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Some Things To Know About How Dogs Play

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Some Things To Know About How Dogs Play-By Erik Hoffer

There is a tremendous amount of literature regarding dogs and play but without actually observing dog on dog interaction, one cannot really think he is schooled in deciding correctly between play and aggression.  My suggestion is that after reading this article, you view some dog on dog videos, visit a shelter who offers supervised dog on dog play and carefully observe play at your local dog park (without your dog).  Observation helps to bring out the subtle behavioral cues that help identify what’s really happening in dog play situations.  It will also help understand how different breeds play with others.

It is critical to know how your dog plays with his own and with other breeds.  In all cases, play should be supervised and if play becomes something more than play it needs to be terminated to avoid a fight.  You would not leave your child in a large play group unsupervised and you should never leave your dog in one.  Play can become aggression quickly when dogs are playing with both known and unknown dogs.  We don’t know if an animal has some latent issues about possessiveness, dominance, or if he is simply unfit for that particular play group on that particular day. Dogs have good days and bad days like we do, but the way they deal with it can vary widely.  It is your job as the pet’s owner and master to protect him through monitoring his actions and those around him to insure both he and his playmates are safe.

Safety in play does require that you have a plan if play becomes a dog fight. Having your dog under verbal control may not be enough to extricate him from harm.  If you do go to an uncontrolled venue, bring a small air horn, spray bottle of water or some tool to break up a possible fight.  Planning for  avoidance  or unwanted action is a good plan.

When my 8 GSD’s go into the play yard (at my house), together as a pack, it sounds (to the uneducated ear) like they are killing one another.  The lunatics are racing around, the head banging and the fact they are all spit heads and full of grass and dirt simply indicates to me they are having a blast.  Yes, I have had a few incidents where there was a rumbling of a fight but I quickly called that off.  My dogs, in my pack, are responsive to my stern voice as well as my happy voice and do act quickly on the commands given.  This is not ever true in a dog park since only your animal will be responsive to your voice commands and when there is dog on dog chaos rarely if ever does that negate a potential problem from happening.

Dogs coming through rescue have another dimension to them which is quite different from the dog you have raised from a puppy.  They have history!  We have no clue about most of the details of their history because when we get them they are frequently traumatized and eager to conform to the rescue situation. Most of their latent behaviors do not reveal themselves until they are comfortable in their new setting and with their new people.  Unfortunately these behaviors may be negative such as mouthing, counter surfing, chewing, toy or food guarding or an aversion to children, hats, voice tone, correction, other animals or most anything in the new environment. We don’t know if they were beaten although we can frequently tell by their cowering when approached. We don’t know about their possible pain in some part of their body.  We cannot tell if a dog’s predisposition to certain stimuli is going to be positive or negative; so when this new animal enters your home, care must be taken to observe his actions, interactions and his unique personality to help understand how to train him and what elements of his behavior need modification.

Different breeds play differently.  There is no book on who plays with who because dogs are unique individuals and determine, like us, who they like and who they don’t.  If you put your dog of any breed or gender in with another dog before first doing a proper introduction, then you are risking an immediate escalation of a potentially deadly situation.  No dog should be just tossed in with another dog without first a supervised introduction.  For social dogs, this is a quick butt sniff and it’s off to the races. For other dogs you may need far more time.  A pack walk is always a great way to introduce two dogs.  Make sure these introductions are done on neutral turf since some breeds are resource guarders by their nature and will do better on neutral ground that does not have to be guarded, nor the family protected.

When dogs first meet and accept one another, it doesn’t make a difference what size or breed they are. If the interaction is positive, then you are usually safe in assuming the play will be positive. The issue however is how rough is dangerous.  You would not be wise to introduce your 90 pound GSD to a 2 pound Yorkie and allow them to roughhouse without careful hands on scrutiny.  It is not that the GSD would want to hurt the Yorkie (assuming they have a positive relationship) but if the larger steps on the smaller inadvertently, then you can have a crisis.  It makes sense to understand as much as you can about your dog and the others involved in play in order to structure the play in such a way as to be safe.  There are smaller dogs who would run larger dogs ragged.  A Boston Terrier for example is a power house of lunacy and some other breeds would simply view these behaviors as ‘nuts’ and stop play way before the Terrier, out of exhaustion.  You are unlikely to see your Basset Hound romping around for any length of time with a crazed Jack Russell.

Some breeds play alike and some play differently.  My Golden for example plays like a Golden where head banging, play bowing and face dueling are not as much fun as chasing a ball, getting petted by a human or responding to human stimulus.  GSD’s make it a habit of playing rough while Golden’s or Sheltie’s for example are far more calm.  Some breeds as they get older like Basset Hounds or Bull Dog’s would sooner lay in the sunlight and hang out rather than exert themselves in play like Yorkie’s, Jack Russell’s or Boston Terriers for example. This doesn’t by any means say that they are not going to have fun with one another, but it does mean that you as the dog’s owner needs to recognize how your dog will interact with another breed before they actually get into it.

