Dogs are social animals and usually really enjoy playing with each other. Play allows dogs to establish relationships with each other, build trust and relieve group tension. Through play, puppies learn skills that are useful in both hunting and fighting. The desire to play appears in dogs during puppyhood and remains practically throughout their lives. However, in wild cousins of dogs, and wolves, the desire to play gradually disappears.
How do dogs play with each other?
Dogs usually play with each other in two games. The first one is a tag. The rules are very simple. One dog runs away while the other tries to catch up with him. Tag is a simulation of a predator hunting its prey. The second type of game is wrestling. The dogs try to knock down their opponent and when they succeed, they cheerfully bite his neck, muzzle or paws. A wrestling game is a pretend dog fight.
The words „pretend”, and „simulation” is extremely important here. The borderline between fun and real hunting or fighting is quite thin. If one of the dogs does not know the rules of the game or cannot adapt to them, conflict is ready. Therefore, seemingly innocent games between dogs can turn into a serious fights. To avoid unnecessary disputes, dog games are highly ritualised. Dogs with their body language and behaviour show each other all the time that the whole fight or hunt is an illusion.
It is worth remembering that every dog has its favourite way and style of playing. This is often linked to the breed of the dog, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Usually, rottweilers or pit bulls prefer to play wrestling than tag. During play, they can be very dynamic and loud. They bump into each other, fall over, and snap their teeth in the air. From the outside, for many people, this interaction will look threatening, even violent. But dogs can have very good intentions. Wrestling between two big strong dogs will look completely different from wrestling between two Maltese or Yorkies. On the other hand, fast, light, agile dogs, e.g. greyhounds, will more often prefer playing tag to playing with strength. It’s worth knowing what way and style of play your dog likes the most to better read his behaviour and choose companions for common interactions.
Unfortunately, we often misread our dogs’ body language and intentions. Something intrusive or even aggressive we perceive as a desire to play. We don’t react properly to the dogs’ behaviour and the conflict is ready. To avoid such situations, it’s worth knowing the five rules of proper play between dogs and knowing what to do when something goes wrong during mutual interactions.
1. Dogs should know each other beforehand.
Just as we don’t invite people we accidentally meet on the street to our home, dogs are unlikely to play with randomly met dogs on a walk. To invite someone home, we need to get to know him better and trust him. We usually gather information about the other person through observation and conversation. Dogs communicate with each other a little differently. For them, scent information and body language are extremely important.
Doggy play – gathering information
What we often observe on walks is just such a ritualised attempt to get to know the other dog. It is worth noticing that during these first contacts dogs are often unsure, their bodies are stiff, and their movements are quick and quite nervous. All this shows that there is a lot of uncertainty and fear in this interaction. The dogs do not know or trust each other yet. They may sniff each other or even chase or bite each other, but it is more a test of strength and testing of the opponent than real, free play. For dogs to play well with each other, they must like and trust each other. Without prior acquaintance, this is practically impossible.
Of course, there are cases when two dogs immediately start getting along perfectly. But it is very difficult to find such a soul mate, with whom you immediately want to „steel horses”. That is why dogs check how much they can afford with a strange dog, who he is, whether he knows dog manners, whether he is intrusive or rather submissive, whether he poses a threat…etc. This test of strength can end in a fight between dogs, so be careful.
2. The play of dogs should be symmetrical.
Symmetry in play is when the roles of dogs are equal. Once one dog chases, once it is chased. During the wrestling, one dog bites the other one and after a while, he lies on his back and is bitten. If it is our dog that is chasing the other dog all the time, it is probably having a great time. However, the same cannot be said of a dog that runs away desperately all the time and tries to get rid of the intruder. The same is true in a game of wrestling. If one dog is constantly pushing the other to the ground, biting him and not allowing him to get up, it is a demonstration of strength and bullying of the weaker dog rather than fun.
