Signs of Healthy, Normal Play in Dogs

Updated on December 3, 2018
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

The Ingredients for Healthy, Normal Play in Dogs

First off, what is play and what constitutes "good play" behavior in dogs? Many animals exhibit play behavior and elements of play behavior. The rehearsal of such play behaviors in dogs is and will be extremely useful and necessary for the health and success of their future social interactions.

Just as children practice games that mimic chores observed in adults (cooking, playing doctor), puppies and dogs often play in ways that include the enactment of hunting moves such as stalking, chasing and pouncing.

On top of hunting moves, dogs may also borrow behaviors from other facets of life, and therefore, you may see elements of fighting behaviors, fleeing behaviors and even courtship behaviors in the mix of a dog's play behavior repertoire.

With all these often "serious" behaviors added into the mix, one may wonder how in the world do dogs not end up fighting all the time, considering the potentially antagonist and easy-to-misinterpret nature of growling, snarling, jaw-sparring, biting, body slamming, pinning down and mounting?

Turns out, dogs with good social skills incorporate several elements that are meant to be easily read and interpreted by the dogs they play with. Below, you will find information about all the several signs of healthy, normal play behavior in dogs and their interesting purposes including:

  • How dogs use meta-signals to emphasize their intent to do no harm during play
  • Examples of role reversals in dog play and how dogs implement them
  • The cute strategy skilled larger social dogs use to play with smaller dogs
  • How pauses during play help dogs recharge their 'batteries" during play.
  • A little "test" that can help determine whether both parties are having fun
  • Signs of potential inappropriate play
  • The dirty little secrets behind the making of dogs with not-so-good play skills and the importance of early socialization.

Dog inviting other dog to play using a play bow.
Dog inviting other dog to play using a play bow.

1. Meta-Signals: Communication About Communication

Good dog play involves dogs who are having fun and look forward to the interaction. In order to emphasize amicable interactions, dogs utilize what is known as meta-communication—simply a form of communication that implies non-threatening behaviors. This term was often utilized by anthropologist Gregory Bateson who referred to it as "communication about communication."

Dogs with good social skills use meta-communication during play to send the message that, what they are doing, no matter how rough or antagonistic it may seem, is not to be taken seriously. I like to compare this form of communication to our use of quotation marks to signal irony or sarcasm.

For example, one person may say: Yes, I remember Mrs. Sally. She was the "meanest" teacher on earth. In this case, all folks familiar with the use of irony punctuation or the use of irony emphasization in spoken language, know that the quotation marks (or emphasis when saying "meanest") in this particular context indicate that the word "meanest" should be interpreted at a second level (in this case, to remind that Mrs. Sally was the sweetest teacher on earth and she had no mean bone in her body,)

Of course, dogs can't talk, so they'll rely on body language to give out what is referred to as "meta-signals"—important signals used for metacommunication. The most popular meta-signal used in dogs is the partial or full play bow, which informs dogs: "this is just play, anything that follows is not to be taken seriously." Other signals denoting an intent to play include play faces (wild eye, grinning expressions, play faces with open-mouths) deceiving movements, and overall, bouncy body language with rocking-chair gaits.

Did you know? Ian Dunbar uses the term "atmosphere cues" to denote all those subtle and less subtle gestures (e.g. paw lifts before chasing, growling and biting, all with intent to play) meant to signal a change in the meaning of everything that follows. He uses the term atmosphere because of the "atmosphere" that they are set in.

These dogs are taking turns in who is being pinned to the ground.
These dogs are taking turns in who is being pinned to the ground.

2. Role Reversals: The Joy of Taking Turns

On top of the use of meta-signals, good dog play also encompasses several fun role reversals. What are role reversals in dog play and how are they carried out?

Role reversals, as the name implies, involve dogs taking turns taking different roles. For example, the playful chaser shifts soon into being the one chased, the playful biter shifts into the one being bitten, dogs on top end up being on the bottom and so forth.

But what is the purpose of role reversal in dog play? Role reversals in dog play apparently are just another way to further prove the non-antagonistic function of play.

Play is fair game, where there are no winners or losers, each player this way gets "a taste" of several different roles that provide different emotions with the result of no hard feelings among the dogs.

