A question I get asked a lot as a trainer is whether the play between 2 or more dogs is safe or “good” play. Owners get concerned if they hear growling or a yelp or observe a nip and they sensibly want to know when to intervene or whether they should intervene at all.
Luckily for dog owners, scientists have been busy studying play between dogs and can shed light on what is healthy play and the signs the activity is no longer play.
Why dogs (and other mammals) play is not fully understood but play involves the use of communicative skills and the coordination of actions and movement. Play is thought to increase cooperation between dogs. For example, when one dog has offered a play action like running and offering to be chased is willing to give that up if the play partner initiates another play action. Other functions of play may be to prepare an individual for new challenges while still safely with the parents or group, or for better social integration, hunting ability and for fun!
The reason play is fun is because hormones such as dopamine, noradrenaline, oxytocin, and the endorphins are responsible for the positive feelings and enhanced learning during play. Scientists have discovered that individuals who play frequently have reduced cortisol levels meaning they are more relaxed than others. Animals that are raised in social isolation and without play opportunities have a permanent reduction in their dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin levels.
Puppies learn how to avoid conflicts between themselves through play. Avoid intervening too early (unless one puppy is overwhelmed) so that the puppies learn to work it out. This will help the puppies grow up to be skilled in responding to conflict as adult dogs.
There are specific signals dogs use in play and one of which is the familiar “play-bow” (where the dog assumes the position with rear end up and front end down). Play bows are used to solicit play or to resume play and they also occur before actions like a bite (which may be misinterpreted by the play partner). Other ways dogs initiate play are “play gamboling” where the dog uses a bouncy gait, lets their shoulders swing and uses a pace which is somewhat faster than a walk. Sometimes playful dogs will approach and withdraw from a distance, other times they may paw their own face or rear up on the hindlegs a couple of times.
Stalking is another type of play solicitation. Eyes flashing, sneezing and panting also can be invitations to play and are followed by if the other dog accepts the invitation. These signals also occur during play to avoid any misunderstandings and playing dogs will take frequent breaks where they also look away from one another. Some dogs also use barking as part of play initiation or to maintain play and is initially often the result of the excited state of the dog but later can become a communicative tool between two dogs playing.
Sometimes play can turn into aggression and watching for warning signs is important for owners. If a larger dog is chasing a smaller dog, predation may be triggered in the larger dog if the smaller dog runs in a straight line away from the larger dog and by the smaller dog wriggling and ducking much like prey does and by the smaller dog vocalizing. This is referred to as “predatory drift”.
Play between dogs also includes dogs changing roles (chase and be chased for example) and it has been observed that dogs avoid playing with other dogs who are unwilling to change roles in play. Play “attacks” have been observed between puppies.
Owners should watch play and intervene if a puppy seems overwhelmed or if there is no role reversal between dogs playing or if they see signs of a larger dog going into “predatory drift”.
Most dogs are cooperative social animals so play generally is fun for the participants.
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