I love to watch a group of happy dogs run and play. A doggie play group comprised of dogs who play well together is a beautiful thing.
Play behavior in dogs is fun but also serves many important purposes. In young pups, play contributes to cognitive and motor development, helps develop social skills and allows them to practice communication skills. For dogs of all ages, a good play session provides an outlet for natural behaviors like stalking, herding, chasing and retrieving which contributes to good physical and mental health.
We all want our canine kids to make friends, be accepted into a social group and play well with other dogs, but many people don’t understand what good play looks like.
EVERY DOG IS DIFFERENT
Just like people, every dog is different. Some are outgoing and some are shy. Some love to rough-house and some prefer rolling on the ground and mouthing. Some love to chase and be chased, while others will hide if another dog tries to chase them. What’s important is to acknowledge these differences, appreciate your dog for who they are and find compatible playmates. It is equally important to acknowledge that your dog won’t want to play with every dog he meets.
Do you want to be friends with every person you meet?
Dogs who play well together not only display friendly body language, but practice give and take. A dog may roll on the ground one minute and be on top the next. He will practice self-handicapping, which means adjusting and adapting his play style. You will notice good doggy playmates pausing the play if it gets too intense. They stop to drink water or shake off the tension when the activity becomes too crazy. Also, they respect each other’s communication. If one dog yips, the other will back off for a second.
NO ROUGH HOUSING
There are behaviors which are precursors to potential problems. Be on the lookout for increased speed, fewer pauses in the action, the dogs’ bodies becoming vertical, the play becoming rougher and changes in vocalizations. Watch your dog play and step in to interrupt if you see any of these behaviors. Remove your dog from his playmate and give him an opportunity to settle down before allowing play to resume.
I also interrupt play when one dog starts to mount another dog. This is often considered a dominant gesture, but occurs frequently in the context of play. In my play groups, I see less confident dogs mount other dogs when they become overly aroused or can’t figure out how to insert themselves into a play situation. Mounting during play is rude and can cause a fight.
You can help your dog make friends by selecting appropriate playmates and teaching a few solid cues. Good recall and a reliable “leave it” cue are essential. If you see a dog approaching who may not be a good match, call your dog back to you and walk away together. If your dog instigates trouble, ask him to “leave it” which means don’t go toward another dog, call him to “come,” leash him and leave.
Dog-dog play is an important part of a healthy dog’s life. Help him meet the right friends, pay attention during playtime so you can help if necessary, but try to relax and enjoy the show.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.