Healthy Dog Play

What Healthy Play Looks Like and When to Intervene

By Jody Epstein, CPDT-KA
Published: Mar 11, 2014 05:12 PM GMT / 
Updated: Mar 11, 2014 05:12 PM GMT

Many dog parents like to take their pups to the local dog park as a place where Rufus can run around off leash and socialize with others. But it’s important that we remember that the dog park is not a place for anti-social dogs to learn how to be social. The dog park is a place for Social Dogs to Socialize.

Unpleasant experiences at the dog park can turn social dogs into fearful and defensive dogs who no longer like meeting new dogs. The best way to help Rufus get the most out of his dog park experience is for his Person to be ‘fully present’ while visiting the park. This means that Rufus’ person pays attention to Rufus and the dogs with which he interacts. She’s prepared to intervene if necessary to protect Rufus (or the other dogs). If we know what we’re watching for, we can tell pretty quickly if what we’re seeing is HEALTHY PLAY or an UNHEALTHY interaction that may flip to a fight in the blink of an eye.

When dogs are playing, and enjoying themselves, they continuously tell us and each other through their body language. Favorite doggie games include Chase and Wrestle. Some dogs prefer to be the “chasee” while others prefer to do the chasing, and still others prefer to take turns. This is true also of wrestling, some prefer to take the bottom (on the ground), others prefer to take the top position and many like to take turns. The key to knowing if we’re watching HEALTHY or UNHEALTHY play is all in the body language…

In all play, we’re looking for a soft, wiggly body. Eyes should be open and bright. Ears may be neutral or a bit forward or backward. Mouth will be open, with soft lips covering the top teeth. The tongue is often lolling out, covering the lower canines – though not always. Tail may be slightly above Rufus’ back, parallel or slightly below his back, but it’s neither straight up in the air nor pointed at the ground. That tail is usually moving. If Rufus is extremely happy, that tail wag will begin at his rib cage and his whole back end will be wagging.

HEALTHY CHASE: Rufus loves to chase Sophie. Sophie loves being chased. When we watch this game, Sophie’s eyes are open and bright. Her ears may be back as she runs at high speed, but her mouth is open, her lips are soft and her tongue is probably hanging out of her mouth. Her tail is in line with her back and acting like a rudder. Sophie glances over her shoulder periodically to ensure that Rufus is still following her. Her body is soft and her stride is long. Rufus looks very similar to Sophie. His body is soft, his mouth is open, but his teeth are not visible.

UNHEALTHY CHASE: Sophie is chasing Rufus, but his ears are pinned to his head, his mouth is closed and he may even have a grimace on his face. His muscles, from face to rump, are rigid. He looks worried. His tail is pointed at the ground or between his legs and his back is rounded, resulting in a shortened gait. He NEVER looks back to see if Sophie is behind him. Rufus is scared. He’s not having fun. Sophie may be having fun and have ‘healthy play’ body language. Or, she may be in full ‘hunting’ mode: Her ears may be pricked far forward or pinned back. Her tail is straight behind her or sticking straight up and it’s still. Her mouth is closed and she’s got a hard, slightly squinted stare as she chases Rufus. Her intentions are not playful. INTERVENE if either the “chaser” or the “chasee” is not playing.

HEALTHY WRESTLE: Milo is a 60-lb dog and Bailey is 30 lbs. Milo handicaps himself by laying down to make himself less threatening to Bailey. They wrestle by gently biting/chewing on each other’s neck, shoulders, sometimes even ears. The bites are soft enough that nobody is feeling pain and they’re not lingering. If you look closely, you’ll likely see that both dogs are biting only with the front half of their teeth, no full mouth biting here. They roll around together, but all body parts are soft and relaxed.

UNHEALTHY WRESTLE: Milo grabs hold of Bailey’s neck and begins shaking it violently and/or doesn’t let go. This may be with his whole mouth or just the front teeth. Either way, this is not playful. Bailey squeals or screams. Either, or both, dogs have stiff/rigid muscles in their back and legs. Ears may be pinned to the head; the dog on bottom may be averting his gaze and trying to escape while the dog on top is ignoring these cries of “uncle.” INTERVENE.

TIME-OUTS: These are crucial. In healthy play dogs take frequent time-outs, sometimes lasting a fraction of a second, sometimes up to a minute. Time-outs are any interruption to the play, and usually include a reminder that all behaviors are “just in fun”. Time outs may include looking away from each other, full body shakes (as if wet), yawning, sitting or lying down, turning away from and then back to the other dog, sniffing some unseen thing on the ground and, of course, play bows. You may see Rufus do one or more of these behaviors while Sophie politely waits for him to resume the game, or you may see Sophie mirror some of the behaviors. Time-outs tell us the dogs are keeping themselves from becoming overly aroused. If Rufus is trying to time-out and Sophie doesn’t respect that, INTERVENE. Help the dogs maintain healthy play so that all park visits end just as happily as they started.

Whether your dog is enjoying an afternoon at the local dog park, or having a more private play date with known friends, these rules still apply. Even with new housemates, until you've seen clear evidence over the course of a few months, that both dogs respect each others' communication and play by the rules, all interactions should be well supervised to avoid conflict and to help the dogs learn how to play nicely together.

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