Dog Play! The Good, the Bad & the Ugly!
It's not always easy to know if the play that your dog is involved in is good play or bad play. Having a good understanding of what you are looking for will put you in a better position when your dog plays with another dog.
How often have you heard the phrase 'Oh don't worry he's only playing' or ' Don't worry he's friendly. You may even be the one saying that to another dog owner. It's a few of my least favourite phrases that can come out of another owners mouth, I mean I have more but that is for another blog post. Those phrases may be true, maybe their dog actually is very friendly and maybe their dog is only playing but that doesn't mean that the play is reciprocated or welcomed by your dog. I want you to know that it is totally okay for you to not want your dog to play, they don't have to play with every dog. If your gut is saying no. Make up your excuses, politely ask the other owner to get their dog and carry on with your walk.
Personally, I don't often let Luna play with unfamiliar dogs and if I do then I am watching to make sure that they play is fun, not only for Luna but for the other dog too.
What is good (Green Flags)?
Mirroring & Matching- Imagine placing a mirror between the dogs then you would see that they are copying each other, they may bow at the same time, stop and sniff at the same time, roll on their backs at the same time. They will take in turns to chase, rather than one doing all the chasing.
Self Handicapping- This is when one dog will handicap itself for the other dog. An older dog may play more gently or slowly with a puppy, a dog may let the other dog tug the toy more. Pauses- This is a lovely thing to watch out for during play. This is when the dogs take a natural break, a mini pause, catch their breath and then they go back and resume play.
Sharing- This is when dogs can share resources, space, toys, puddles or even piles of mud. They may play tug with a toy, not actually making body contact but enjoying the game between them.
(This one sits in the middle for me, Luna for example will share with some dogs but not all dogs. I am very careful when it comes to toys or even sticks. This is something that you really need to know about your dog, don't presume that they are happy to share.)
Vocalisation- Lots of dogs are very vocal when they play. If vocalisation is paired with good soft, bouncy and playful body language then the vocalisation is likely to be okay.
Soft Body Langauge- I always ask my owners to study their dog's body language so they are able to spot the subtle changes, I like my owners to know what their dog's body language looks like when they are relaxed and happy. When dogs are playing, look at all the dog's body language from noes to toes! You want to see nice soft wiggly bodies, the inside of their ears showing, soft eyes and mouth.
But their tail is wagging- A waggy tail does not always mean that a dog is happy. Just like we can smile when we're nervous or sad, a dog can wag their tail when they are fearful, happy, excited, scared, anxious. It's important to look at the position of the tail, is it up high or sitting tucked between their legs, the speed of the wag.
What is not good (Red Flags)?
Uninvited Body Contact- This is when a dog may be harassing another dog by being in their face or glued to the behind of another dog. It can involve one dog using their paws, head or throat on or over the other dog. If this type of contact is not welcomed by the other dog than it could cause conflict.
Whale Eye on Greeting- Whale eye is when you can see the whites of a dogs eye, during play or a greeting this may look like the dog is doing a mini 'freeze' while looking at the other dog with a whale eye. It can be a sign of uncertainty or it can indicate that the dog is uncomfortable.
T-Shape- T-shape is when one dog puts his chin and throat over another dog neck, head or shoulder area. This is especially something to look out for if the dogs are unknown to each other. It's rude and it can quite quickly cause the other dog to react. It can also be a way of scent marking.
Space Invading- This can come in many forms, a dog may block the other dog from their owner, if dogs greet onlead then if the leads get tangled up it can quite quickly cause tension (best to avoid on lead greetings, or keep them a 3 seconds and move on)
One-Sided Play- This is when one dog is doing all the chasing, mouthing or pinning to the other dog down. The play isn't reciprocated by the other dog.
Harassment- One dog just won't leave another dog alone, it may look like play but watch the body language of the dog who is being harassed they will quite clearly be wanting the interaction to stop.
Mounting- Mounting during play is a red flag and I would recommend ending that play session. It can be for many reasons but it's inappropriate.
When do I stop the play?
It's important to know that if the two dogs are familiar with each other then they may have a certain playstyle and you may see a few things from the not good list but familiar dogs can play a little more boisterous then dogs that are unfamiliar. If you spot one red flag during play but the body language is nice and soft and there are still lots of green flags then you don't necessarily have to stop the play. keep observing your dog when they are playing, get to know how they play, study their body language. If you're gut is saying to stop the play then calmly call your dog and keep walking on.
Keep on top of your dogs recall
It's always good to practise recall away from other dogs regularly. If your dog has a favourite dog friend then practise calling them away from playing with the dog, reward them heavily for coming to you then send them back to play some more.
Don't forget to bring your high value treats on your walks and your dogs favourite tug toy.
My favourite place to shop for tug toys is