Normal play has no winners or losers, so it often includes equalizers, like role reversals and self-handicapping. Role reversals occur when the winner of the game switches roles.

— :Lisa Radosta, veterinary behaviorist
Notice how gently this dog is mouthing the smaller dog.
Notice how gently this dog is mouthing the smaller dog.

3. Self-Handicapping: Matching for Equality

In order for dogs not to injure themselves during play causing physical or emotional scars, they must to a great extent inhibit/restrain themselves. They often do this through bite inhibition and control of their speed and movements.

On top of this, when there are inequalities among the playing parties such as one dog being larger, stronger and healthier, dogs must fine-tune their playing styles and make several adjustments so not to hurt a playmate that is disadvantaged in some way. The technical term for such inhibition is "self-handicapping."

This is often an endearing trait that many dog owners witness when their large dogs play with smaller dogs or puppies. You might see these large dogs put themselves in disadvantageous positions or situations such as lowering their body or staying in a vulnerable belly-up or they may tug more gently when playing with a dog that's half their size.

Again, the purpose for this is likely to create equality, but not in a way to infer that dogs have the cognitive ability of understanding a sense of fairness and equality per se, but more likely because, by engaging in role reversals and self-handicapping, dogs can show their playful intent without intimidating the smaller opponent and therefore, this keeps the game going.

These micropauses allow dogs to think about the next move.
These micropauses allow dogs to think about the next move.

4. The Pause That "Refreshes"

As dogs play, you may notice that dogs may take several very brief pauses. These momentary pauses may range between very brief split seconds to slightly longer timeouts.

You may notice the split-second pauses occurring as both dogs look at each other wild-eyed, with a grinning play face, when performing a play bow or just prior to taking off running, while the longer pauses occur as one dogs shakes his fur, goes to drink a sip of water or takes a small break sniffing the grass.

The shorter pauses seem to allow dogs a few moments to gain a moment of "reflection" as they think about their next move before shortly resuming play again. It's almost as if their brains come to a temporary halt and start buffering before going to the next round. The other dog may entice the other dog to resume play by carrying out a partial play bow or a deceitful move.

The longer pauses, on the other hand, seem to allow both parties to simply take a breath of fresh air and recharge their strength. When one dog disengages, it's a good sign when the other dog pauses as well—albeit just for a brief time.

In any case, pauses during dog play are good and a sign of healthy, normal dog play. According to Patricia McConnell, the intervals between pauses typically are very short with new acquaintances (lasting only a few seconds), but become longer as the two dogs become more comfortable with each other.

This smaller pup is "coming back for more."
This smaller pup is "coming back for more."

5. Coming Back for More Play

Sometimes, dog play may not show the clear-cut signs of healthy, normal play and dog owners may wonder whether their dogs are truly having fun or not.

It does happen occasionally that some dogs appear to get stuck in a habit or pattern of behavior where one dog appears to be often chased or pinned repeatedly without engaging much in the healthy role reversal discussed a few paragraphs above. In this case, how can one determine whether this is healthy, normal dog play?

Sure, the body language of the dog being chased or pinned repeatedly may offer an insight. Are the ears back? Is the tail between the legs? Is the chased dog trying to hide? Does she seem uncomfortable when cornered or when the other dog is in her face? If so, chances are good she isn't enjoying the interaction, but sometimes, things aren't cut and dried as desired, or perhaps, the dog owner may not be able to interpret body language accurately.

There is one way easy way to find out whether the "victim dog" is feeling intimidated and not comfortable in a specific play session. All it takes is to get ahold of the "instigator" for a few seconds and observe the "victims''" behavior.

Does she seem relieved and try to leave or is she looking for her playmate and tries to re-engage him play? If the latter takes place, most likely she enjoys this type of play and is just coming back for more.

This German shepherd's approach may be too overbearing for the pinned dog. Notice the tension around the mouth, ears back and puckered lips. However, this is just a moment captured in time and doesn't necessarily provide the whole picture.
This German shepherd's approach may be too overbearing for the pinned dog. Notice the tension around the mouth, ears back and puckered lips. However, this is just a moment captured in time and doesn't necessarily provide the whole picture.
Caution is needed when several dogs "gang up" against one dog.
Caution is needed when several dogs "gang up" against one dog.

