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Playing - Recognising behaviour

Playing - recognizing your dog's behavior

Dog owners often enjoy it when their dog is off-leash with other dogs. After fifteen minutes in a off-leash area with other dogs, the dog is just as tired as after an hour of walking with the owner.

However, running freely with other dogs is not always "play." During off-leash activities, things can get quite serious for the dogs. Dogs test each other, explore, or indulge their own desires on another dog. Sometimes, this is not recognized by the dog owners at the edge of the field.

Take, for example, the situation where two dogs are running hard after each other. That may seem like play, but is it really? If the chasing dog is running purposefully and aggressively, and the leading dog has its tail low, there's a good chance it's not play. The chasing dog may be having a great time, having found an exciting "prey." However, the leading dog may be quite anxious, and often rightfully so. If it stops running, it might get a hefty bump or nip.

Recognizing enjoyable play

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Recognizing enjoyable play is something you need to practice. However, there are clear signals when it comes to genuine, enjoyable play for the dog:

  • Relaxed situation, exaggerated movements from the playing dogs,
  • Pauses in the play (to prevent tempers from flaring),
  • Role reversals: now one dog is on top, then the other. Now one dog is chasing one, then the other is chasing the one,
  • Caution when one animal is more skilled/older than the other animal,
  • Play bows, where the hindquarters are raised, and the dog lowers through the front legs, and 'play faces.'

Enjoyable play is really fun for us humans to watch too. We find it cute and endearing, especially because the dogs often move in a somewhat "clownish" manner. Precisely that "clownish" movement is also a signal for the other dog that it's not serious but play. In play, the dogs are "unfocused." If you see dogs diving at each other, running after each other, or biting each other purposefully, take another look to see if the dogs are showing relaxation. There's a good chance they are not, but you see tension in their bodies. (Enjoyable) play involves relaxation and loose bodies.

Suddenly, it's not fun anymore

Dog owners are sometimes surprised. "Suddenly," the play turns. However, there are often earlier signals that are missed. Fewer pauses, more focus almost always precede "quarrels" between dogs.

If you learn to recognize genuine play, you will be less likely to be surprised by situations that are "suddenly" no longer fun. Moreover, you can prevent your dog from learning undesirable behavior, avoid injuries, and give your dog and other dogs more enjoyment in being together!