Plays Well with Others

Written by Karen Baragona and originally published at http://dogdoggerel.blogspot.com/

I've been trying to begin this post with a sentence like, "I love to watch dogs play," but I keep thinking of exceptions. I'm an anxious wreck at a dog park. I'm a nervous nelly supervising play groups when I'm teaching puppy class. And I'm on pins and needles watching play between shelter dogs that we've paired up for the first time. Am I a neurotic, smothering, mother hen? Well, I prefer to think of all this as well-informed vigilance. I know just enough about the complex dynamics of dog play to know that a) dogs are exchanging subtle signals constantly, which we don't always catch and often don't understand, and b) dogs' enthusiasm can escalate to hyper-arousal, which can then tip into aggression, seemingly without warning. So here are some thoughts on safe play.

First, a couple myths to debunk. If dogs are wagging their tails, doesn't that mean they're feeling happy and friendly? Ah, if only it were that cut and dried. No, wagging tails don't always broadcast playfulness. Experts tend to agree that tails convey a ton of information, but they don't always agree on what tails are telling us. It seems reasonable to interpret loose, slow wags at "half-mast" or in circles as hints that dogs are having fun. We can probably surmise that high, stiff, fast wags mean that dogs are on alert and haven't made up their minds yet whether they feel playful at that moment or not. But maybe the best advice is, don't put too much stock in what you think your dog's tail is saying. Look for bigger patterns, which we'll talk about in a second.


Another assumption to reconsider is that even when dogs are rowdy and rough with each other, it's all just play. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't. Dogs can bully and haze each other during play, making it especially un-fun for the one getting picked on. I mostly prefer one-on-one play because it's easier to read and regulate. When three or more dogs coalesce into swirling spirals of nipping and bumping, it can be hard to discern who's doing what to whom. This is why dog parks give me hives. Dogs have different play styles, and they're not all compatible. Last weekend, a couple other dog trainers and I got together and let our dogs play in pairs, and we laughed ourselves silly watching as one dog played tug with the other dog's collar (while it was still on her neck), then while a dog grabbed the other's cheek between her teeth and gave it a vigorous shake, and later when one of the dogs planted both feet on the other's head and stood on it. Yes, I was laughing, too, not fretting and chewing my nails to the quick. Why? Because we could see that their play was compatible, appropriate, and enjoyed by both dogs. How did we know?

Characteristics of Good Play - these are a few generalizations, but they're good guidelines.

It's respectful. When greeting for the first time, and approaching each other after a break, dogs don't charge at each other frontally, stare each other in the face, and bump chests. They slowly trace a curving path toward each other with eyes averted, and then move in for a mutual butt sniff. They also heed each other's corrections. If play gets too rough for a dog, he may let out a yelp or a grumble. No need for anyone to panic. This is a correction—a dog telling his playmate, "Quit that. I don't like it." In well-matched play, the other dog will take that correction to heart and cease the behavior that brought it on. Sometimes a dog is clueless, or just acting like a pesky kid brother, and keeps at it. Then it's time for a break.

It's intermittent. Dogs playing well together take a lot of breaks. They self-interrupt to catch their breath, calm themselves and each other (especially if there's been a yelp or grumble), and reassess each other's mood. Are we still in play mode? You want to go again? They may freeze just for a second, or they may meander around for a bit and then start in again. During breaks, dogs often give each other calming signals, like lifting a paw or sniffing the ground, and they may solicit more play with a play bow or a teasing paw on the other's back. Reading each other is an essential social skill for dogs, and it can take time for this to develop. That's one reason why close supervision of play is so important.

It's reciprocal. Dogs who read each other adeptly develop an easy play rhythm and take turns. Even the roughest play can be fun for both dogs as long as there's a tacit agreement that goes something like this: I'll let you hump me, but you have to let me chew your neck. Or I'll let you stand on me while I lie on my back, but you have to let me do it next. When play is reciprocal, you don't hear a lot of yelping and grumbling. When one dog is more assertive and the other is feeling overwhelmed, you'll often see the overwhelmed dog trying to disengage, with a tucked tail, a low crouch, and maybe some disgruntled vocalization.

It's pretty quiet. When dogs are playing nicely, you might not hear much sound. Some dogs like to bark and play-growl while romping, but unless that's their normal play style, we should pay even closer attention if dogs start getting noisier and more guttural-sounding. It's often a sign that things are amping up and they might need a break.

It's fairly low and horizontal. Again, this is a generalization. Some quite compatible dogs like to leap and dance during play. But for the most part, you want to see dogs playing close to the ground, and when they start to go vertical, they may be getting aroused to the point of getting over-aroused. Time for a break.

Here's a good rule of thumb when supervising a play session between two dogs: When in doubt, call a time out. If play is getting a bit too frenzied for your liking, step in and gently take your dog's collar, have your dog's friend's owner gently take that dog's collar, and enthusiastically invite them to trot off with you for a moment or two. Avoid using treats to lure your dog away because dogs can be pretty protective of their yummies, even with their pals. It's always better to separate dogs before a fight breaks out. Remember, even between buddies, play can get so intense that it suddenly morphs into a fight. It's a fine line, and you don't want to cross it. An ounce of prevention is worth thousands of dollars at the emergency room.

The League provides helpful behavior and training tips for dog and cat owners, including lists of common dog park misconceptions and dog park alternatives. Learn more at www.AlexandriaAnimals.org/BandT

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