3. The stronger dog gives the weaker dog a head start
In the healthy play, a stronger or faster dog should give a weaker or slower dog a head start. This means that a Rottweiler must not use all his strength when playing with a Dachshund. If he did, he would quickly cause harm to the smaller dog. The aim of the game is not to hurt the other dog, so the stronger dogs give breaks to the weaker dogs on purpose during the game.
Dog play – forays
Vector lies down on the ground to give the smaller Hacker a head start.
The situation looks similar during a game of tag. Here all the fun depends on the opponent almost managing to catch up with the running away dog. That is why if Greyhound plays with Dachshund, he must give him a lot of support. A fast, agile dog that plays with a bulkier, slower dog in the tag will periodically glance at him or even stop and wait for him to run a little closer. If you have a fast dog who, when interacting with another dog, runs around in circles all the time, this is a sign of stress rather than free play. Such a dog knows that its advantage is its agility and speed. So it prefers to stay on the move all the time, so that it can always, if necessary, escape from its attacker.
4. Dogs take breaks during play.
Breaks allow dogs to rest for a while, to catch their breath, but also to lower their excitement level. Dogs that get too excited during interactions with each other can become overly intense, intrusive or even violent. A pause is an attempt to show the other dog that we are just playing all the time, and that fighting or hunting is just for the sake of it. Lack of breaks during play may indicate that dogs are not fully in control of their emotions and behaviour. This situation can be dangerous and may end in a fight between dogs.
Dog play – breaks
Dogs take breaks to play for a few seconds.
Dogs organise their breaks in very different ways. Sometimes they just fall to the ground and continue playing after a while, usually changing roles. Sometimes they stop for a moment, avoid eye contact and then resume play after a few seconds. Sometimes they simply take an interest in something else, e.g. sniffing the grass, chewing on a stick or drinking water. Your dog’s behaviour will depend on his individual preferences, the behaviour of the other dog and the context of the situation.
5. Play does not go on indefinitely.
Dogs tend to play intensely but briefly. After only a few minutes or so, they become so tired that they simply stop playing and return to their activities. They can walk together, sniff the grass or lie down peacefully next to each other. If the mutual chasing or biting is very intense and prolonged, and the dogs do not take breaks, do not rest and do not want to end the interaction, it certainly cannot be called play. Rather, it is an attempt to demonstrate to the other dog their speed or strength.
When to stop dog play?
When you see that the interaction between dogs is tense or erratic, react. Unfortunately, many dog guardians do not pay the slightest attention to their dogs’ behaviour. They meet together in the park or the dog run and chat away while the dogs run around. Nobody reacts to doggy requests for help or support. No one stops doggy bullies from taking it out on other dogs. As long as there is no bloodshed, everything is fine. In my opinion, this is not a good approach.
If you are the guardian of a bully dog, you should work on his behaviour towards other dogs. When you see that he plays too intensively, doesn’t take breaks, doesn’t allow the other dog to switch roles, simply put him on the leash for a while. When the emotions subside a bit, you can let him loose again and give him a chance to improve his behaviour. In this way, by trial and error, your dog will learn over time which behaviour towards other dogs is acceptable and which is not.
If your dog does not get on well with other dogs and is constantly being chased or bitten by them, help him. Dogs ask people for support in very different ways. Some hide behind their handler, others glance nervously in his direction, and still, others run up from time to time and poke their handler’s leg or arm with their nose. All these signals mean the same thing. „Help me. I can’t cope with this pushy dog. Get me out of here.” By not responding to such requests, we not only lose the dog’s trust, but we also expose it to a very stressful situation and, in extreme cases, even to a fight with the other dog. The best thing to do is to ask the owner to put the dog on a leash. If for some reason he doesn’t want to do this, or if the other dog is particularly violent, it’s best to simply put your dog on the lead and calmly walk away with him to a safe place. This way you will show him that he doesn’t have to use his teeth to get rid of the brute at all and that he can always trust you.
I am very curious to know how your dogs play? Are they intruders or do they not do well with other dogs? How do they ask you for support and do you give it to them? Let me know in the comments if you can already tell the difference between a nice game between dogs and a trial of strength.