Is This Play Okay?

2 snarls edit crop smallA woman asked me recently whether I thought the play happening between her own dogs was worrisome. She was concerned because one dog would nip at the other’s legs almost incessantly, and the behavior seemed like the genetically watered down version of how wild animals bring down prey. The dogs were about the same size and, outside of play, got along well. Without seeing video or knowing more it was impossible to give a definitive response, but my question was, “How does your other dog react?” She said the other dog didn’t seem to have a problem with it at all, and play normally continued with both parties enthusiastically involved. That, then, is the answer—it’s not a problem.

Dogs have their own individual styles, both during play and while issuing an invitation to play. While some use the traditional play bow to engage another dog, others will stand still and bark repeatedly. Some will nip at the other dog’s legs. In my seminar “Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play” (now on DVD), there’s footage of all of those things, plus a scene where a very rude Dalmatian tries to get Sierra to play by slapping her!

Sometimes, things that seem to us like potential trouble really aren’t. When dogs growl and bark at each other, that can look frightening to an onlooker and seem like a precursor to aggression. Certainly, if the vocalizations get more intense and deeper in tone, intervention might be warranted. (Other warning signs include fewer pauses, stiff bodies, and over-arousal.) But very often, dogs who are growling and barking during play understand each other perfectly well, and are having a grand old time.

It often happens that one dog chases another relentlessly, and we wonder if the chasee is getting overwhelmed. In that case, simply stop the action and ask the dog who’s being chased if he’s okay with it. No, I’m not suggesting you grab the dog and say, “Pardon  me, but is that peppy poodle a bit much?” What I mean is to calmly, gently, and carefully take hold of the dog who’s doing the chasing. (Ask permission first if it’s not your own dog.) Give the other dog a moment. Does he run and hide behind Mom or take cover under a bench? If so, the dog probably was getting overwhelmed, and an enforced play break is in order. But you might be surprised at how many times the other dog will run a short distance away and then dash back, or give other signals that he wants the play to continue, thank you very much!

Don’t get me wrong. There are times to interrupt play before it escalates into aggression, and a multitude of things that can go wrong, particularly among dogs who don’t know each other well. Just being different of breeds can create dislike and misunderstandings. For example, many dogs don’t love the way Labs or Goldens play, as they tend to be very in your face. Some dogs find bully breeds, with their “bull in a China shop” approach, overwhelming. And I’ve personally watched more than a few dogs who are playing with a standard poodle, have a thought bubble over their heads that reads, “I thought it was a dog, not a pogo stick!”

The better dogs know each other, the rougher play can be. And the better we know our own dogs, the better we can tell whether they’re okay with what another dog is doing. But when we’re not sure, the bottom line is always this: just ask the dog.

Upcoming Seminars: Lakewood, Colorado (Aug. 11/12), Milwaukee, WI (Aug. 25), Pittsburgh, PA (Sept. 7/8), Georgia (Sept. 21/22)
Visit for Seminars, Books & DVDs.

20 Responses to Is This Play Okay?

  1. pittieLove says:

    How can we teach play manners? My adopted pit loves other dogs and REALLY loves to play, but accompanying her “bull in a china shop” style is the fact that she does not play bow, she does not pause, she is extremely physical and will jump, tackle, and wrestle any companion, and goes to vertical play fairly quickly. Needless to say, over-arousal happens very quickly. I’ve tried to teach her to bow, but she refuses to physically do it. I’ve had her stop in the middle of play to put in pauses, but they actually just rile her up even more as she is watching the other dog she wants to play with but cant. She wants to play so badly but she’s only compatible with a tiny fraction of the dogs we meet.

    • Steve says:

      pittielove: just as not all dogs like each other, not all dogs are going to play well together. With 2 Belgian Shepherds I’ve found most dogs don’t play at the same (high) energy level even though our dogs play nicely otherwise. They only get to play with dogs of similar play energy, other dogs just don’t enjoy it. And Belgians playing mock combat together can look downright frightening.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi pittieLove,
      You answered your own question in your last sentence: “She’s only compatible with a tiny fraction of the dogs we meet.” Some dogs will understand her play style, and others won’t. What’s great is that you can tell which is which! My suggestion is just to manage her play partners carefully. Very often WE are the ones who wish our dogs could play with everyone (believe me, I get it), but sometimes it’s not to be. If you can become friendly with the owners of the ones she does play well with, maybe you can set up play dates so she gets to play more often. 🙂

    • Lynsie says:

      Thank you for asking this question. I feel like I wrote it word for word about my pit bull! And, like the others have said, it’s OK for her to not get along with every single dog-as long as us as responsible owners know the warning signs and stop it before it starts.

    • Marni says:

      I totally understand where you are coming from pittieLove. My catahoula, Jester, was the same way. His way in initiating play was to stalk them and when he got real close, to bust out in a silly sideways run by. The stalkee either understood him and engaged him, or thought he was a jerk and told him so. Like Nicole said, its more important to find one or two compatible playmates then to worry about how many playmates she has. Jester had a few best buddies that he played awesome with and it was great. After awhile, I was able to tell which dogs he would play well with and which ones he wouldn’t and I decided whether he could go play or not. From your description, he would have loved your little pittie. He loved rough and tough female dogs. His bestest playmate was a intact female boxer. He would get a ll gooshy when he’d see her and they’d play really rough. He had a blast!

