Playing with other dogs is an important part of a dog’s social life. Frequent play sessions can help keep your dog’s social skills finely tuned as well as provide some great exercise. It can be very satisfying for you as an owner to see your dog having fun, but it can also be stressful if you’re not sure whether or not the behaviors your dog or his playmate are exhibiting are appropriate in dog play. Oftentimes playing dogs can look very rough and even aggressive. Here are some key things to look for that can help determine if you should let your dog play on, or if it’s time for a break.
Play face: When you see a dog with a very wide open mouth, you’re seeing a play face. You can see lots of teeth, and it can look frightening, but a truly aggressive dog will have a more closed and tense mouth with the lips covering the teeth more.
Play bow: When your dog lowers the front half of her body with the hindquarters still raised, she’s doing a play bow, a move to entice others to play. Play bows can be held for awhile, or they can be a very short and subtle bend in the legs.
Pawing: Using a front paw to bat at another dog is an invitation to play.
Role Reversal: When two dogs are playing, it’s a good thing to see them switch positions every now and then. First Spike is on the top, then Fluffy is on the top. First Maggie chases Sadie, then Sadie chases Maggie, etc.
Taking Breaks: Because play can be very arousing, and sometimes arousal can spill over into aggression, it’s good when dogs are able to take brief breaks from play. This may be as simple as taking a break from wrestling to offer a play bow, or to shake off. If you have a dog who doesn’t take breaks like this, talk to your trainer about how to help your dog learn this valuable play skill.
Growling: This can be one of the most difficult things to interpret in dog play. You really need to evaluate the rest of the body language because some dogs are just loud players. Generally though, growling signals a higher level of arousal, so look for the growly dog to take breaks from play as mentioned above. Also, if the growling is very low pitched, or decreases in pitch, that signals a more serious intent.
Hold one back: When two dogs are playing, if you’re concerned that one dog is bullying the other, hold the bully back for a second or two and see how the other dog reacts. If the other dog shakes off and walks away, you know the bully was a little much. If the other dog comes right back at the bully, they were having a good time and enjoying the play.
Respect for Signals: It’s important that dogs respect “back off” signals from other dogs. Freezing, looking away, and snapping are common signals that a dog needs more space. Ideally your dog will recognize these signals and leave that dog alone, but if he doesn’t, go over and call him away.
Raised Hackles: When the hair on a dog’s back goes up, many people think that dog is aggressive, but this is not necessarily the case. Piloerection (the technical term) just signifies arousal. Watch for other body language. If the dog also has a play face and is pawing, don’t worry about it.
Mounting: People are quick to assume dominance when one dog mounts another, but this has never been proven to be the case. The current literature is so varied on this, ascribing it to everything from stress to a play invitation. The bottom line is that if you don’t like it, or the other dog doesn’t like it, call your dog out of the situation. A strong leave it cue (take your attention away from that), can help if this is a recurring issue.
The next time your dog is playing with another dog, watch for these signs of appropriate and inappropriate play. Remember that it’s important to let dogs use their body language, so never punish your dog for communicating with another dog. If you or your dog are uncomfortable, just get out of the situation.