What does GOOD play look like?

Going to the dog park, attending a group class or any other place where dogs are loose together can make some people quite anxious. Can’t blame them: injuries due to play can rack up quite the vet bill, not to mention the potential impact on your dog’s behavior after an accident or a fight.

To help dampen that anxiety and prevent the obvious fights, let’s go trough the “great”, the “okay but keep an eye on it” and “intervene now” of dog play.

Read: dog parks, good or bad idea?

Types of play between dogs

Before we talk about whether it’s going well or not, you’ll want to know what is normal play behavior.

When they play together, dogs will “practice” things they would normally need in nature:

  • Fighting
    • They will pretend to, or actually but softly, bite each other (without causing any damage). Often, one dog will be on top of the other.
  • Chasing
    • Running after one another.
  • Reproducing?!
    • Yup, they’re gonna hump! As long as both dogs are okay with the interaction and there’s no actual puppies being made, you can rest easy. This is perfectly normal behavior and it does not need to be corrected.

Consent: the only thing that matters in dog play

There’s a lot you can look at to determine if thing are going well between two dogs. There is, however, one rule to…rule…them all: consent.

As long as both individuals don’t injure one another and are both happy with what’s going on, everything is okay. As soon as one dog stops being interested, regardless of it previously having fun or the type of play, it should get the space it wants. How can you be certain that both dogs are consenting, especially if one’s on top of the other? There’s a test!

Consent test: a quick answer

If both dogs are having a blast, they’ll want to go back to playing immediately if we separate them. There are two ways to do this:

Ideally: Both humans gently grab their dog and create distance. Release them at the same time and see what they do.
Otherwise: Call your dog far enough away from the interaction to see what both dogs do afterwards.
Never: Grab another person’s dog. It might be sensitive to strangers or being held, not to mention the person’s reaction!

The goal is to have both dogs far enough from each other so that they can both make a clear, visible decision about continuing play or not.

If one dog stays put, tries to leave or does something else, there is no consent.

That doesn’t mean your dog was having no fun at all, but the fact that it doesn’t immediately resume the activity tells you that the break is welcome. Based on your dog’s body langage, you can then evaluate: Did your dog need a break or is it really uncomfortable?

If the dog runs away, hides between your legs or under a table, it’s probably not enjoying itself:
In a perfect world, the other dog will listen to these signals and go play with another dog. When that’s not the case, it becomes your job to keep your dog feeling safe: ask the other person to call their dog. If that doesn’t work, leaving is the best option.

If the dog is at ease, but moves on to another activity:
It likely welcomes the break despite being okay with what was going on, and will start playing again shortly.

If both dogs run straight back towards each other and resuming playing, everything is fine. For now.

The more tests you do, the more certain you can be that your dog likes that game and likes playing it for a while. You’ll want to be careful not to assume that, just because your dog enjoys the game for a few minutes, it wants to keep at it for an hour and will want to do it with any dog that shows up. Your dog may very well enjoy play-fighting with a certain dog and not with the next. By observing your dog over many play sessions, you’ll better be able to know if things are going well without doing any test.

If the dog is happy, but the human isn’t:

Sometimes, intense play can be too stressful for those who watch it, even if the dogs are having fun. While nothing “bad” is happening, it’s still better to recall your dog and encourage it to play another way or leave the situation. Respect the limits of those around you just as you want them to respect yours!

What are other signs that the play between two dogs is going well?

Each dog is slightly different in its body langage, what it likes and doesn’t like and its play habits. That’s why consent is the only true way to know if things are going well. That being said, there are many things you can observe and feel reassured by:

  • Communication:
    • Through their movement, their bodies and their behavior, dogs communicate together.
    • When they approach, they turn their heads away, move indirectly, have relaxed bodies and faces.
    • When they reach each other, they let themselves be smelled, they sit, sniff the ground, make play-bows.
    • During play, they communicate when they need a break and listen when others do the same.
  • Role reversal:
    • The dog that was chasing will then run away to be chased.
    • The dog that was on top will intentionally “lose” and end up on the bottom.
  • Breaks:
    • Tiny breaks where both dogs stop playing for a few seconds before resuming.
    • Longer breaks where they go do something else, drink water, lie down, etc.
  • Controlling one’s strength and adapting to one’s play-mate
    • The dogs control themselves when they play fight, things don’t escalate.
    • The bigger dog “self-handicaps” to keep the smaller one at ease and give it a chance to win.