    • wildewmn says:

      I also wanted to say pittieLove (and I’m sure you know this but want to put it out there anyway for others), you have to be even MORE careful about this kind of thing when there’s a pit bull involved. This is partially because pit bulls do tend to arouse very quickly, but mostly because if someone else’s dog gets hurt, or even nipped or scratched and the owner takes issue with it, it won’t end well for your dog. Sad but true. I commend you on knowing your dog’s signals and habit so well. I wish more people did.

  2. pittieLove says:

    Thanks so much, Nicole, and to all!! You’re right, I feel so bad when she gets so excited to see a dog and I can tell the dog won’t appreciate her play so she has to leave it. When I first got her she really was a (sweet) terror the way she played from all the pent-up energy so we really had to look hard for play partners and I was worried I was inadvertently discouraging her from playing with all dogs (which was NOT what I wanted for my dog-friendly pit!). But perhaps with all this new technology one advantage is we can use it to locate other high-energy dog owners so we’re not forcing something that shouldn’t be. There are many well-meaning dog owners wanting to let their dogs play with her and it kills me a little each time to have to admit i can’t let her off leash with their dog, even though she is not aggressive and loves other dogs, because I feel like it reinforces any idea they may have that all pits hate other dogs. I try to explain, but you know how it is…

  3. Arlene says:

    I agree with this post so much, Archer and his BFF ( a rottie /ridgeback mix) look like they are half killing each other and chase each other like loons when they play together, but they are more or less equal size and strength and have even learned where to call a halt and autocorrect if it gets too amped up. Of course they know each other since they were pups, so that helps. As Archer gets older, he plays less with most dogs and is more interested in me and games.

  4. Lisa says:

    We have two dogs who used to play really well together. The smaller, terrier x was laid up with a CCL injury for a year, so the two dogs didn’t play at all with each other. A few months ago, we allowed some short, in the house play between them, and then brought out some toys for them to play with. There were a few skirmishes and the terrier x got a little snarky over the toys. (Our other dog does not react, she just goes into a down position.) I intervened with a “let’s go” and we did a few tricks and treats to change the tension. I was worried it would escalate so I put the toys away again and now when the terrier x does a play bow or nudge, our other dog ignores her completely. Obviously the dynamics have changed between them, and I am wondering if there is a safe way to get them to play together again or do I just leave it alone and see how it evolves?

    After the year of rehab, lots of things are different and there is a bit more tension from time to time between them.

  5. judy G says:

    This is how my 2 gsds play! And yes, we did make sure the 2 yo wasn’t too much for her 7 yo, bigger brother! He lets her get away with alot, until that special bark he lets loose with ….and then she comes running to us…before going back for more fun and games.

  6. judy G says:

    Oh…also, the 2 yo has a BFF two doors up the block who is very laid back, but can keep up in play to the point my 2 yo used to cry when she couldn’t catch her! Now when the BFF has had enough she falls over in “dead” position. My girl stops cold, smells her, and goes off to explore her yard, which is where they play.

  7. delightfuldoggies says:

    Reblogged this on Delightful Doggies and commented:
    We’ve had a lot of discussions with clients lately about appropriate interactions and play between dogs. Nicole Wilde’s “Is This Play Okay?” blog has some great advice and insight about this. Nicole will be in Denver this weekend too! We’ll be in attendance to learn from this expert about topics like fearful dogs, dog-dog interaction and separation anxiety. Nicole will be speaking on these topics at Training with Grace, off 6th & Garrison in Lakewood, this Saturday and Sunday. Visit this link for more information and to register:

  8. Paula Perry says:

    Reblogged this on Touch of Home Pet Care and commented:
    This article makes some excellent points and will help you decide if your dogs are playing too ruff. I always say, you know your dog best, but guidance and tips are helpful. I have heard don’t play tug-o-war with your pets, it makes them aggressive. Hogwash! This is my 12 year old golden’s favorite game and she is the most tolerant dog I have ever seen. My staffy/lab mix get in her face and just barks, which is really loud, and my golden just moves her head. I usually have to tell the staffy mix to knock it off. She is only wanting to play and a two year old. Terrible two’s. 🙂

  9. Paula Perry says:

    Excellent article! I reblogged it. There are many times dogs sound like they are going to kill each when only playing. It takes experience and paying attention to body language to know when to have them stop. One of my most used phrases OK that’s enough! 🙂

  10. Kuruk says:

    Great article! Understanding breed is very impawtant. Me and sistah Nalle (we’re Alaskan Malamutes) wrestle-wrestle. It looks scary to some humans, and some pups don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re having a blast! Woooowoooooo, Ku

  11. Wow, that’s quite a photograph of some good-looking dogs at play, or is that one called rough-play?

  12. Evelyn Haskins says:

    Remember when our Mums used to say “Settle Down! There will be tears soon!” and we thought she was just a party-pooper, but sure enough if we persisted in our excited play there were tears and recriminations very soon afterwards?

    Well it is JUST the same with our dogs — excited play needs to be calmed down before it spills over into fight because one of the participants got hurt.

  13. I’ve had to set limits here with my son’s bulldog, staying with me for the time being! She will be glad to get back to her regular routines and play soon. Guess I’m too old for any aggressive dog nonsense! she is responding well to commands and less stimulation with her squeak toys. She is bored staying with Gramma but adapting to my way of doing things.

%d bloggers like this: