From my observations, many dog guardians are unaware of how dogs play with each other. Generally, dogs like to play with each other, although of course not all dogs do. Some shy dogs do not enjoy playing with other dogs. Some Faffins are simply afraid of other Faffins and therefore will not enjoy playing.
Why do dogs play with each other?
Playing is one of the so-called yuletide behaviours. These are behaviours that are typical of the young of the species. Just like humans, dogs also display playful behaviour when they are adults. It’s just that we humans and dogs are still a bit childish and like to play. Not all animals have this desire.
Playing with dogs strengthens their relationship, builds trust and relieves tension. Play is meant to simulate hunting, thanks to which puppies learn the very behaviour of the hunting chain and improve their fighting skills. The desire to play appears at puppy age and often stays with the dog for the rest of its life.
How do dogs play?
Dogs usually play two games with each other – tag and wrestling. Sometimes, if they happen to have a toy available, they may play tug and pull with each other. The game of tag simulates chasing the prey, and the game of wrestling simulates fighting with another dog or struggling with the prey. Dragging simulates tearing the victim to shreds.
Unfortunately, often what we take to be dog play is no longer, or never was play. The borderline between play and fight is thin and it happens that during the play it is crossed. It is worth watching closely the dogs playing. Dogs that play with each other send clear messages to each other to constantly confirm that what they are doing now is playful.
Dogs usually have their favourite style of play. This may depend on the breed. Typically, bull or guard dogs are more likely to play wrestling. Greyhounds and terriers are more likely to play tag. In general, if a dog is agile and fast, it will often want to play tag. Strong and big dogs are more likely to play wrestling. Of course, this is not a rigid rule. If you know how your VIP likes to play, you can choose playmates so that he can play as he likes.
Sometimes the play looks like a real fight, although it is not. Dogs can growl, bark and wrestle a lot while playing. It doesn’t mean that they fight seriously. As always, you need to know your Fąfelek well and know what is play and what is not. Later in this article, I will give you some clues as to whether the play is a play.
Dogs who know each other play with each other.
Would you feel like playing with the first person on the street? Probably not. Dogs do the same. To feel relaxed enough to play with another dog, they must already know the dog a little.
Often what the guardians take for play is an attempt to get to know the other dog. Dogs get to know each other through their body language and scent information. Most often, when two dogs who do not know each other meet, they show so-called demonstration signals. These serve to show the other dog its strengths and to establish a certain relationship between the two individuals.
It is also most often the case that during the first encounter, the demonstrative messages are mixed with de-escalation and stress signals. This is because the dogs also want to communicate to each other that they are not looking for conflict and are friendly.
During the first meeting, the dogs’ bodies are stiff and tense, and their movements are fast and nervous. This is a clear signal that the dogs do not yet trust each other and feel insecure in each other’s company.
Demonstration signals can include biting, chasing and sniffing each other. It often looks like a good game, but a trained eye will notice the rigid bodies and the uncertainty. It rarely happens that dogs who see each other for the first time immediately start playing with each other. To build a relationship that allows them to play together, they often need even a few familiarisation meetings.
A Faffin who has just met another Faffin needs to find out whether this one is submissive, threatening, intrusive or friendly. We, humans, do the same when meeting new people. First, we ruffle feathers and try to present ourselves in the best possible light. At the same time, we try to find out who the other person is, and what his/her character traits and intentions are.
Let’s remember that such a first meeting of dogs, the trial of strength and getting to know each other can turn into a fight, so we should keep our hand on the pulse.
The game should be fair.
The chances of dogs during the play should be equal. So we are talking about some symmetry during the play. If you can see that the dogs exchange roles, then you can suspect that it is a game. For example, once Fąfelek chases, once Fafik chases – the roles change. During the wrestling, one dog is on top sometimes the other.
Usually, if only one dog chases or only one dog is on top and bites, it is not played but bullying. However, I would point out that this is not always the case. There are some dogs that just like one role better and always try to get into it. But then you can recognise play by other clues.
The strong one gives the weaker one a head start.
Dogs can be very gentle if they want to be. When a big dog and a small dog play with each other, it is obvious that the big one should control his strength a little more so that the smaller one does not get hurt.
Similarly when playing tag. If one dog is faster than the other, it will give the other a bit of a head start when playing. After all, the whole game is about the toddler almost catching up with the dog, not that one dog has no chance of winning at all.
If your VIP chases like crazy around another dog, it doesn’t mean that he is having fun. It is most likely stress behaviour. Your Fafik simply knows that he is faster and this is his advantage, which will allow him to escape if anything happens.
During play, it is necessary to take breaks.
If two dogs have been „playing” with each other non-stop for several minutes or more, likely, this is not playing at all, but a fight for survival! Breaks during play are natural and necessary. Thanks to the breaks, dogs can calm their emotions a bit, relax, and catch their breath. This lowers their excitement level. If this level of excitement is not regularly lowered, the play could turn into a real fight. When dogs do not take breaks in play, it can be assumed that they simply cannot control their emotions in this situation.
A break in play can look different: the dog falls to the ground and lies down for a while, stops and avoids eye contact, starts sniffing, comes to the handler, drinks water, and bites a stick.
How do dogs play? Shortly, but intensively!
Usually, after a few minutes or so at the most, play between two dogs comes to an end. They are simply usually too tired to continue. After such a game, they can, for example, walk or lie down together.
If the dogs cannot stop, likely, this is not a game, but a demonstration of strength/speed/agility or abuse of one dog over the other.
A dog that is playing with another dog will not usually move strongly away from its happy handler. A relaxed dog should know where his handler is and easily return to him if needed.
If your dog runs very far away from you when interacting with another dog, it may mean that he is so stressed that he is not in control of where he is running and where you are.
Dogs that play with each other often exhibit what is known as self-handicapping behaviour. That is, when you see one of the dogs awkwardly 'tumbling’ to the ground, it may mean that the dogs are playing with each other. Similarly, when running – sometimes you just see one of the dogs running with such „pretend” jumps, and if it wanted to, it would run much faster and more efficiently.
Two on one is a bunch of balderdash!
Usually, dogs play one on one. It is extremely rare that a whole group of dogs are comfortable with each other and play together. This is why dog parks are such difficult places for many dogs. The handler lets such a dog go to several other dogs and thinks that they will all play well together. Unfortunately, this usually ends in a lot of stress, lots of demonstrative behaviour and often abuse by several dogs over one.
I don’t recommend letting your VIP into a group of dogs, even more so if they are strange dogs. You may end up that the dog, wanting to defend itself, will use aggressive behaviour, because the stress will be already too high.
How do dogs play? At ease…
This is the last point, but probably the most important. In general, when two dogs are playing, you should observe their soft bodies, relaxed figures, and no nervous movements. A careful observer will quickly notice when his dog is relaxed and when he is tense. Of course, I know that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish, but it is worth trying.
If you notice that your pooch is rather stressed out instead of having a good time, then simply put him on a leash and walk away. You should do the same if you have an intrusive dog. When you see him start to bully another dog, stop the interaction. This will communicate to him that such behaviour is not acceptable to you.
Often dogs will ask they’re happy handlers for support and to take them out of a situation. Signals a dog may send when asking for help: running up and rubbing his nose, jumping on you, getting in your way, hiding behind you, looking nervously at you. Try to notice these messages and respond to them. This will make your dog trust you more because he will know that he can communicate with you in a difficult situation and knows that you will help him.