Understanding the difference between appropriate dog play and Inappropriate dog play

A fulfilling cocktail of loyalty, fun, and warmth, dogs are considered man’s faithful friend.

These loved and endeared household pets are cherished by most because of their unique ability to reciprocate love and affection. Dogs are intelligible, intuitive and are able to feel and relate to their owners with their facial expressions and body language. They are instinctive natural defenders and can bark away any posing threat to you or your possession.

two curly hair dogs running side by side in an open green field

Dogs are great company. They are vibrant bundles of energy that keeps any dog owner on the go. With their immense energy and excitement for play, dog owners are really never alone and are always engaged by these trusted and enchanted dear ones.

Understanding the nuances of Dog Play

Dog play can be very competitive and may easily be incorrectly deemed as rough and aggressive where really the dogs are having a blast. The difference between appropriate and inappropriate dog play is in the body gestures of the dog towards its playmate. In the appropriate play, interactions are fluid, light, bouncy, and reciprocal whereas, in inappropriate play, interactions are sharp, tensed, with varying degrees of aggression.

two dogs on the beach in water using their mouth to play tug of war

Dogs communicate with body language. As they interact with fellow dogs and humans, they give off several gestures that are indicative of their present demeanor and perception of the playtime. Constant supervision throughout playtime helps you pick up on these cues and clues of whether your dog is happy or overwhelmed by the play. More importantly, it helps you know when to intervene when a playful fit escalates into aggressive inappropriate play – because they can escalate.

Understanding the benefits of appropriate dog

Dogs are social beings and thus play is a crucial component of their socialization and development. “According to Positively by Victoria Stilwell”. The importance of dog play are:

1. Promotes good limb coordination especially among developing puppies.

From running around playing chase or fetch, rolling over, to playfully tumbling over you or other dogs, play helps strengthen the core of the dog’s body and facilitates better coordination and mastery of each muscle group with time. Especially in puppies, play is crucial to their body development alongside correct diet, general mannerism coaching, and a supportive environment.

2. Helps the dog develop social skills

During playtime, dogs are able to gradually learn to recognize and effectively respond to the signals given off by their fellow dogs. With time they become more skilled in identifying whether their play is welcomed by other dogs or not.

Two small dogs side by side running in a green field. One dog with a tennis ball in its mouth

There is remarkably great parallelism between social development in dogs and in humans. A dog that does not play has a difficult time getting along with other dogs, just as people who are not socially exposed would have a hard time, starting or sustaining a conversation and generally being around people. They simply don’t know how to go about it and thus tend to be nervous, anxious, and dread when they have to meet and interact with other people.

Similarly, dogs that are not socially exposed and developed will tend to withdraw and not engage other dogs, or may be very anxious, nervous, and overwhelmed when put in a playing field with others. They too simply don’t know how to go about it. On the flip side, they may be too playful and naïve to recognize the signs of vexation or being overwhelmed by the other dog.

two dogs face off.

These extremes are naturally addressed in play as an anxious and timid dog can progressively grow accustomed to playing with other dogs, whereas a vexed dog can lash out and perhaps ‘check’ your over-zealous dog. This would teach him to not trespass a particular point while playing with that particular dog.

3. Helps reduce boredom and keeps the canine happily stimulated and content

Dogs do get bored easily, especially if left idle for long periods of time. Play helps get rid of the boredom and helps dispense the excess energy of the dog in a constructive manner.

Understanding what is Dog Play Matching

Prevention is always better than cure. A dog owner can mitigate and even prevent any inappropriate dog plays by correctly matching the dogs. As commonly appreciated, dogs do vary in breed, strength, intelligence, and sizes; likewise they do vary in their energy levels and play styles.

two small dogs in a park face off while playing

Energy levels do differ based on the breed and size of the dog. Dogs such as German Shepherds or pit bulls are large and tenacious in nature. Therefore their playstyle will be relatively sturdy and aggressive compared to Chihuahua which are smaller in size and have a relatively non-aggressive play style. Appreciating your dog’s energy level and play style will enable you to match your dog with a suitable playmate of the same play niche.

Three big dogs playing agressively

Where dogs are mismatched, there is an increased likelihood of injury during playtime. An aggressive dog paired up with gentler breeds may cause mayhem. The gentler dog may feel intimidated or overwhelmed which may in extreme cases, have the dog forever avoiding and dreading playtime.

Understanding What is Appropriate Dog Play?

Appropriate dog play is play that is governed by the principle of mutuality and reciprocity. Playtime is relatively light, fluid, and bouncy all through with several turn takings and role switching involved. The nature of the play will possess certain characteristics that enable you to gauge whether the play is safe and still healthily stimulating to your dog. Your dog will also give particular gestures or body movements that indicate their enjoyment of the play session.

two large dogs laying down in a field showing each other affection

Features of appropriate dog play In respect to your dog’s demeanor;

    • Open mouth and Panting
    • Spins and leaps
    • Bumping each other’s hips
    • Sniffing
    • Wagging tail – this is one of the common signs that indicate that the play is friendly and enjoyable.
    • Fluid and Bouncy movement – here the dogs are bouncy in movement, usually a side to side movement. There are no ‘curt’ movements or dogs trying to ‘check’ each other during play.

Features of appropriate dog play In respect to the nature of the play;

    • Reciprocity: Here a lot of turn-taking, occurs where the chaser becomes the chasee and the dog ‘winning’ allows the other dog to occasionally ‘win’ while playing.
    • Mutually respected pauses: During play, there are short pauses, as dogs take time to rest and anticipate their next move, for example, where they will hide if they are playing chase. These pauses are mutually respected as the other dog ceases to engage for the duration of the pause and resumes engagement when the playmate resumes play.

In “Dog playing Techniques featuring Jessie and her buddies” Donna Hill meticulously elaborates on the common play technique of her dog, Jessie, and how Jessie plays with her other dog friends. The video highlights the various maneuvers of dogs during ordinary appropriate play. Reciprocity in dog play is emphasized and goes to show that it is common practice inappropriate play for dogs to turn-take regardless of the play technique or maneuver employed.


Understanding What is Questionable Dog Play?

“According to Simple Behaviors,” this is the interim stage between appropriate and inappropriate play. Here the body gestures of each dog cannot be interpreted to be wholly appropriate while they also cannot be said to be inappropriate. Their conduct is questionable, it is not fully telling of the demeanor or perception of the dogs at play. Are they happy? Are they still playing when he does that?

two puppy dogs on leashes playing together

Keenness should be accorded at such junctures by the owner in order to monitor the progression of their dog’s behavior and avoid any negative reactivity. Gestures you should watch out for:

  1. Reduced reciprocity

  2. Scuffling

  3. Stalking -this may be part of the play but may also be indicative of brewing tension between the playmates.

  4. Yawning- in most instances, yawning is deemed to be a sign of stress.

  5. Defaulting to you while the play is ongoing- this may be indicative that your dog is not happy or satisfied with the ongoing playtime.

What is Inappropriate Dog Play?

Here the play is very aggressive and a full-on battle for dominance. There is full-on body contact with the biting, pushing, slamming, or mounting on each other, scratching and barking at one another viciously. This is a definite no on the playground as it may lead to bleeding and injury among the dogs.

Two dogs face off and snarle aggressively snarl at each other

This type of play may range in degree from low-level aggression, high-level aggression to full onslaught. The body gestures are relatively similar in the varying degrees and if appropriately monitored, the owner can prevent low-level aggression from escalating into a vicious bloody battle.

Features of inappropriate dog play In respect to your dog’s demeanor

    1. Stiffness
    2. Closed Mouth
    3. A show of dominance- this is typically whereby a dog becomes very territorial, with accompanying gestures of kicking dust into the air and refusing to be sniffed by the other dog.
    4. Head over shoulder body contact
    5. Sharp movements- such as going over each other or mounting on each other
    6. Heckles – here the dog is very irritable and prone to attack.
    7. Tucked tail
    8. Yelping or Crying
    9. Intimidating behavior- this includes snarling or growling and on the extreme end of the spectrum barking, showing of teeth, and an actual offensive attack.

Features of inappropriate dog playIn respect to the general feel of the play

  1. The dogs tend to display: An increased number of body slams, viciousness and escalating aggression

In the Youtube video below “Dogs playing or fighting by Lisa Gallegos” Lisa, a professional dog trainer, elaborates on 3 fundamental signs to watch out for in order to determine whether your dog is playing or fighting. The examples and explanations used in the video are insightful as they highlight the varying responses of the dogs when play becomes inappropriate. There are dogs that go on the offense whereas others become overwhelmed and fold.

How to Remedy Inappropriate Dog Play

Instinctively, well-socialized dogs would back off when they read the ‘back off sign’ from their playmate. This is because they have learned to quickly recognize and adjust to the communication of the other dogs as displayed by their body language. In this case, no intervention by the dog owner is needed.

Also where the dog is well trained, the dog is cultured to always default to its owner for safety and comfort in instances where it feels uncomfortable or intimidated. For example, if during the play your dog is constantly being picked upon by the rest or his playmate is excessively pushy and domineering, a well-trained dog will easily step away and come to you. This default tendency is developed over a period of time and several dog training manuals have been published on the same.

big white dog trying to play smaller dog.

However, in most instances, this may not be the case, especially where the dogs are overstimulated. Overstimulation occurs when the dogs are left to play over a long period of time without taking a break. This leads to a lot of hormonal releases that tend to impair quick recognition of the “warning signs” by the dog. Where the Hormone Response Element (HRE) level increases play may continue obliviously.

Quickly the dog then becomes overly anxious and may result in a flight- or fight response. This is what leads to aggression and fights on the playing ground. As soon as this progression is noted by the owner, he or she should mitigate the same by recalling the dog and have it rest and ease up before allowing it to go back to play.

Accordingly, a dog can ignore or comply with a recall. It depends on the extent or degree of stimulation. If things are really heated up, the owner is bound to physically intervene and break off the fight or onslaught. However, in episodes of low-level aggression, most well-trained dogs are highly likely to obey a recall by their owner.

How to train your dog to obey a recall

“According to Friends of the Dog”, the best ways to culture your dog to obey a recall and approach you is by:

    1. Calling the dog to you

    2. Having them to sit or relax beside you

    3. Using treats to reward their obedience

    4. Having them stay beside you for a while

    5. Once they calm down, allowing them to go play again.

The giving of treats and praise to the dog conditions them to expect ‘goodies’ when they are recalled as opposed to a tongue lashing or other severe treatment to their misconduct on the playfield. This fosters a willingness to always drawback to you when they are summoned and have to leave the playing field.

Final thoughts

In general, playtime should always be supervised and closely monitored for the best results. Dogs should never be left to play alone as several risks may be posed to both the physical and psychological welfare of the dog. With time, as frequent exposure and training continue, dogs will learn to evade destructive plays and only engage in a friendly playful manner with other dogs.

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