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How to recognise healthy play between dogs

Dogs having fun with friends

One of the most important parts of being a good dog parent is helping your pup learn how to build relationships and develop the social skills needed to make the most of one of the best things about being a dog – playtime!

Play between dogs can sometimes be overwhelming for us hoomans and knowing when to step in to keep play safe and enjoyable is a key part of making sure your pup gets the most out of their social time.

So how do we recognise what healthy play looks like?

How do we identify when things are escalating into something inappropriate or when our dog may feel uncomfortable and need a break?

Here are some things to look out for…

Loosey goosey happy poochy

Look out for nice relaxed bodies during play with big, over exaggerated, floppy movements. Good paw pals will often fall over or lie down to show their tummy to their play partner.

Pauses & timeouts

Regular pauses are an important part of a fun and balanced playtime and should happen naturally to give everyone time to catch their breath. If furfriends aren’t taking a break, stop them for a moment and let them reset. We call this a consent check and it gives one dog the opportunity to walk away from the game.

Play bows

Dogs have a whole array of signals they share while playing. The play bow is one of the most common and involves one dog sticking their bottom in the air with their head low to the ground. This says, ‘hey I’m playing, are you still playing?’

Role reversals

Balance is an important part of play. Do they take turns being the chaser and chasee? If it’s all one-way traffic it may be a good time to check everyone is having fun.

Self-handicapping

A bigger dog lying down to interact with a smaller one or a slower dog being given the role of chaser, these are types of self-handicapping. This makes sure everyone is comfortable and the game is fair. If bigger or more energetic dogs aren’t adjusting to their play partners style, it’s time to find another playmate.

Bite inhibition

Dogs will often use their mouths when playing so it’s really important your dog understands the importance of keeping their mouth and bite soft enough during play so no one gets hurt.

As the game gets more exciting and arousal heightens, it can be easy for some dogs to get a bit carried away, you must always be ready to step in and calm things down.

Doggie day care can be a great way to practice social skills
Doggie day care can be a great way to practice & develop social skills

Signs your dog is scared or unhappy

Dogs do a great job of telling us when they are not having fun with a whole array of signals, you just have to know what to look for. Some are obvious, some happen in an instant, so keep your eyes peeled, here are some of the more common ones…

• Moving away from the play area & other dogs

• Avoiding eye contact/averting eyes

• Flattening their ears

• Licking their lips

• Tucking their tail under

• Trembling or shaking

• Pre-emptive air snapping or teeth bearing when a dog comes near

Recall Games
Providing a consistent, safe & managed play group is a great way to build confidence

Signs your dog is overstimulated, tense or anxious

Anxiety in social situations or overstimulation is often something that goes unchecked. This can sometimes lead to confrontation if one dog overwhelms another. Look out for these signs that it’s time to go home and take a break…

• Quick, tense body movements

• Pacing back and forth

• Humping

• Overly focused on one dog

• Closed mouth

• High tail and body position

• Standing still over another dog

• High tight tail wag

But the biggest tip of all....

ALWAYS be paying attention!!!

Put your phone in your pocket and don’t get distracted while having a chat to other owners in the park, we should always be watching carefully when our dogs play as it’s our responsibility to be managing their interactions. Even when paw pals know each other well, a disagreement, over excitement or one dog overwhelming another can still happen quickly and we need to spot it before it becomes a problem. We want our pups to associate play time with being happy and relaxed and the best way to do this is to be the best playground monitor you can be. Watching your dog play is one of the most entertaining and joyous things you can share together, guaranteed to make you smile! If you’re not paying attention, you’re simply missing out.