I love watching dogs play. Few things put a bigger smile on my face than seeing dogs being dogs, romping around together. Clients sometimes confess that they aren’t really sure what to look for during play. They are often unsure how to distinguish “good” play vs. “rude” play. And they struggle with knowing when intervention on their part is truly needed.
Truth be told, everyone sits somewhere along the low intervention to high intervention continuum when it comes to comfort with dogs playing. Rowdy dogs push buttons in us from an evolutionary standpoint. If our ancestors didn't have a reaction to 4-legged creatures with a mouth full of pointy teeth growling, they wouldn't have lasted long enough to pass on their genes.
It’s normal for hyped-up, rough-and-tumble dog play to get our blood pumping faster than normal. But the more exposure we get to dog play, the more ho-hum all the biting, snarling and chasing becomes. We then gravitate more toward the “low intervention” side of the continuum – we just sit back and watch in delight as long as everyone is having fun.
But how do you know that everyone is having fun? How do you know the difference between a true squabble and just play, especially if you haven’t spent a lot of time in your life around dogs?
The leading hypothesis on dog play is that it functions as a rehearsal for developing and practicing critical skills for “real life.” Fighting (pawing, soft mouthing/biting), fleeing (being chased), feeding (chasing), and courtship (pawing, mounting) are all behaviours that animals need to be good at for survival. Just like how our bodies haven’t evolved to the point of not storing calories over uncertainty of when our next meal will be despite food being readily available to us now (if we can just get through the traffic... cue the hangry emotions), domestication has not fully changed this instinctual programming in dogs to rehearse these survival behaviours. The old software is still running, despite not living in the wild.
There are several behaviours to watch for when observing dogs play that will help determine if it is mutually consenting play. The next time you are at the dog park, see how many of these types of sequences you can spot.
These are body language cues that dogs give each other to signal that it isn't "the real thing" (aggression).
2. Role Reversals
For wrestlers this may mean one dog is on the bottom then changes to the top of the wrestle. Note that your dog may prefer the bottom of a wrestle, or the top, and that’s okay as long as the dog on the bottom could get up if they wanted. A couple of seconds is usually an adequate “break” in play for dogs, so look for those couple seconds of breath-catching where the dog on the bottom either could get up or does get up. This often turns into a chase, then back into a wrestle on the bottom again - the chasee turns and becomes the chaser.
3. Activity Shifts
Changing from pawing to wrestling to chasing to mouthing in no particular order.
We'll see this most obviously when big dogs and small dogs play together. Clearly the big dog could just take the small dog out and clobber them if they wanted to, but they let the little guy have some “wins”, they get down on their level and are more gentle.
One of the places your dog can get out and play with other dogs frequently is an off-leash dog park. In Calgary we have at least 150 designated off leash spaces in the city limits for you to enjoy with Fido. Some are fully fenced and some have nothing separating the park from the streets surrounding. There are people who are not shy about telling you they are not a fan of the concept of dog parks and that they don’t think they are helpful for dogs, that they encourage bad behaviour, etc.
A study was published in 2003 called “Bark parks – a study on interdog aggression in a limited-control environment” by Shyran et al. that reported fewer than 0.5% of play fights in dogs developed into conflict. For more on this study you can check it out here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12795856/
While I absolutely agree that not all dogs are suited for the park, overall I am a pro-dog park trainer because I think the benefits for dogs outweigh the risks to dogs. The onus is on us to use them properly.
Dog parks are not where dogs become socialized; they are for already socialized off leash dogs.
We must always be prepared when we go that there is a slight chance an argument might break out.
Educate our self in dog body language.
And above all, make sure our dog is actually having fun and enjoying being there.
Not all dogs are meant to be at an uncontrolled off leash dog park and that’s okay. There are lots of other ways for your dog to have fun! Get in touch if you want some help.