Updated: Jan 17, 2019
There’s nothing nicer than watching dogs play, that joyful bounce as they clown around with no abandon. But play can include all the elements of a hunt or fight, so how can you be sure that your dog is still playing?
A few weeks ago I witnessed a dog barrelling up to another younger dog, arriving front on with no introduction and adding a body slam for good measure. This ‘introduction’ was accompanied by a shouted assurance from the dog’s owner that ‘He just wants to play!’ The younger dog yelped loudly, rolled over onto it’s back with one paw held high, clearly indicating he was very frightened and not at all keen to play. This message fell on deaf dog-ears and the younger pup was chased until he dove for cover under the stroller his confused owner was pushing. It’s important to monitor your dog’s play to make sure that your dog isn’t getting bullied, but just as importantly you need to ensure your dog isn’t the bully. The first thing to watch for is reciprocity. Dogs should take turns at chasing, being on the ground, being the victor and so on. The second thing to watch for is play signals and that these signals, both ‘let’s play’ and ‘let’s stop playing’, are not being ignored. Indicators that communicate the intention to play include that lovely see-saw running motion, loose body posture, quick jerky movements and play bows (crouching over front paws with bum in the air). ‘Let’s stop playing’ is signalled by slow movement, ground sniffing, or walking away, followed by lip curls or growls if these first signals are ignored! Remember that play can look scary because it incorporates all the components of hunt, chase and fight. The difference is in the exaggerated signals that indicate we’re still playing.
If you are unsure whether one dog is enjoying play or not then here’s a way to check for consent; take the collar of the more boisterous dog. If the other dog retreats without a backwards glance then this is non-consensual play. However if the other dog hangs about trying to elicit play then you can be pretty sure both dogs are enjoying the interaction.
Off-lead dog areas are a great opportunity for dogs to meet and play together, but they are not a place for owners to go to read the paper or chat with friends while their dog runs amok. Always keep a close eye on proceedings, watch for play signals and make sure your dog is behaving appropriately.