All dogs love to play, but not all dogs play the same way. “Some dogs love to play chase games. Others are ball dogs and are happiest fetching a ball. Some dogs are great at playing by themselves, others need someone else to engage with them. Some dogs like roughhousing, others don’t,” explains Dr. Laurie Bergman, VMD, Diplomate by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists who works at NorthStar Vets in New Jersey.
Making the most out of playtime with your dog and supporting your dog as they play with other dogs involves learning what type of play your dog enjoys.
When you play with your dog, pay attention to how your dog is engaging to make sure your dog is having fun.
“Play should always be mutual, whether it’s with another dog or with a person. Note if the dog isn’t responding to play signals. There’s research that shows that dogs understand if people give play signals like bending at the waist and slapping your hands on your knees while facing or slightly sideways to the dog,” says Dr. Bergman. She advises that if at any point while playing your dog seems uncomfortable or anxious you should stop play.
Playing with your dog is one of the most important things you can do to foster and maintain a good relationship. Experiment with different games to figure out which activities are fun for your dog, such as hide-and-seek where your dog finds hidden toys or treats or even finds you after being left in one area of the house and then called.
Many dogs enjoy swimming with their guardians as well as games like fetch and even tug. Although some dog trainers used to advise people not to play tug, that is no longer the case.
“The people who say not to play tug with dogs are mainly using the outdated and debunked ‘dominance theory’ of training. They approach canine behavior as stemming from a constant struggle to be the ‘dominant’ or ‘alpha’ dog and view tug games as a battle for possession not as the play that it is,” advises Dr. Bergman.
If you play tug with your dog, do so safely which means keeping the toy level with the dog’s spine and allowing the dog to control how hard they tug instead of you tugging the dog (especially with young dogs). In general, Dr. Bergman notes that “Positive reinforcement training can help people play with their dogs. A dog who has been trained in a way that he enjoys will be happy and playful during training” and the goal should always be to incorporate both play and positive training into your dog’s daily routine.
Some dogs have a tendency to be vocal and rough while they play and, to the untrained eye, a wrestle and growl in play can sound like the start of a fight. The key is to closely watch the dogs and how they are engaging with each other.
“You want to make sure the play is appropriate at equal times of being chased, on the ground, biting, and/or jumping,” says Khara Schuetzner, MA, CPDT-KSA, CNWI, Chair of The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). “You will see some dogs self-handicapping during play to make things equal. Both dogs should have loose body signals, such as open mouth, bouncy movement and play bows.”
That balance in play is extremely important to watch for. Dogs should take turns being chased and chasing. If your dog is playing with another dog and you think the play might be getting too much, Schuetzner advises to gently “hold the dog that seems to be controlling the play back and see if the other dog approaches. If the other dog does not approach the play is too much. If the dog approaches, play is still play,” and can resume.
Not all dogs enjoy playing with other dogs and that’s ok, but if you have a dog who does, trust your dog: “don’t talk to them, let them meet and greet without our chatter. This often inhibits healthy play. They are the best at reading other dogs. After all, body language is their first language,” advises dog trainer and developer of the DogDecoder App Jill Breitner.
In all aspects of life, and especially in play, dogs are communicating via body language. Jill notes that as dogs play you should “look for happy wiggly bodies with balance or reciprocal play gestures, play bows, chase, respecting signs the other dog wants a break,they wait it out for that dog to initiate play or they initiate but wait to be accepted.”
Play is an essential part of life for all dogs. It’s up to us to make sure that we foster and give opportunities for healthy play by watching our dog’s body language to make sure play with people and/or dogs remains fun and doesn’t become stressful or unsafe.
Top photograph: Marina Vedernikova/ Getty Images
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