“That’s just how he plays” is one of the most feared phrases at any dog park. Whenever I hear this comment, it’s a virtual certainty that I will turn around and see some sort of wildly inappropriate and possibly dangerous behavior being exhibited by the dog being discussed.
Since many dogs do play in really rough ways with other dogs, it can be tricky to differentiate boisterous, exuberant play from the kind of play that can lead to real trouble. The one hard and fast rule about appropriate play is that all dogs must be willing participants who are having a good time. If any of the dogs do not want to be involved, then something is wrong. If you separate the dogs and they all go back to playing, that’s a good sign, but if one dog slinks away, cowers or tries to hide, she may not want to be there.
Appropriate play usually involves chasing, parallel running, rolling around together, batting with paws, and brief pounces at one another. Well-matched dogs can vary in size, breed and age, but their styles of play need to be compatible.
It can be alarming to watch active play between dogs since normal play generally does involve mouths and even teeth. Dogs at play often give inhibited play bites directed towards the legs and paws of playmates. Even though they look like they are trying to bite each other, the bites are inhibited, and their mouths move around rather than stay attached in any one place. While play bites are a natural part of play, if much of the mouthing is directed at the head or neck, or involves hard bites to another dog, the play may be too rough.
Ironically, it’s natural for dogs to growl during play, but yelps can often mean that one dog has gotten too rough or isn’t properly inhibiting her bites. If the growls get deeper or louder, the play may be starting to get out of control. Dogs sometimes start with good intentions, but then get emotionally aroused due to the excitement of play and they can then become aggressive. Sometimes play can lead into a fight. (This happens in human play, too, as anyone who has ever attended a hockey game knows.)
Even if the play does not turn into a rumble, one dog may be having a blast while another dog is not. Inappropriate play can take on many forms, but almost always involves a dog becoming frightened, hurt, or overwhelmed. If one dog is always on top or always chasing another dog, while the second dog repeatedly tries to get away and hide, the play is likely not appropriate. If the dogs are consistently up on their hind legs for more than a few seconds at a time, or if there is a lot of body slamming, they may be taking play too seriously and using it to work out some conflict. Beware also of dogs who are relentlessly mounting, clasping, or thrusting, or of dogs who constantly try to lay their head, paws, or whole bodies across the shoulders of another dog, all of which is exceedingly rude behavior.
In appropriate play, there are often periodic play bows or other pauses in the action. If the dogs never pause, even after a yelp by one of the dogs, but instead seem to get increasingly revved up, the dogs may be starting to spiral away from good wholesome fun and towards a brawl. If it is hard to interrupt dogs who are playing, it is often a good idea to separate them to avoid an escalation in intensity.
To make sure that all dogs are willing participants and having a good time, always monitor their play for signs of appropriate play behavior and also for signs of trouble. Keep in mind that one often overlooked sign of trouble is a person trying to justify the way a dog plays. Just because a dog always interacts in a certain manner does not mean that the behavior is socially acceptable.
--Karen B. London