Dogs are very social creatures, and play is an important social activity which serves several different functions. Puppies learn about themselves and their environment through play. They learn how to read other dog’s body language, and how to use their own body language to avoid conflict. Dogs and puppies often use play techniques that mimic their innate natural behaviours, such as chasing, hunting, stalking, fighting, fleeing, pouncing, growling, biting, body slamming, and courtship (humping). Play is believed to be important because it teaches puppies and dogs how to cope when something unexpected happens. For example, being pounced on or knocked over in play helps them to cope when something unexpected surprises them in real life. Changes that occur in hormone levels and in the brain during play helps dogs to learn how to cope with stressful situations in their daily lives. Playing with other dogs helps to promote social skills and co-operation between canines. It helps them to build social relationships.
Even though sometimes it may appear as if dogs are playing inappropriately, we need to be mindful that dogs have their very own language and method of communication. Dogs with good social skills will use meta-signals in play to communicate to other dogs that what comes next is play, and no matter how rough or antagonistic it may seem, no harm is intended.
One of the most widely understood meta-signals is the play bow, but there are many others, which include play sneezes, bouncy movements, play face (grinning expression) and invitations to chase.
SIGNS OF HEALTHY, NORMAL PLAY BEHAVIOUR
Play Bow - this is a beautiful meta-signal that invites another dog to play, but accepts if the other dog chooses not to. Usually, dogs that accept the invitation will then synchronize their play bows. This is a very clear message that whatever comes next (chasing, pouncing, wrestling) is all in play and no threatening behaviour is intended.
Role Reversal - in healthy dog play, dogs will take turns to chase and be chased, to pin down and be pinned down, and to "win" at games like Fetch and Tug-of-war. Role reversals in dog play are another way to prove the non-antagonistic function of play. Play is a fair game, where there are no winners or losers, each player gets "a taste" of several different roles that provide different emotions with the result of no hard feelings among the dogs.
Self-handicapping – This is when larger dogs will be exaggeratedly gentle when chasing or wrestling dogs smaller than they are, and will often lay down and let the smaller dog pounce on them. You may have witnessed this behaviour when watching a large dog play with a puppy or a smaller dog. By self-handicapping, the large dog can communicate their playful intent without intimidating other dogs and can therefore keep the game going with both parties enjoying themselves.
The purpose of self-handicapping in dog play is so that dogs do not injure themselves or other dogs, and to prevent any physical or emotional damage. Bite inhibition is another way in which dogs self-handicap when playing. Pausing - After a few minutes of a game of chasey or wrestling, dogs will take a pause. If there is a splash pool, bush, or other "Bali" (Point of Safety) option around, you will find one dog will jump in there and all the other dogs will stop the chasing/playing and take a pause to recharge their batteries and calm themselves. This prevents dogs from becoming over-aroused.
During a game of chasey, you may notice split-second pauses occurring as both dogs look at each other wild-eyed, with a grinning play face, or when they play bow then take off running again. Longer pauses may include a dog shaking his fur, drinking some water or sniffing the grass. These longer pauses allow the dogs to take a breath and recharge their strength. Social dogs understand that when their playmate disengages, they should pause as well, if only for a brief moment.
Sometimes, dog play may not show the clear-cut signs of healthy, normal play, and dog guardians may wonder whether their dogs are truly having fun or not. When supervising play between dogs, if you are ever unsure that all dogs involved are enjoying that kind of play, you can do a "consent test" to see if the play is completely consensual.
For example, If one dog is consistently the one being chased, and they have their tail tucked between their legs, or they are trying to hide, it is more than likely they are not enjoying the interaction and we need to intervene. At times though, some dogs do enjoy being chased, or engaging in a bit of rough play, so the best way to be certain if they are having fun or not is to conduct a consent test.
Stop the dog chasing or pinning or being too boisterous for a few seconds and redirect their attention, and see whether the other dog seems relieved and goes off to do something else, or if they go back to their playmate to instigate more play. If they do, they are enjoying the play and you can let it continue, though my advice is to interrupt it every few minutes and repeat the process to make sure everyone involved continues to have fun and there is the opportunity to stop once one dog has had enough. SIGNS OF INAPPROPRIATE PLAY
If the elements we discussed above are missing from dog play, there are risks that play will become heated and result in squabbles or fights.
Inappropriate play may lack role reversal and include one sided, repeated behaviours such as body slamming or pinning with no pauses. This is a type of bullying, and the dog on the receiving end will attempt to send warning signals to stop the play, but if the instigator lacks social skills, or is purposefully harassing the other dog, the dog on the receiving end may reach breaking point and escalate their behaviour, leading to a fight.
Problems may also arise when dogs become overly aroused during play. When monitoring dogs playing, it is important to pay attention to signs of trouble such as more rapid vocalizations, movements that become less bouncy, and a reduction in self-handicapping.
Increased arousal levels may lead to less inhibited bites if a fight does break out. Other inappropriate play behaviours that should be stopped immediately include dogs ganging up against one dog, grab and shake behaviours, and any increases in the intensity of play, or any dogs who are becoming over-aroused.
Understanding appropriate and inappropriate canine play behaviours, and knowing when to intervene, will keep your dog safe and happy, whilst allowing them the opportunity to have fun playing with friends from their own species.
©Rebeca Mas 2021
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