Dogs, like humans, love to play and do a vast amount of learning through play. Granted, puppies play much more than older dogs, but even older dogs tend to play in one form or another. Play allows your dog to socialise with others and learn about cause and effect. Dogs should be allowed to engage in play with other dogs, objects, people, and even other species of animals if that’s possible. It has even been argued that the more a dog plays the smarter they will become.
When dogs meet for the first time there should be some formalities to get out of the way first before beginning to play. Dogs may circle each other, smell the other dogs’ rear end (it’s OK- kind of like our handshake) then possibly engage in some invitations to play. These invitations may be a play bow, jumping towards the dog and back again, growling, barking (usually high pitched), jaw snapping and pawing. All of these behaviours are normal, and alright, as long as the dog instigating the play is not scaring the other.
Keep in mind all of the above behaviours and what would happen if these dogs were on lead. It may come across as quite threatening, for this reason, it is best to allow your dog to play off lead and greet other dogs with a loose lead. Never keep the lead tight when two dogs are meeting, it will create tension. With a tight lead dogs cannot move their bodies in to appropriate positions to communicate. Take a look at why the lead is tight, does your dog pull? Then teach it to heel up to other dogs. Are you anxious about your dog meeting other dogs? Then address the reasons behind the anxiety.
When dogs play with one another they test out all sorts of ‘feats of strength’- they roll, jump, mouth and run with each other. Sometimes dogs like to roll each other on to the ground, and this is alright as long as both dogs get a turn at being on the ground.
Watching dogs play you will notice that they frequently have their mouths open and occasionally bite down on each other. This biting is an important part of the play and the learning process. Play biting teaches your dog bite inhibition, that is, how to control their bite so that it does not hurt the other dog. If one dog bites too hard the other will yelp, and the play stops.
In order for dogs to enjoy playing with one another, the play must be appropriate. Appropriate play is when there is no crying, and the play stops frequently, and both you, and your dog, are comfortable with the play too.
Appropriate play should stop at frequent intervals, and this is usually instigated by the dogs themselves. They will play and play, then all of a sudden, stop, look around, maybe sniff the ground, then the play will begin again. This is wonderful if the dogs are doing this on their own as it stops play from becoming out of control.
Many people go to their local off lead dog park and stand around allowing their dogs to play, this can often lead to fights or bullying behaviour by some dogs as there is no break in the play. It is always best to move with your dog and invite people to walk with you. This allows the dogs to come together for a play but then get distracted, allowing the play to stop for a little while. If you can’t or don’t want to walk then at the very least call your dog out of play sessions regularly for some treats (raw meat please) then allow them to go and play again. This is also great for developing a wonderful recall.
Watch your dog closely during play sessions to make sure they are enjoying themselves. If you are unsure about how your dog is feeling about the play, separate the dogs, then let your dog go again- if your dog instigates play with the other dog you know that they were playing happily.
Sometimes play sessions can cause fights between dogs. This is usually as a result of one dog playing too rough. The hurt dog lashes out and the other dog does not back down. Often it can be avoided by stopping the play yourselves, walking with your dogs, or properly socialising your dog from an early age with other dogs that play ‘nicely’.
People often make the mistake of letting their dogs play very rough with other dogs, what generally happens then is dogs then learn to play rough with all dogs. When your dog is young, play sessions with dogs that can play appropriately will be one of the best things you can do for your pups’ socialisation. I am a big advocate of allowing your pup to try and play with older (non-aggressive) dogs that may be grumpy too. This will teach your dog some impulse control, they will get a good growl for overly rough play and it will serve them well as a teaching experience.
It is a good idea if you are able to leave your baby puppy with their littermates for as long as possible. Your puppy will be with their siblings 24/7, this leads to play opportunities that you could never provide at home. Just because you can pick your puppy up at eight weeks of age doesn’t mean you should. If you have a great breeder and the pups are part of the family, then allowing them to stay with their siblings is a great start to having a dog that knows how to play appropriately with other dogs. Wait until most of the other puppies are being picked up and let your puppy be one of the last ones to go.
I have links to a few videos of Ben playing below. Each video is an example of appropriate puppy play sessions and you will see lots of aspects of successful play that I have discussed in this post. The first video is of Ben playing at the beach with a puppy of similar age to him, it’s a lovely session with both dogs enjoying themselves. The second and third video is of Ben and his littermate- Fame playing together, they play with a similar style that makes the session enjoyable for both of them.
The best part about dog to dog play is that you will have a very tired and content dog at the end of the session. This is your goal each day- to try and make your dog tired and content. It will save your furniture, yard, clothes and sanity.