Updated: Jun 15, 2022
Play behaviours cause a fair bit of confusion amongst dog guardians, and it is quite a complex topic, indeed! In this blog, we will discuss how dogs play, what to look out for, and when we might need to interrupt in order to calm things down.
First, it is worth bearing in mind that dogs with a well-established relationship may display very different play behaviours from those that are unknown to each other. Some behaviours, which may normally be regarded as “red flag” ones, may be acceptable in certain circumstances, providing that both dogs are enjoying themselves, tolerance levels remain balanced, and body language is monitored.
When observing your dogs, there are a number of positive play behaviours to look for. Read on to discover whether your dog is a polite playmate, or more of a pain in the posterior...
Mirror and matching is desirable to see during play, as it shows that both dogs are aware of what the other is doing, and each is listening to the other. This may manifest as one lying down to play and the other following suit; both are in the same play position, which enables fair play. When they are playing on the floor/ground, they should take it in turns to be on the top and bottom.
Balance and role reversal is very important, with dogs taking turns during play; for example, they each have the opportunity to chase and be chased. Here, you might see lots of changes in direction, erratic chase patterns with twists and turns, and lots of excitement. They should both enjoy the play, with the humans monitoring for signs of fearfulness and noticing any changes in body language. A dog which is chasing should be watched in case his arousal levels become too high, in which case, he will not be able to think clearly. For the dog being chased, he should be monitored for any fearfulness, as enjoyment can quickly turn to fear. Signs to watch for include the tucking under of the tail, weight distribution moving forwards and ears moving backwards.
You can find further information on how to observe your dog’s body language and how they communicate stress, fear and anxiety in the following blog post: https://www.trailiepawsforthought.com/post/the-science-of-stress-part-two-spotting-the-signs
Pauses in play should be encouraged, to allow for assessing and processing of play. This also helps to cap arousal levels; dogs often do this themselves with cut off signals, but will usually then continue to play. Play bows might initiate play, and displacement behaviours such as sniffing and scratching might be seen, which will help to calm things down.
Self-handicapping is another positive behaviour, although not all dogs do it. Faster dogs might slow down to match the speed of the smaller dog, and bigger dogs might lie down to play with a smaller one, for example.
Sharing is good to see, including the sharing of space, as well as resources such as toys, water bowls, etc. Some dogs may be less tolerant when around their humans, so it is wise to keep an eye on this, moving away from the dogs if you suspect there may be a problem.
The windmill or helicopter tail denotes a very happy dog, with the tail wag going through the hips and usually throughout the whole body. Arousal levels will need to be monitored so that this exuberance doesn't spill over into over-arousal.
With regard to puppies and older dogs playing together, it is important not to let the puppy become a nuisance and bother the older dog; monitor tolerance levels very carefully. Not all dogs like to have others approaching them, sniffing them, climbing on them etc so, again, keep an eye on their body language. Check that each are comfortable with the other in their personal space, and ensure that both dogs are listening to each other. Many dogs don't like their personal space being invaded and might object to being pestered, or having another dog coming up to their face or bottom, etc. Tolerance levels need to be carefully observed, and play should be stopped if either dog is no longer enjoying the interaction.
You may see some muzzle fencing during play, also affectionately known amongst hound guardians as “bitey face”. My hounds certainly enjoy indulging in a bit of this! Trigger, the hound on the left in the video, linked below, is extremely vocal, and resorts to pawing and whining at Jack to pester him into continuing. Trigger really enjoys this type of play , preferably lying down (not much effort involved!), whereas Jack prefers to run around in circles, have a wrestle, and generally behave like a hooligan. Hound life at its best!
Trigger and Jack enjoying a spot of bitey face:
Isn't Trigger a noisy terror?!
Generally speaking, excessive vocalisations might manifest as whining, chattering, growling and barking. This is usually fine as long as it accompanies good body language with bouncy, playful and wiggly movements. Some breeds are noisier than others, (and don't I know it!), so loud play isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as both dogs remain tolerant.
Red Flag Behaviours
When observing dogs at play, it is important to monitor for signs of over-arousal, a reduction in tolerance from any of the dogs involved, and any changes in body language which indicate a cause for concern. As mentioned before, there may be a few red flag behaviours amongst dogs that know each other well, but these should be outnumbered by appropriate ones. It won't always be necessary to stop play when a red flag behaviour appears.
