A 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.
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