Understanding Dog Play


Photo by Mandi Pratt | www.greyboypetprints.com

All too often, dog owners misread the language of dogs interacting with one another. Whether it's incorrectly defining innocent play as dangerous fighting or taking too lightly what is actually aggressive behavior, it is important to learn what dogs are saying to each other through their play.

Dog-to-dog play is a series of active and repetitive behaviors that have different meanings when performed in other contexts, but helps dogs develop important life skills and experiences that promote good physical and mental health.

Because play relies on the ability to read vocal and body signals, dogs that do not have the opportunity to play are usually deficient when it comes to communicating and identifying these signals. Play is, after all, mock battle, so dogs that tend to play rudely, body slamming, mouthing too hard, mounting and generally causing mayhem can provoke negative reactions in others,

About Dog Play

  • Most young dogs learn how to play from their peers or their elders, but some, due to lack of social experience or because they are simply hardwired to be rude, do not back down.
  • If a dog is pushy or plays too rough, the dog should not interact with other dogs until he or she learns to greet and play nicely.
  • Teaching a reliable recall and calling the dog back before things get too rowdy will give him time to calm down before reintroducing him back into the group.
  • Appropriate play sometimes looks very rough but human intervention is usually not needed.
  • Conflict is avoided as long as each dog allows the other to win and lose the game. The more aroused dogs become, however, the more likely it is that a mock battle turns into something more serious.
  • Good players are confident and actively seek out other dogs to play with, maintaining order during play by using clear signals so that other dogs do not become too aroused or overwhelmed.
  • Play begins in puppyhood and helps puppies develop good coordination while allowing them to practice a series of exaggerated behaviors that promote social ease.

Most dogs play safely with each other by relying on a series of cut off signals that communicate their peaceful intentions. Play bows, and displacement behaviors such as sniffing, sneezing, yawning, itching and licking occur for brief moments throughout play to communicate that any future action is still just play.

Bottom Line
The beauty of play is that for most dogs the desire to interact with others in such a manner continues into adulthood. Play works well when both dogs know the rules, maintain a low level of arousal and are willing to win and lose the game. Play might become quite vocal and this is usually ok unless the level of vocalizations increase and/or one dog is giving appeasement signals and trying to get away. If the other dog recognizes these signals and backs off, there is a good understanding between players, but if the signals are ignored, human intervention is usually needed. Understanding how dogs play ensures that play remains a fun and healthy activity for everyone.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding Dog Play

  1. Amanda Stewart

    My Westie x and chihuahua pup love to play and even though it sometimes get loud I think they both enjoy it. Could you tell me why they have a fascination for licking each other in the mouth? Both are v kissy dogs.

  2. Kate Rasmussen

    Some dogs are just so VERY vocal. My poor neighbor was sure my huskies were killing each other because of the racket! It turned into a good opportunity to explain dog body language. After that, she loved watching them play.

  3. Gooddogkarma62

    I have two dogs and they generally are fine but sometimes they play too rough and it sounds like they are going to kill each other. There is no actual biting. Should i intervene or just let them duke it out?

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