Signs of Inappropriate Dog Play

When the above-discussed elements of healthy, normal dog play are low in proportion, or even absent, there are risks for dog play to become heated up and intense which may lead to just squabbles or even serious fight.

Inappropriate dog play may lack role reversal and encompass repeated behaviors (chasing, pinning, body slamming, mounting) with little or no pauses in between. Dogs on the receiving end may tire and reach a breaking point when they will attempt to send back-off signals or attempts to disengage, but these signals may not be read from the instigator, either due to lack of social skills or the dog purposely harassing.

Problems during play also arise when dogs become overly aroused during play. Those monitoring dog play should, therefore, pay attention to signs of trouble such as more rapid vocalizations, movements that become less bouncy and a reduction in self-handicapping. Increased arousal levels may lead to less inhibited bites, which may cause obvious problems.

Other behaviors to be watchful for are also dogs ganging up against a dog, grab and shake components and an increase in the intensity of play.

Remember the phrase “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out”?...This is equally true of dogs. Many a good dog has ended up in a fight because she became overly aroused while playing with another dog. "

— Patricia McConnell

The Making of a Dog That Engages in Inappropriate Play

When puppies are born, they are pretty helpless beings in their first days. Born blind, deaf and unable to regulate their temperatures, they totally depend on their mom for nourishment and warmth.

As the puppies open their eyes and become more mobile, they start exploring the world around them. During this time, puppies learn important life lessons such as how to inhibit their bite, body language and how to properly play with their littermates.

Once puppies are sent to their new homes at around 8 weeks of age, they are often isolated from other dogs due to concerns over infectious diseases such as parvo. These pups are therefore often deprived from interacting with other dogs, up until they have finished their whole vaccination series which can mean several months.

Then, once the puppy has completed his vaccination series, he is walked on leash and taken to several places. Because he hasn't seen other dogs for quite some time, the sight of other dogs by now has become super salient. It's therefore not surprising if the pup is overly excited (and perhaps even frustrated because he can't meet all dogs) and the owner is upset by the puppy being so overly excited and non responsive to him.

Should this puppy get to eventually meet another dog, his over excitement may cause him to perform rude behaviors such as being in the other dog's face and overwhelming the other dog with no savoir faire which may lead to scuffles.

Now the dog owner is even more concerned, and soon the avoidance route is taken (the owner walks the dog in areas away from other dogs or at times there are not many dogs around).

The puppy therefore grows into an adolescent dog with little social skills and when he is unleashed to a dog park, his over-the-top excitability coupled with his inappropriate play style and inability to read other dog's body language may lead to issues.

To a good extent, a good part of all of this could have been avoided through puppy classes run by professionals with an emphasis in providing impeccable hygiene and proof of vaccinations (one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class), to prevent any spread of diseases, and monitored free play to help refine the pup's social skills and create positive associations in the interactions with other dogs.

In hopes of preventing behavior issues as such, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has issued a position statement emphasizing the importance of socializing puppies to different people, well-socialized animals, situations, places, etc. as much as possible during the critical socialization window taking place in the first three months of a puppy's life.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.

References:

  • The Pause that Refreshes Play or warming up for a fight how to tell the difference, by Patricia McConnell
  • DVM360: “Is my dog playing … or fighting? by Lisa Radosta
  • Bekoff, M. & Byers, J.A. 1998. Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  • American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, AVSAB Position Statement On Puppy Socialization
  • Fight, A Practical Guide to the Treatment of Dog-Dog Aggression, Jean Donaldson

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2018 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      9 days ago from USA

      Sounds like your dogs had great communicative skills and respected each others' "that's enough" signals. So important to drain that energy to prevent "over-the-top" play which may lead to squabbles. Happy rest of the week to you too!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      2 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      What I've seen is that at some point, one will make some sort of noise to let the other one know, "back off." Once in a while, one will get too much in the other's face and we might have to tell them to take it down a notch. Usually, that's enough. In the decades we've owned dogs, I can't even remember having to intervene in a serious fight. But then we've made sure they get enough exercise to drain their energy so they don't have to resort to over-rough, inappropriate play.

      Much needed article for multi-dog households. Happy Weekend!

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