Whether you bring your dog to play in the dog park, or just have an occasional friend over with his dog to play with yours, it is important to recognize what is good dog play. I have heard a lot of definitions of the word “play” over the years, but my favorite one is that play is pretend fighting; especially when it comes to dogs, and little boys! So what are some things you can watch for to ensure your dog’s pretend fighting doesn’t turn into real fighting?
Rule number one of dog play is all dogs should be willing participants in the play. If you aren’t sure, then separate the dogs playing and check in by giving them a moment apart; then let them go, if they magnet right back to each other they are likely both willing participants. If one tries to use this moment to get away, but the other chases, then be sure to step in and give the dog who needs it a break. Whenever is separating dogs in play should try not to do so by pulling on their collars or harnesses. If the situations is not a fight, and you simply want to check in, it is best to restrain your dog from the front of his chest. Even if a fight breaks out-grabbing the collar is the wrong move!
Play between dogs should be equally matched and the dogs should take turns being the “top dog” meaning that no one dog should be the one who is constantly pinning and pushing around the others. Dogs often play in pairs, even at the dog park they tend to pair up, or engage in a large game of chase. Three can be a crowd in dog play; if there are three dogs playing, be sure to check in and be sure two aren’t ganging up on the third. Play should look very circular, and the dogs should take breaks and check in on their own. These can be very brief; a split second of the dogs freezing and saying to each other: “are we still playing?” “YUP!” “OK, Good!”
Some things to watch for are dogs who act like bullies. Either they charge right up and body slam into other dogs, or they do more subtle rude things such as paw overs, or chin overs. These are exactly how they sound; when one dog runs over to another and throws his chin or front paw right over the back of the other dog. This is usually a good time to step in and take a break. Humping can also be an annoying play behavior. While it can be completely normal, sometimes dogs get very upset when another dog attempts to hump them, while others just allow for this to happen. If your dog gives another dog a warning about humping, such as a little growl or snap, I would allow this because your dog will teach the lesson faster than you can. If your dog allows himself to be humped, then you need to step in and stop this each time the other dog tries. There is no reason to be rough about it, simply separate the two dogs. Sometimes it is best to let the other dog’s owner know.
If the dogs are standing on their hind legs and using their front legs to push off one another, they are height seeking and it is usually best to break this up. If your dog becomes very stiff or is hyper focus on something, it will be best to try to interrupt this, either call him over to you, or walk over and break his line of vision. Watch for your dog’s hackles to stand up, this is the hair that runs down his back, if it is standing up only between his shoulder blades, he is slightly aroused, while if it is standing up all the way to his tail, he is highly aroused. Call him over to you or move away from the other dog and give him a chance to settle down.
As opposed to the famous play bow, when your dog lowers his front end to look as though he is bowing. This is an invite for play, and a polite behavior. Also if your dog’s mouth is open, and relaxed this is a good sign, usually when dog’s close their mouths they are up to no good…
It will be important to be paying attention and able to step in any time your dog is off leash with other dogs. It is not a good idea to read a newspaper, or talk on your phone. Things can escalate quickly and you want to be able to step in, and end it without any injuries. Also it is vital that your dog know some cues and responds while off leash, otherwise it is probably not a good idea to allow him off leash. He should at least come when called, and sit on cue when asked. Play should be fun for your dog, and the dogs he is playing with. Be an active participant in your dog’s play, pay attention to what he likes, and doesn’t like, and signs that he wants to stop the play. If you watch for these common body language signs, and carefully supervise your dog’s play, there is no reason he can’t always have a safe and great time!