Yesterday, I was fortunate to see a fabulous example of play between two young dogs. It looked and sounded rather rough but, despite this, there were some good clues that this was healthy play and both dogs were having a great time. 

It is important that pups and young dogs do get time to play but equally important that owners know what to look for and when to step in and interrupt play to avoid escalation into potential aggression. 

First, please set aside the idea that we can just leave it up to the dogs to decide when they have had enough. Or that a shy pup has to learn to stand up for themselves and will learn through practice…the latter is a fast route to a defensive aggressive dog around other dogs. 

Here is a quick guide to recognising and developing healthy play between dogs. 

  • Avoid big groups; one on one is best 
  • Look for bouncy, prancy, loose, exaggerated movements 
  • Look for mirroring and reciprocity. Dogs should take it in turns to play ‘murderer’ and ‘victim’ or cop chasing robber. 
  • Try to match similar play styles: a slower dog is unlikely to enjoy the extensive chasing and neck nipping that sighthounds prefer. A sensitive pup may be easily overwhelmed by the rambunctious overtures of a friendly but ‘in-your-face’ Labrador youngster. 
  • If the dogs are different sizes look for signs of self-handicapping by the larger dog; lying down to play ‘bitey face’, or voluntarily rolling over on their back to be ‘killed’ by the smaller pup. 
  • If one dog is doing all the chasing and is always on top or in control of the game, look to see if the other dog is enjoying the interaction, or are they being harassed? 
  • Do a consent test. Hold both dogs and then let the ‘victim’ dog go. If they rush straight back for more play then it is probably okay. If not, terminate the session.  
  • Owners should keep play sessions relatively short and be able to call their dog away at regular intervals, rewarding compliance. Practice recalls away from other dogs. 
  • Learn how to use a positive interrupter. 
  • Be aware that as young dogs develop, too much playfighting can become addictive and unhealthy. 
  • Some pups may learn to enjoy rough play too much. The buzz of chasing, wrestling and winning is so gratifying that they become canine bullies, insisting all other dogs ‘play’ their preferred game, whether they want to or not. These dogs can also get very frustrated and ‘angry’ when expectations are not met.  
  • Other dogs, for various reasons, may not read their canine friends so well. There may be some sort of deficit or in the course of play they may get too highly aroused to process anything. Owners should always observe play and be ready to step in and guide their dogs appropriately. 
  • All owners are also well advised to educate themselves in the nuances of canine body language and social signaling, and recognise that, like us, each dog is different and what goes for one may not work for another. 

Leonie St Clair |