not always the best way to find a compatible playmate.
More important are;
- Energy levels
While it’s not impossible for dogs of different ages, breeds, and energy levels to be best friends, it does offer up more challenges than well-matched dogs in the above areas.
Likewise, a pack of dogs can have a lot of fun together, but you usually find pairs gravitating towards each other.
Recognizing healthy play
Let’s face it; some dogs like to play rough. They show their teeth, growl, body slam and pin their friends to the floor. But how do you know that a) it’s an acceptable form of play and b) the other dog is Okay?
If you watch dogs together, there is a natural back and forth to their play. In a balanced game, no matter how rough it looks to us, 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 for example but a dog that’s enjoying the game will re-engage after a pause.
- Even in rough 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 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 a lot when adult dogs are playing with puppies.
- If you think that your dog is not enjoying playtime 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 their 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 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 manage it. If your dog is the bully, you can intervene by giving your dog a time-out until they are calm and then allow them to re-engage.
However, if they continue their bullying behavior after two time-outs stop play and try another day again. If they begin to play appropriately then allow them to 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 what is 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 to engage with and set up a play date away from the bullying dog.
Dogs play in any number of ways. But these are the most common and something you’ll regularly see at dog parks.;
Many dogs love this high-speed game. While some dogs prefer to be chased others prefer to do the chasing and even more 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 that has a high predatory drive chasing a much smaller dog and constant chasing without pauses.
Many dogs love a good wrestling match. A cooperative game may include, pawing, jumping, mounting, pushing, nipping the face, neck, and ears as well as shoulder barging and holding on to each other.
Wrestling dogs often have ‘bitey face’ in that there is a lot of teeth on show which is accompanied in many cases by growling. While it can seem like aggression, dogs happy with this style of play 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 that 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.
Perhaps one of the more controversial types of play. 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 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 style of play is very physical, and many of the dogs that enjoy it are sturdy breeds like Bulldogs.
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?
Whether it’s a toy, stick or sometimes even a tail, dogs that like to tug just can’t get enough. What’s even more fun than 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 will 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 tug. Firstly, if either dog is toy possessive, they may not appreciate having another dog share their toy. And 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 the play for any signs of tension.
Dog play styles conclusion
Dogs will often gravitate towards like-minded playmates without our help. However, dog parks can be overwhelming for shy or timid 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 players is unhappy, give both dogs a short timeout before releasing them to see if both want to re-engage.