Do you know what good play between dogs looks like?
There’s nothing dog owners love more than watching their best buddy happily romping and playing with another dog. It just seems right and natural for dogs to have play buddies and to have many opportunities to play.
Some of us are fortunate enough to live in rural or more open environments where our dogs can romp freely on mountain trails, beaches or big stretches of grassy fields. Others live in cities where dog zones are small, fenced and much more tightly controlled.
Play in dogs is not something everyone fully understands. Not many dog owners understand the subtleties of dog to dog play interactions. Is play always fun for dogs? Is it even play or is it another kind of interaction - is it practice for other skills?
Some experts say that play is a dog’s way of “practicing” real life skills – hunting-type games taking place in a non-serious way. It could be some form of practice, or it could be dogs playing out their breed-intended purposes – using their natural instinctive behaviours – to interact and have some social time with other dogs.
Dogs who are successful at play – who have lots of play buddies – learn how to change their play style to match that of their companion of the moment. Not all dogs like to play the same way, and a skilled playmate can change his style in order to keep play fun and likely to be repeated. Dogs who insist on playing the way they want to, have fewer playmates and can end up frustrated when they are repeatedly rebuffed.
Below is a nice example of an adult self-handicapping for a younger, smaller playmate:
It’s interesting to watch 2 dogs playing in a free environment outside of the confines of a dog park or fenced area. You will often see more moments of romping, sniffing, running together than moments of wrestling and playing with each other. A lot of housemates who play together seem to do so daily but for far less time than you may think. They often play more intensely with each other than with new dogs, but there is also lots more time spent in companionable “couples” pursuits – laying in the sun, hanging out on the couch, chewing bones or toys together, finding interesting new smells, monitoring fence lines, doing squirrel searches and running together in the trails.
These dogs pictured below are housemates, play together sometimes but just hang out together more:
(Side note: Two dogs play much better together than any other number, and I would advise avoiding areas where there are large amounts of dogs freely interacting. Seek out spaces or trails where dogs are moving along or times in a park where there small numbers and helpful owners present.)
Play between puppies.
Every new puppy owner comes into puppy class expecting and looking forward to their puppy playing with other puppies. It seems to be a firmly entrenched expectation that puppy class is all about “socializing” with other puppies of similar ages. In fact, when Covid 19 hit and in-person puppy classes began closing down, there was general panic that puppies would lose this valuable experience – play with other puppies – and would thus not be properly “socialized” with other dogs.
(Another side note: True socialization is about so much more than play between dogs. Seek out a trainer who knows this and understands how to help you fully socialize your dog.)
Is play necessary or even a good thing for puppies and between puppies? There is a fair bit of debate about this. I recently watched a 4-part webinar series by Sue Sternberg (hosted by Puppyworks) entitled “Managing Dog-Dog Interaction and Avoiding Dog Play Dangers”. I’ve seen Sue present many times over the years (pre-Covid) and found this presentation to be as interesting, thought provoking and enjoyable as always. I found myself agreeing with much of what she discussed regarding puppies, puppy play and dog play in general.
In my puppy classes, I have always included small moments of play between the puppies for 2 or maybe 3 of the middle classes in a set of 6. To be honest, I largely include play because I know what a big expectation it is for puppy parents – I cave to their pressure!
However, as a trainer I do find play between puppies in class to be stressful! Not all puppies play well together – in fact many do not, and they need constant monitoring by an experienced trainer. I think it’s so important that if you’re going to encourage play between puppies none of them ends up being overwhelmed, bullied, or frightened. I don’t want them leaving class having had a bad first dog-dog experience at such an impressionable time in their lives.
One thing to keep in mind and one important point that Sue emphasized in her webinar series was: Because puppies have had few experiences in their young lives to date, each experience they do have holds that much greater weight and thus that much greater impact.
If you attend a puppy class where each class begins or includes with play between the puppies, play with other dogs becomes an expectation with that puppy and will also very likely become a general expectation when in the presence of other dogs for the lifetime of that puppy. Is that a bad thing?
Well, your dog will grow up with this expectation of dog-dog interaction whenever you are in public, and that can easily become an intense focus and which will make it very difficult for him to shift his attention to you when asked.
Worse, if the play experience is not well monitored and your puppy is either bullied or allowed to bully others, his general expectation will be very negatively impacted by this early learning. It may unintentionally set your dog up to be frustrated, fearful or even reactive in the presence of other dogs before you’re even out of the puppy phase.
It’s Sue’s opinion, and I wholeheartedly agree, that a good puppy class should have very little emphasis placed on play and a much greater emphasis placed on puppies giving attention to their owners and being able to work with their owners in the presence of the other puppies.
And, contrary to popular thought, it’s not about “obedience” it’s all about being able to feel comfortable around other dogs, being able to shift attention away from another dog when asked and focus on their owner, and about being able to learn and to perform cued behaviours around other dogs when asked by their owners. And, most importantly, being able to focus and perform cued behaviours “joyfully” – happy to be engaged with their owners rather than “missing out” on play with other puppies.
What you often see when you spot a new puppy in public, is said puppy hurling themselves at the end of their leashes toward another dog with their owners in tow. This is a puppy that is rapidly and successfully developing an expectation of dog-dog interactions whenever they’re out in public. What are puppies learning in these moments? They are learning that they can hurl themselves toward another dog and that nothing that dog may be communicating matters. They’re also learning to pull on leash, go where they want, make snap judgements and act on them and to ignore their owners. Their owners take a back seat, and most are allowing the puppy to take the lead – in a misguided attempt to “socialize” their puppy with other dogs.