However, there are times when it is essential that we step in. Our dogs should not be left to “sort it out for themselves”; it is our responsibility to maintain their safety, happiness and well-being. If a dog is displaying appeasement gestures and looks anxious, or is trying to get away and the other dog takes no notice, it is necessary to intervene, rather than leaving the nervous dog to fend for himself. This could result in a negative experience for him, decreasing his confidence further, and placing him at risk of fear developing.
It is wise not to allow chase games with a combination of large and small dogs, as there is a danger of predatory drift, which can be initiated through play. This can appear out of the blue; it is not an aggressive act, but purely a hard-wired, instinctive one, and once it has been activated, the dog will complete the sequence of chase, stalk, bite then kill. There need not be any history of aggression for this to occur, and it is even possible between dogs that are well-known to each other, with no previous issues. A small dog squealing and running away can be enough to trigger predatory drift, as it replicates the way in which real prey might behave.
Most play is adapted from the predatory sequence, so any signs of bullying or play becoming louder and faster will need to be interrupted. During chase games, each dog should take it in turns to chase and be chased. Play should be stopped if one dog is pursued more, or if the dog being chased no longer enjoys the game or attempts to hide. The dog doing the chasing might become over-aroused quickly, so this should be carefully monitored.
If scent marking occurs during a play session, then play will need to be brought to a close, as it can signify fearfulness, nervousness, discomfort, or high arousal levels. In this instance, it isn't adequate to just pause and then allow them to go back into play, as arousal levels will remain high. It takes an average of seventy-two hours for hormone levels to return to normal, therefore the dog may be over threshold or close to it, and will not be thinking clearly; he will most likely continue with the same behaviour.
Unknown dogs should not be allowed to "T-shape" each other (placing their paws or their neck over the shoulders of the other) as it is a very rude behaviour. T-shaping can feel very threatening to the dog underneath, and he may well retaliate with a snap. It should only be classed as an acceptable behaviour when both dogs know each other well and it occurs as part of balanced, mirror and match play, with both being tolerant of this act.
Focused bites occasionally happen between dogs at play. If both dogs include this behaviour in mirror and matched, balanced play, then it may just be a part of their play style when together, but the human should watch for any imbalance between them. Dogs might give focused bites to encourage engagement from the other dog and to push them into play, or it may be that arousal levels and energy levels are too high and the dog isn't thinking clearly. It isn't pleasant for the dog on the receiving end of the bites, so tolerance may diminish and grumpiness set in. Bites may become harder, which would also indicate over-arousal.
Mounting in play can indicate stress, over-arousal, over-excitement, fearfulness, or discomfort within a situation. It can also be used as a coping mechanism or an outlet for frustration, so if mounting occurs, play should be stopped.
Body slamming is quite a rude behaviour and can occur during rough play. It doesn't necessarily need to be stopped, unless the other dog is showing signs of being uncomfortable. Body slamming can be a sign of over-arousal, or it might be part of a dog's play style. However, not all dogs will like it. It is worth bearing in mind that some dogs may be in pain following a body-slam and may retaliate, or they might be affected for a few days afterwards if they are sore.
Another behaviour to be on the alert for is when a dog pins another dog down and doesn't release quickly, or repeatedly pins another down without the other dog mirror and matching. This could easily become out of hand, and so the human should intervene. Arousal levels, tolerance, and any signs of fearfulness need to be monitored constantly, and if no natural pauses in play occur, then intervention is needed.
Continuously monitoring the body language of dogs at play, and being prepared to step in when necessary, will help to keep things fun and safe for all, along with proactive management and creating breaks in play before any issues arise. When we do interrupt play to give the dogs a break, we can assess how they are feeling by removing the offending dog and giving the other the option of whether they wish to re-engage. If the dog chooses to move away, then play should not recommence.
Remember that not all dogs will enjoy or be able to cope with the company of other canines, but will benefit greatly from engagement with you, strengthening your bond and creating positive associations in the process.
Try to find good matches for your dogs, and set them up for success with suitable playmates, taking into account the energy levels of each dog so that they can learn good play habits and good body language. Activities should be catered to individual dogs, giving consideration to what they were bred for and what they might enjoy; also bear in mind that different breeds play in different ways.
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