There are lots of signs that tend to move play from fun to fights.  If you see these behaviors forming, then it is important to remove the dogs from one another and re-focus them before allowing play to continue.  Escalation between two dogs can happen in an instant but in most every case it came with numerous warnings and cues.  A low growl, moon eyes, rigid body, show of teeth, air snap or even pawing can indicate one dog is frustrated or mad at his playmate and needs a time out.  If you allow these behaviors to continue, you are all but assured of a fight. Once they do get into it, stopping it takes far more energy and risk of injury than proper monitoring and analysis as a preventative measure during their interaction.

Here are some signs to look for that represent play:

1.       The play bow – front end down, back end in the air. Sometimes the dog trying to initiate play will slap his front legs down on the ground repeatedly.

2.       A big, silly open-mouthed grin.

3.       Exaggerated, bouncy movement. The dogs are acting silly.

4.       Loud, continuous growling and snarling; again, exaggerated. Play-growling may sound scarier than serious fighting.

5.       The dogs voluntarily make themselves vulnerable by “falling” down and exposing their bellies and allowing themselves to be caught when playing chase. They take turns chasing each other.

6.       They keep going back for more. Even the dog that ends up on his back doesn’t want to stop playing. They will probably take turns with most play-fighting behaviors.

Dogs need mental and physical stimulation to lead a quality healthy life.  Any action that facilitates having fun is essential to the dog’s development. Play can mean lots of things to your dog.  He recognizes play as being with you regardless of the activity, his human’s attention (touch) towards him in an activity such as playing ball or walking, playing with other dogs, training or just about anything that stimulates him.

Play is essential to their mental development where play teaches them to interact appropriately, builds their muscle and stamina and enhances their ability to deal with life’s situations.  Some dogs like German Shepherds continually think.  Everything is a decision with them but through experiencing hundreds of situations their ability to program themselves to understanding the appropriateness of a behavior under certain conditions makes play and interaction even more essential to their mental and physical growth.  Dogs who grow up from puppies without interaction do tend to be more antisocial and depressed.  Depression in dogs can manifest itself in fear of situations They may be fearful of people, their environment or things in the environment.    These fears are truly unhealthy.  Many people who buy pups from backyard breeders have no clue about the socialization of their new friend.  These failures come back to haunt the new owner as the dog grows because his understanding of the world is far more skewed then one might want to believe.  We see these dogs all of the time as turn-ins because owners either failed to recognize antisocial behavior or failed themselves in training and socializing their dog.

Toys are the tools of play.  If you give your dog a bone and he chews it to occupy his time, he is getting a type of self play. If you introduce another dog that play can become aggression as he may feel that the bone is his and he does not want the other dog to take it.  With any toy you have to make the dog understand that he owns nothing and play and toys are controlled by you the alpha.  If you use the ‘give and take’ premise of training,  his understanding of relinquishing a toy becomes far more clear and repeatable.  If the dog knows he has no possessions it will make the dog understand that he is using your toys to play with and when asked, he must surrender them.  What we do is give the dog a ball, a bone or a squeaker toy.  We let him have it for a few seconds and then take it back.  This is done 20x in a row and done for days and even for weeks on end with rescue dogs.  They come to understand that they must surrender the toy but will get it back by the benevolent dictator, you.  If you give your dog the wrong toy such as a pull rope he will find that tug-of-war is a great game. The problem is that although you may be stronger than he is, your child is not. If the dogs sees that he can win at tug, then you open the door to teach your dog that he can win against other interactions with your wife or child.  He understands that his physical strength can enable his upward mobility in the pack (that is your family). Aggression, even in this rough, form can teach the dog that he can indeed move up in the pack by disrespecting other members.  Control play and toy choices are a great way to keep your pet in line and to avoid uncomfortable situations.  You can still have tons of fund with him but with the understanding that play needs to be understood, supervised and controlled.

In some dogs play needs to be taught and controlled.  Certain breeds are prone to being mouthy, such as GSD’s. This is not at all aggression but it can be a considerable problem if the playmate is someone with thin skin, a bleeder, someone who is elderly or a child or smaller dog.  This behavior, although natural play, needs to be taught as unacceptable.  Certain dog breeds who have herding or hunting in their DNA have a far more difficult time in unlearning what comes naturally.  If you get one of these breeds, don’t be mad at the dog for doing what comes naturally, be aware that you chose this breed and now have to deal with the consequences.  At times these behaviors can be great fund but this tenacity toward some traits can be a major issue when they are done 24/7 in the home.  Failure to understand these behaviors causes people to put these dogs back in their crate or outside to avoid the problem. This just makes the problem 10 times worse because now the dog thinks these are fine and will continue doing them. If the dog is confined when he does something that comes naturally, without training, he can become extremely depressed, chase his tail, become lethargic, have certain fear based aggressive behaviors, become a resource guarder and distance himself from the family.  All of these consequences of a bad initial breed decision are typical.

If you choose to get a dog remember he needs to be trained, socialized and welcomed into the family. He needs to learn rules and be corrected for breaking them. He needs mental and physical stimulation throughout his life and he needs to know he can count on you just like you can count on him.