It’s rare for both dogs to show all of these signs every single time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that play is bad, but the less you see these things, the more you should pay close attention.

What about red flags, signs you should intervene right away?

In most cases, a dog fight can be seen coming many seconds or even minutes before it even starts. Knowing your dog, as well as canine body language, will help you see the first sparks and intervene before anything else happens. Here are the big red flares you really shouldn’t ignore:

  • Tail between the legs
    • If the dog being chased or with another dog on top has its tail between the legs and it stays firmly stuck there even after a few seconds, that’s no good at all.
  • Trying to run away, to hide
    • The difference between the dog that runs to play and the one that runs to hide is that the one who wants to play will go back to his friend if it is called away.
    • The body language of a dog that is fleeing is usually far more tense, tossing wide-eyed glares at the pursuing dog. It will also usually panic, cower or try to defend itself when the dog catches up.
  • Growling:
    • Many dogs, especially certain breeds, growl as part of play behavior and that is perfectly okay.
    • If you don’t know the growling dog very well, always assume it’s an angry growl and call your dog away to check consent.
  • Showing teeth, biting in the air, biting
    • The dog pulls back it’s lips, showing all his pearly whites, often licking it’s nose as it does. It bites in the air as a warning or just outright attacks. If you weren’t sure about the dog’s comfort level before, you should be now. Get your dog out of there, whether it is the cause of the reaction or the one having it.

For a great image gallery of dog body langage, check out the Ispeakdog.org website!

A note about on-leash dog play

While it is not strictly a bad thing, having your dog play on leash presents a few issues:

  • Hard to move:
    • It’s much harder for dogs to communicate if they don’t have free movement.
    • If a conflict occurs, dogs may feel stuck, increasing the odds of an actual fight.
    • Splitting up a fight with leashes all tangled isn’t a fun experience.
    • “Flexi” type leashes are even more dangerous than regular ones in this scenario.
  • Creating a bad habit
    • Your dog may start expecting to play with with every dog it sees while on leash, which isn’t always possible and can quickly become bothersome.
    • With the expectation of play comes the frustration when it doesn’t happen: your dog could start barking, become reactive.

Better, healthier on-leash play

If you want to have your dog play on-leash, you should ideally do so with a longer leash, different than the one you walk with. Over time, your dog will understand that one leash is for play, the other for walking. You’ll also want to make sure that you have enough space for your dog to play appropriately. Don’t have your dog go into a full-on play session on the side of a busy street! Regardless of where you play, make sure that the other dog and its human are interested before approaching. Just because you’re set up and willing to have your dog play doesn’t mean they are!

Watch out for local laws: In Montreal, any leash longer than 1.82 meters (6 feet), as well as “flexi” models are forbidden. Regardless of the type of public space you’re in, you run the risk of a hefty fine if you get caught with your dog off-leash or with a leash you’re not supposed to use.

Recalling often, a great habit to have

Even when play is going well, there are many benefits to calling and rewarding your dog often during play:

  • It forces a tiny break, which allows excitement to go down a bit and reduces the odds that play escalates into conflict.
    • Your dog might even get into the habit of checking in with you by itself, which causes automatic breaks!
  • You’ll know with certainty that your dog and the one it’s playing with are having fun.
  • You’re rewarding your dog for paying attention to you, even when it’s distracted and having fun.
  • If a fight breaks out, it’ll be much easier to get your dog out of there if it’s used to being called in this context.
  • Leaving the dog park will suddenly become much, much easier!

Having trouble teaching your dog how to play properly? We can help!

written by Stephen Fiset, dog trainer

Mis à jour le January 1, 2024