Should we allow our dog’s to play

To play or not to play, that is the question! I was recently working with a client and a question came up about whether they should get another dog to join their family because their own dog does not play as much anymore.

Now, my first thought when asked this question was, every time a new dog joins your family, you reduce the one-to-one time you can give your existing dog – you can only spread yourself so far. Maybe instead of thinking about another dog for your dog to interact with, why not spend more time with the dog you have? I am certainly not against multi-dog households as I have one myself and from an enrichment point of view, having a member of your own species around adds another dimension to your life for sure and I’m certain dogs benefit from this too.
However, to get another dog because your dog does not play as much anymore may well not be the answer you are looking for and could possibly come with a range of other unintended consequences. Many owners place a great emphasis on their dogs playing and being able to play with other dogs and sometimes they will even feel something is wrong with their dog if they do not want to play or that they used to play lots with other dogs but now they are not so keen. Saying to a dog you must like playing with other dogs because I think you should, is a bit like me telling my wife that she must like horror movies because I do!
Some dogs will play for the whole of their lives, but most will show some decline in their playful behaviour as they age, just as we do. As some dogs mature, they may become less tolerant of those that want to play and will tell them in their own doggy way to back off and leave them alone.
So, what is play all about? Many animals play, especially when they are young, I did, you did, lions and wolves do and left to their own devices, dogs will play. It is generally believed that play serves as a way for young animals to rehearse the life skills that they require as adults and play activity will fall into the four categories of fight, flight, feeding or reproduction and if you watch dogs playing, you may well see them chasing, body slamming, growling, mouthing, mounting and fighting etc and it can look rough! What I have found is that most owners love to see their dogs playing with other dogs and to be honest, I also love to see my dogs running around, chasing and wrestling with each other.
However, my dogs do not all play like they did when they were young – two of the three play on a regular basis and enjoy wresting, biting and chasing. I have one however, who seems to prefer human interaction and plays very little and when he does, it usually involves short bursts of just running around like a fool.
So, is dog-play good or bad? When you ask a trainer this question, their answer will be more of a reflection of that trainer’s experiences rather than a scientifically proven fact.
If a trainer has had mostly ‘bad experiences’ or they feel out of control when they let dogs play, then they may well think play is a bad thing for dogs, but on the other hand if they have had mostly good experiences, they may well think play is a good thing.
I personally think that dog play is mostly a good thing, offering elements of socialisation, exercise and enrichment to our dog’s lives that only dogs can provide and like I say, there are others who think it’s mostly a bad thing and allows dogs to behave inappropriately with other dogs and rehearses undesirable behaviours like ‘bullying’.
What I do know is that nobody really knows for sure, but trainers will try to figure it out from the dog’s body language, but even this can be problematic if you are not careful and start over interpreting what you see. Just take something as simple as the popular term ‘calming signals’, are they calming? Do they defuse conflict? Is that what the dog really thinks?
What we are really getting is somebody’s interpretation of what they believe the dog is thinking based on watching numerous dog interactions and the outcome of those interactions.
We can apply this same process to play and this helps us identify that a dog’s intent is play, rather than the real thing. So, what do you look for? We would be looking for clues from the dog’s behaviour that we believe signal the dog’s intent and those behaviours fall into the following categories; meta-signals, self-handicapping and role reversals.
It is believed that meta-signals are how dogs signal that their intent is play and not the real life equivalent of the behaviour. You will often see these signals before, during and after play. What are the meta-signals you are looking for? You are looking for what most people recognise as the classic play-bow – front end down and bottom in the air, but there are others. You are also looking for ‘play faces’ – basically looks like the dog has a big happy grin over its face or inefficient bouncy running (a rocking horse gait) as they chase each other – it should not look like they are chasing a prey animal.
When I talk about self-handicapping, I am referring to when the dog is holding back, for want of a better word, pulling their punches – they look like they are biting but without punching holes in each other. You will often see their mouths wide open and waving their teeth around but not bearing down on each other. Another common example of self-handicapping is where you see a big dog rolling onto its side while a little dog bites its face – my Border Terrier over-powering my Dogue, really? Only if she wants and allows it to happen!
During play you should also be looking for role reversals – this is where the dogs’ roles swap, for example where one is on top biting, they then swap over and the other goes on top biting or where one chases the other and then they swap around so the chaser becomes the one being chased.
Don’t get me wrong, if you allow play, squabbles will, from time to time, break out, but most dog squabbles are nothing but arguments – they are not trying to kill each other. If they were really trying to kill each other every time they had a fight (and judging on the number of dog fights there are every day), they are not very good at it!
A great website for dog body language is called ‘I speak dog’ and can be found at http://www.ispeakdog.org.
So, as I have already stated, I think dog play is generally a good thing, but play is not just about letting dogs get on with it and hoping for the best, we need to monitor their interactions, understand what to look for and not let our dogs just run up to others uninvited – yours may love play, but not all do.

First Published in Dog World 21.04.17

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The premier puppy and dog training academy in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire www.puppystars.co.uk
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