Play is an integral part of most dogs’ mental health and physical well being. Play is generally high energy and knowing what to look for in appropriate play helps you prevent your dog’s enthusiasm from getting out of hand.
Dogs’ play styles vary across breed, temperament, size, and experience, but some general observations or rules about play can be used to 1) distinguish it from the prey sequence from which it is derived, and 2) keep your dog safe and in the happy zone.
The first thing I point out to clients is that play is large, loose, lateral, and sometimes loud. Dogs’ movements are exaggerated and loosey-goosey as they solicit a friend to play. This lets the potential playmate know this is going to be fun and don’t take this too seriously. When in prey mode, animals tend to have small tightly controlled movements because they don’t want to let the object of their desire know where they are or that they are approaching. In play, dogs bounce back and forth in play bows, or lateral leaps, and may bark, whine, or play growl. When stalking prey, predators are focused, forward moving and quiet. You cannot catch a silly wabbit if you announce your intentions.
Play is also repetitive and self-regulating. When my dogs rev up in the back yard it generally starts with one of the retrievers giving a play bow. The other one stops, spays its front legs in an abbreviated play bow and off they zoom (with the Bernese Mt Dog in pursuit) around the shed, across the patio, around the holly bush through the day lilies and back again, and again, and again. (In fact, we specifically designed the backyard gardens with the dogs’ “flight paths” in mind. Though, apparently, this is not how most people landscape…). This repetitive pattern is a hallmark of play, whereas when pursuing dinner, you don’t generally get a second chance to capture the main entree, so most predators keep themselves tightly wound and let loose once in a quick burst of determination.
If you watch dogs playing, you should notice that they will play, play, play, stop, re-group, repeat. Dogs don’t want to spillover into aggression any more than we want them too, so they will naturally self-regulate in order to keep arousal at a fun level. Puppies learn a lot about this from their litter mates, but sometimes we have to help them learn how to keep themselves from being obnoxious with other dogs or people. When I host play groups, especially puppy play groups, I will help dogs learn to regulate by breaking up play anywhere from every 30 seconds to every 5-10 minutes depending on the intensity of the play, how quickly the dogs escalate their arousal level, and how comfortable all the dogs in the play group seem to be. If your dog or puppy quickly escalates to biting your pants, hands, or shoes at an uncomfortable level, try stopping play the first time his teeth hit your skin or clothes. Have him sit, give him a treat and let him calm down for 15-60 seconds (until he is relaxed enough to stop biting), and resume play.
Break play up as often as necessary to keep him below his biting threshold, and try re-directing his mouth from you to a toy. If you feel as if your puppy cannot play without drawing blood or it just isn’t fun, call a positive reinforcement trainer for some help. (The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a trainer search page: https://apdt.com/trainer-search/ where you can search by zip code for a trainer close to you.)
Knowing what sort of play your dog prefers as well as how quickly he revs up will also help to keep play fun and rewarding for your canine. My dog Bingley loved his morning tug sessions with Hudson and chasing Huddy around the shed, but in general prefers to play ball with me over playing with other dogs (Or any available human with an arm, for that matter. He swears all repairmen are hired specifically to throw balls for him). It’s really okay that some dogs are not as interested in playing with other dogs as they are with their people. Think if it as good information to have about your dog that helps you keep him from being overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of other dogs. For example, when you go to a dog park take a bunch of tennis
balls and have your dog play ball with you while the other dogs romp and wrestle. (Extra tennis balls will help to keep all canine ball addicts happy, while allowing your dog to pursue his magic golden orb without interference).
I have a t-shirt that reads, “Life is short, play with your dog.” So bearing that in mind, find something you both enjoy and get large, loose, lateral, and a little bit loud.
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