All of these behaviours are highly reinforced in one instant of pulling. These are difficult behaviours to unlearn.
All of them are the frustrating behaviours owners are challenged with when their once small puppies are now full-sized adolescent dogs. The list of “must fix” behaviours owners of adolescent dogs share with me prior to class looks like this: focus in public, performance of cued behaviours (Recall, Stay, Sit, Leave It), polite behaviour with people (Jumping up, Barking), loose leash walking (Barking, Pulling, Lunging), well-adjusted play and polite greeting skills with other dogs.
I do think there is some value in puppies playing in puppy class if there are compatible puppies available, but there aren’t always. However, we don’t want play to be the focus, we want interaction and learning with their humans to be the focus.
When appropriate, we can use play to practice some of our learning – Recall (come) out of play with another puppy, Leave It (nose greeting another puppy) and return your attention (eye contact) to your owner.
The reality is that not all puppies play well together. Their sole influence until they entered your life has been interactions with their mother and their siblings – if they had them. They have not yet fully learned the subtleties of communication from other dogs and they may or may not respond appropriately.
They need to be well coached by an experienced trainer and ultimately their owner, and the play needs to be kept short and trauma-free. Ideally puppies can have a few seconds of interaction with another puppy that seems to be a good match and then be called away for a break. Anything other than 2 puppies together or longer than a few seconds of play can easily turn into a traumatic experience of being bullied or “ganged up on” for one puppy or a reinforcing period of bullying behaviour for another puppy.
Remember, these early moments have a big impact on their future behaviour – what do you want your puppy to learn and retain about playing with other dogs? Think very carefully about these interactions. Contrary to popular opinion, dogs do NOT simply learn to work things out. And as your puppy’s guardian, you should want your puppy to see you as a safe and supportive advocate.
What does “good” play look like between dogs?
Dogs who are wanting to appear playful are much like people who are acting in a playful manner. Lots of loose, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes slower behaviour using friendly gestures and mannerisms.
Dogs often indicate a playful intent by using a “play bow” – butt high up in the air, front legs flattened on the ground, silly grins on their faces and loose tail wags at mid-height. Play bows aren’t always an indication of playful intent but when combined with other loose, friendly and exaggerated gestures they are generally perceived as such.
Dogs can also indicate a desire to have a playful interaction by silly inefficient movements - loose, exaggerated gestures like tossing their heads or spinning around; doing a little playful “deke” or dart away and back; bouncy body movement – generally coupled with grinning expressions or exaggerated “play faces”, and very loose overall body language. Even novice dog owners or non-dog owners can often recognize playful intent in a dog.
Playful intent is communicated in the exact opposite way of harmful intent which is notably stiff body language coupled with freezing and hard staring, sometimes stalking and much more intense and deliberate movement. Less playful and more intense gestures are not appreciated and are often a signal of increasing arousal and not enough breaks. Darting in and out quickly maybe even with a nip or a nose or paw smack, body slamming, up on back legs “boxing”, humping, stalking, and unrelenting chasing are some of the more intense, less friendly behaviours to watch for.
Actual moments of good play don’t generally last for more than a few seconds or very few minutes. There should be many breaks in between short bouts, and the play should change and become slower and more relaxed as it winds down into a companionable hanging out period. (Q and J pic)
During play you should see an even distribution of behaviour – no one dog on top of another without exchanging roles frequently, chaser and chasee roles switching, larger and/or stronger dogs will self-handicap – lying on the ground to make themselves smaller and less intimidating to their smaller or weaker play companion.
Play should include plenty of breaks.
Play breaks can be initiated by one or both dogs – when initiated by one, it should be adhered to by the other dog. Play breaks are a sudden switch in interest or change of activity and can look like one or any of the following:
- stopping to gaze off in the distance;
- interest in a sound;
- intently sniffing the ground as if suddenly catching the whiff of something compelling;
- a sudden itch that must be scratched;
- wandering off for a drink of water or finding an empty food bowl to lick;
- picking up a toy and playing with it or offering it to their play partner for a change of game;
- switching attention to an object like humping a bed, or grabbing a slipper;
- running over to a nearby human to say hi;
- flopping down for a rest;
- stopping for a good, long shake off; or
- suddenly darting off in a mad, short romp or “zoomy”
Despite how much some dogs seem to enjoy playing with other dogs – especially a particular friend who has a similar play style – it’s still important that your dog has more fun with you than with other dogs. If you are not the main focus of your dog’s fun and games, then he will always be seeking interaction from other dogs and it’s very unlikely you will ever have true reliability with any of your trained behaviours. He lives with you and spends the majority of his time with you – surely you don’t want him constantly pining for those brief moment when he gets to play with other dogs?
Learn how to play with your dog in a way he enjoys and gets pleasure from when you engage him. It’s not just about tug and fetch – traditional human-dog games. If your dog likes to be chased, learn how to chase him in a way he finds fun – then change it up and run away so he chases you. If he likes to play tug, do you let him win a lot and handicap yourself by playing the weaker partner frequently? Give it a try! It’s much more fun to play with someone you stand a chance of besting from time to time – who wants to play if you always lose?! A good resource for learning how to play with your dog is UK dog trainer Craig Ogilvie’s “Interactive Play Guide”.
My advice? Teach your dogs to joyfully come to you, work with you and play with you before you let them begin meeting other dogs. Then use those meetings to practice the skills you’ve already begun. Keep play sessions short, positively interrupt a lot and learn the body language that’s important to see and important to stop. Teach your dog to be calm, comfortable and content simply hanging out around other dogs. Be the centre of fun for your dog!