Navigating Dog Play

Navigating dog play can sometimes be stressful to dog parents. It is not always clear whether your dog's play is, well, play! Here are some things to look for when trying to figure it out.

First of all, why DO dogs play? It takes a lot of time and energy to not much end. So why bother?

Researchers believe the maneuvers and patterns you see in dog play are watered down versions of skills dog ancestors, wolves, need to hunt prey and evade predators. Play provides a way of rehearsing key survival skills.

Most dogs don't need to be good at hunting any more. They will be fed at 6:00 pm every night. But most young dogs and puppies retain the impulse to play. They wrestle, chase, flee, bite, snap and slam into each other. And it can be noisy, with lots of growling and snarling and gnashing of teeth. It looks for all the world like fight!

But dogs have ways of signaling to each other that "don't worry, what I'm doing is just play." They include:

  1. The familiar play bow, which tells the other dog that the action that follows is just in jest
  2. A wide grinning "play face"
  3. A "rocking horse" gait. When dogs chase after a squirrel their bodies turn into streamlined missiles. When they are playing they bounce around with inefficient movements
  4. Role reversals. In a wrestling match, the dog on the bottom switches out with the dog on top
  5. Activity shifts. They chase for a bit, then wrestle, then have a little break, then chase some more

If in doubt, do a "consent" test. Pull the dog on top away and see if the dog on the bottom comes back for more or takes the opportunity to walk away. If he comes back for more, it's play!

If you have questions or would like us to assess your dog's play, feel free to get in touch.


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