Recognize signs of healthy play in dogs

Dogs playing together – at doggie day care centers, dog parks or on play dates – can be as fun to watch as it is fun for them. But sometimes, dog owners are often alarmed when they first see their dog really play with other dogs. There may be growling, biting, humping, barking. It  can look like fighting. It makes owners uncomfortable.

Dogs do not play nicely, politely waiting their turn to kick the ball. Dogs run, chase, jump, bite, growl, bark, and wrestle. These things may look like aggression, but it really is play. However, these things can turn into true aggression. We as owners must learn to recognize the difference between fun and fighting, so we can stop the action before it goes very badly.

How It Begins

Dogs Playing Together WellDogs have a couple of common behaviors that signify that they want to play.

  • The dog does a “play bow” where her front end low on the ground, but her rear end is up in the air and wiggling
  • The dog does a “play slap” where uses her front paw to slap the ground in front of other the dog
  • The dog has an open-mouthed smile. You’ll know because your dog’s jaw and eyes are relaxed. She may even be laughing  doggie-style looks like forced, breathy exhalation or panting.

A dog that is ready to have fun may or may not show these signs, but if you do see them, know that your dog ready for fun.

Switching Roles

While the dogs are playing, watch for them to frequently switch sides between chaser/chased or attacker/defender. If you see this role reversal, these dogs are likely playing. The time spent in one role or the other may not necessarily be a 50/50 mix, especially if one dog is bigger or older. But as long as there is some role reversal going on, the play is likely healthy.

On the other hand, if one dog is constantly jumping on another and not letting the other dog tackle, this may be a sign of bullying. Also, some dogs prefer chasing while other dogs do not like being chased. These situations can turn into a problem, and you want to step in here, especially if it is your dog on the ground or you see a game of chase that is very one sided.

Easy Peasy

Dogs who are playing well are basically going with the flow. What does this mean? Dog trainers say you will see a lot of action and it is pretty constant, but it does not reach fevered pitches or angry peaks. You want to watch for elevated or emotional changes  in the flow of play. It might show up in a particularly aggressive bout, a  bark that is higher than you had been hearing or a growl that is lower than before, or any sounds where there were none before. At this point, watch and see if you need to get involved.

Taking A Breath

If you have ever played really hard with others – friends, kids or dogs – you know you need to stop to breathe periodically. Same with dogs, especially because the DO tend to play hard! It is good when you see the dogs take frequent breathers – a pause of a few seconds where the dog stands, sits, or hold still or walks around before getting back into the fray. This means the play is friendly and not desperate. If you don’t see these frequent self-imposed breaks, you want to step in and make them take a break before letting them go back to play.

In fact, this is good to do early in the play session, especially dogs when don’t know each other well. This actually teaches them the behavior that is expected and favorable. Once, they get that, the dogs will start to take breaks themselves.

Note, there is a difference between a breather and a visual lock-on. During a breather, the dogs’ faces still look soft and relaxed, mouths are open and slack, tongues lolling out, eyes are excited. When one or both dogs stop playing, then get stiff and stare, a problem is coming. Immediately, diffuse the tension by creating space  between the dogs to truly take a break.

Hanging Loose

Dogs that are not playful are stiff: stiff tails and stiff bodies. This is the body language of defense. If one dog has a tail that is straight and trembling, play will not go well.

However, happy dogs are the opposite of stiff. Their tails swing, their tongues hang, their bodies wiggle, eyes shine. Even if they are full of energy, their muscles, demeanor and reactions are relaxed. This loose body language means that the play is fun. Even if dogs have relaxed body language,  it can change. If one dog has previously been running with a happy, loose tail while being chased, but it suddenly goes between her legs or stiff, step in and help him.

My Bad

Even socially skilled dogs who are good friends sometimes make mistakes–nipping a little too hard, for instance, or body-slamming with just that bit too much enthusiasm. Often, they’ll defuse the situation all by themselves. The dog on the receiving end of the mistake will yelp or snap and the dog who made the mistake will move out of the other dog’s space. One or both dogs will probably “shake off. This is behavior is healthy and OK if you see it and you can let them continue to play.

Ensuring Good Interactions

There are a few things you can do ahead of time to help make your dog’s play fun:

Don’t Panic – Watch

Because dog play can be rough and can be lightning fast, it can be difficult to interpret at first, and maybe alarming. You may see teeth and hear growls or barks, but watch the whole situation. Look the dogs’ faces and bodies. Are there open mouths, steady movement (wagging, running, jumping) and lots of change in the play? This is generally a good time happening. Also, watch the number dynamic. Dogs play best in pairs; when a third dog joins the mix, two often gang up on the third and this will not go well.

Bring Them Down First

A dog that has been cooped up in the house for days with no outlet may be a little too excited for play with other dogs, or anything for that matter that involves other people or animals. A dog that is a runaway train can overwhelm what had been a friendly dog and he is hard for the owner to pull their dog off or calm him down.

If your dog is like this, make sure your dog gets a little vigorous exercise before interaction with other dogs – a brisk walk, a short jog, or a play session with just you and her in the yard–to burn off excess energy before dog playtime.

Know Your Dog

The best way to know that play will go well is to observe, remember and learn about canine body language, in general, as well as your dog’s cues. Dogs have individual preferences and individual styles of play. You also have an idea of your dog’s energy levels and coping behavior when they are tired or cranky.What are potential conflict triggers for your dog? Have a plan for the when your dog is overexcited, anxious, or just tired.