Snellville Dog Trainer writes that without an understanding of dog body language and behavior, dog owners may accidentally label dangerous fighting as play or positive interactions as aggression. Dog-to-dog play is a healthy behavior most dogs choose to take part in, and when monitored, acts to properly socialize young puppies and promotes overall healthy mental and physical well-being.
A Polite Playmate is the Right Playmate
During a dog’s critical socialization period, which lasts approximately 8 to 12 weeks of age, it is important to ensure your dog interacts with other puppies their age as well as stable adult dogs. At this time, your puppy learns how to appropriately play with other dogs. If your puppy is too pushy, they will learn attempting to play in that fashion provokes a negative response in the other puppy and vice versa. Some dogs are simply genetically predisposed with a poor ability to read other dogs’ signals and must be taught what those signals mean with redirection during play.
Body Language & Signaling
There are many signals dogs use to communicate to each other that this mock battle is still, indeed, play. A play bow, which is the position where a dog brings their front legs out in front of them and their chest is low to the ground with their rear end remaining upward, always indicate that further action is play. Are the dogs that are engaging in play taking turns with each other? For instance, is one dog chasing the other relentlessly or are they switching between the chaser and the chased? This may be a positive indicator that the dogs are a good match for each other and that the play is wanted is if they switch between the chased and chaser during battle. However, this rule does not apply to every play match.
Are the dogs bouncy and making exaggerated movements? Are their mouths open and relaxed? These are also signs that the play is positive and desired.
Growling and Snarling
Growling and snarling do not mean the play is escalating to actual fighting. Dogs have the ability to distinguish between growls meant as a threat and growls used for play- play growls actually differ acoustically from growls meant as threats, mainly in their fundamental frequencies and format dispersions. If you are unsure of whether or not these growls and snarls are meant as play, look at the dogs’ facial expressions and overall body movement. Growling and snarling may occur immediately before or after a more obviously playful move.
In Play Fighting
In play fighting, dogs may choose to allow themselves to be “caught” by rolling onto their backs and playing from the ground. Some dogs prefer to play in this position. A great and effortless way to check if the dog on the ground is enjoying the play is to do what I call a “consent check.”
To perform a consent check, simply pick up or call off the dog that is playing from above for a moment & watch how the dog who was on the ground reacts. Does the dog who was on the ground immediately return to playing with the other dog or do they further remove themselves from the situation? If the dog returns to play, even if they resume play from the ground, it is likely this dog is enjoying the type of play that is occurring. I perform consent checks several times throughout a doggy play session to ensure everyone is still enjoying the play act.
Dog Will Generally Choose To Interact With Other Dogs…
Overall, dogs will generally choose to interact with other dogs in a way that encourages the other dogs to continue playing, which makes monitoring their actions a lot simpler. If you are uncomfortable introducing your dog to unfamiliar dogs, you can choose to have your dog build longstanding friendships with dogs of friends and family members instead of introducing them to dogs at the dog park or other dog-populated areas. Dog play will continue as dog play as long as each dog is recognizing the other dog’s signals and is choosing to act accordingly, which is encouraged by proper puppy socialization. If you are unsure of a dog’s intent during play, perform a consent check and give the dogs an opportunity to tell you whether or not they’re enjoying the play.
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 T . Faragó, P . Pongrácz, F. R ange, Z. Virányi, A. M iklósi. 2010. ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour 79:917–925