Canine Play: “That’s Just How He Plays”

“That’s just how he plays” is a phrase that can be often heard at dog parks. Just because “that’s how he plays” that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate play or that your dog is supposed to like it or deal with it! I had a personal experience with this at my local dog park. I was just walking along with my dogs and my dads Rottweiler mix, Mya. Very quickly and assertively a cattle dog mix came running up full speed and tackled Mya, biting her neck and making a lot of noise. Mya very submissively rolled and squealed. I said “Hey!” clapped my hands loudly and shooed the dog off saying “Get out of here!”. From half way across the park a woman yells rudely “She’s just playing!” I chose to walk away rather than have an unpleasant conversation. That dog may have indeed been “just playing” (the dog did not intend harm) but it was extremely inappropriate and very scary for my dog, even though she is quite good with other dogs. So this prompts the question, how do you know what is appropriate vs. inappropriate play? I have included several videos at the end of this post so that you can get a visual of what I explain.

Let’s start off with what the initial greeting should look like. Dog’s should approach each other very loosely and indirectly (well socialized dogs will do a slight arc, never approaching directly nose to nose), without staring or direct eye contact. The greeting ideally should start with butt sniffing and can include nose sniffing as well. During this process you should not see any freezing (dog stops moving completely), the bodies should remain fairly loose, circling, play bowing, etc. Dog’s with poor social skills may not greet like this, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be aggressive, but it does mean to proceed with caution. If I see my dogs approach a dog with poor social skills, I will quickly say, “Ok, lets go” and move away with my dogs. Not only does it keep my dog’s safe, but it helps that dog have more good experiences.

Different dogs have very different play styles. Some are very rowdy with a lot of body slamming and mouthing, while others prefer low to no contact play. Some are very vocal, growling and barking (which is ok as long as the other dog is comfortable with it), others very quiet. This can make it difficult to tell whether or not the play is appropriate. The best way to tell is BOTH dogs continue to be willing participants. If you separate them, they will both come back to play once released. If only one is returning to play, the other is likely done and the dogs should be separated to avoid the dog that is done from becoming frustrated and snapping at the other dog to tell him to “knock it off!”

Good playmates can vary in size, age and breed, but their styles of play should be similar. Good play typically involves chasing, parallel running, rolling around, throwing paws around, and brief pounces at one another. You will also see dogs using their mouths to “bite” one another, but these are play bites and the dogs are using a soft mouth to be sure the other dog is not hurt. If a lot of the mouthing is directed at the dog’s neck, proceed with caution. A little mouthing here and there is okay, but it should not be the dogs primary focus.

Ideal play should involve a lot of pauses. These short pauses allow the dogs to check in with each other to be sure that the other is still enjoying the play. Check out this video.

Now watch this video and note how the dogs are doing a lot of neck biting and are not pausing to check in. The husky decided he was overwhelmed and ran away.

Dog Play Techniques:

Zoom Room Guides to Body Language and Play Gestures:

Inappropriate Play:

Is the big dog trying to play? Probably. Is the other dog enjoying it? Nope. The big dog is not listening to the cues the small dog is giving.

In the video below notice the submissive gestures of the little dog, turning head away, licking lips, & gentle soft body language, and the very rigid behavior of the husky type dog. The second dog that greets the little dog is much looser, notice the soft tail wag and interest in sniffing.

I hope this helps to give you a better idea of appropriate dog play. For more information, here are some additional articles, books and dvd’s that are great resources.

  • Pet Education Website
  • Language of Dogs (DVD) – Sarah Kalnajs
  • Calming Signals (DVD) – Turid Rugaas
  • Body Language of Canine Play (DVD) – Terry Ryan
  • Day Play (Book) – Patricia McConnell
  •  Canine Body Language (Book) – Brenda Aloff

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