It's beautiful. Enchanting even. Almost magical. And it's not just for puppies. For adult dogs who enjoy the company of other dogs, providing opportunities to play and interact with their own species is critical for meeting social needs. Dog play also can be a powerful tool when addressing certain behavior concerns.
Is it really play?
I get it. Dog play can be scary for humans. Like, evolutionarily scary.
Teeth are chomping. Bodies are pouncing. Sounds are roaring. How in the world can we scaredy humans understand the difference between healthy dog play and actual fighting? It's easier than you might think! Dogs communicate with each other about play all the time. Our job is to eavesdrop on that conversation.
Dogs obviously don't use words to indicate that the wrestling or chasing that's coming is not really fighting or hunting. There's no "do you wanna play Jedi lightsaber battle?" like a child might invite. But dogs sure do communicate with each other through their behavior.
Look for these four categories of behaviors that suggest healthy play. And check out the video at the end of this post – starring my Sadie, the original KinDog – to see these behaviors in action!
Dogs signal "hey, what I'm about to do next is play, not the real thing" by using play bows, happy faces, paw lifts, and bouncy, exaggerated movements. These are a dog's most common invitations to play.
Self-restraint is about acting out watered-down versions of the real thing. This is probably the most important aspect of healthy play. Think of it as losing on purpose. Look for soft bites, rolling on backs, and giving space.
Variety in activities
Variety is about changing games and taking breaks. For example: chase, then pause, then bitey-face, then chase again. Best buds who have a long history of playing together might have less variety in their play.
Role reversals are all about taking turns. The biter sometimes changes roles and becomes the bitee. The chaser switches things up and invites being chased instead. Best buds who know each other well might do less of this turn-taking too.
"Dogs communicate with each other about play all the time. Our job is to eavesdrop on that conversation."
Consent and cautions
If you're unsure about the roughness of the play you see, perform a simple consent test. Call or lure away the dog whose play style is allegedly too rough. Use happy and exciting sounds, such as kissy noises, mouth clicks, sing-song melodies, or patting your legs while excitedly happy-talking. Don't use your dog's name or a recall cue like "come" unless you have specifically trained for this high-distraction scenario. We don't want to ruin trained recall cues by using them to end fun.
Once the alleged ruffian has moved away, watch what the other dog does. If the other dog seeks out her removed playmate, she was A-OK with the play! On the other hand, if the other dog runs away and avoids the removed playmate, she needs an immediate break. If the avoidance continues well after a break, she may need a different playmate altogether.
"There are at least four parties who get a say in the interaction – two dogs and two humans."
Even if it seems that both dogs are consenting to each others' play styles, the humans may still need to help them take a break. Just like with little humans, we sometimes need to encourage dogs to take play breaks when they aren't self-regulating. Keep in mind, also, that consent during play isn't just about the dogs. There are at least four parties who get a say in the interaction – two dogs and two humans. Just because the dogs are comfortable with the play doesn't mean every human has to be. And that's perfectly OK.
Finally, a few cautions. Be especially careful with:
A big size difference between playmates. Large-on-small play should be monitored very carefully because of the risk of serious injury (or worse) that might ensue from such a size mismatch.
Chase games that go on too long, or that are more intense than bouncy and wiggly. This might mean it's time to help the dogs take a break.
Multiple dogs chasing or ganging up on one dog. It's time for a break. If the ganging up continues after the break, it might be time for different playgroup dynamics.
The truth about dog parks
Ah, the question of all questions. I am often asked what I think about dog parks. My answer is very simple, but probably not very satisfying: It depends on the dog. It depends on the dog park. And it very much depends on personal bias.
That last part is the really important part. Despite black-and-white proclamations you may hear from others, there is no right or wrong approach. The decision whether or when to try a dog park is nothing more than a personal bias, plain and simple. Here's mine.
Some dog parks can be just fine for some dogs. Sometimes. Generally, I don't love the dog park environment for adult dogs with unknown or limited play histories. Dogs with solid play histories and excellent social skills, sure, I'm not quite as concerned in those situations.
But I don't see many of those dogs. Most of my clients are working through fear, anxiety, or reactivity issues, and we are just beginning to test the play waters. I prefer to test these waters in a kiddie pool, not in the middle of an ocean during a storm. That's why, to start, I often suggest a one-on-one play date with a trusted dog that has excellent social skills. Then, maybe another social-savvy dog. Maybe even a third before exploring the notion of a dog park.
"I prefer to test these waters in a kiddie pool, not in the middle of an ocean during a storm."
If trying a dog park is in the cards for your dog, keep these tips in mind.
I prefer larger dog parks where dogs have room to signal "no thanks" by getting sufficient distance from unwelcome advances. Overly-crowded parks could mean uncomfortable dogs in tight quarters. A risky combo.
The crowd matters
I encourage clients to scope out a contemplated dog park before bringing their dog to it. Are the dogs displaying the four categories of healthy play? Talk to the crowd there. Are the humans savvy about dog behavior? Find out when might be a good time to bring your novice dog. Maybe even set-up a play date!
Some things are deal-breakers for me. These include play groups where dogs are wearing prong, choke, or shock collars, or where humans are otherwise hurting, scaring, or bullying their dogs. Run, don't walk, from a dog park group that has these dynamics.
One final thought about dog parks, which I can't stress enough. Some dogs are never going to be dog-park dogs. That might be the case for your dog. And that's perfectly OK.
Dogs of a certain age
What about our middle-aged and grey-muzzled beauties? Oh how I adore them. It's true, an older dog might be less interested in rough-and-tumble play compared to those youthful glory days.
Dogs typically reach social maturity when they are around 2-3 years old. For many, play habits start to change at that age. Your enthusiastic player might become pickier about playmates, prefer shorter play sessions, or spend less time playing overall. This doesn't mean that some dogs aren't enthusiastic players well into middle age, or that these changes occur like clockwork. But, you'll likely start seeing subtle differences crop up around this time and continue as your dog ages. Know that this is normal.
"Middle-aged and senior dogs who enjoy the company of other dogs deserve to have their social needs fulfilled too."
Even if your adult dog isn't the rough-and-tumble player she used to be, that doesn't mean her doggie social calendar is defunct. Middle-aged and senior dogs who enjoy the company of other dogs deserve to have their social needs fulfilled too. They might be less into wrestling or chasing, but they still can enjoy social interactions with doggie friends. For example, taking a slow, sniffy walk with an old pal can be socially satisfying. Even simply sniffing and greeting another dog for a few seconds can be a perfectly wonderful interaction for our beloved dogs of a certain age.
Finally, senior dogs are special. So special it hurts the heart, right? Protect your senior dog. Overly-enthusiastic puppies and adolescents can be annoying to even the most patient dogs. This can be especially taxing on a senior dog whose tolerance level may be waning with age and associated pain. My rule of thumb (yep, another personal bias): Assume your precious senior wants nothing to do with an adolescent's antics until proven otherwise. Protect your senior dog.
I love witnessing the pure joy of dog play. Dogs being dogs with fellow dogs. But more than that, as a behavior professional, I love seeing relief wash over the faces of my formerly-hesitant human clients when they experience that dog-play joy for themselves. Their dog finally gets to be a dog with fellow dogs. Helping humans attain that is the true splendor of dog play.