The leading hypothesis for the adaptive function of play in animals is the rehearsal of important life skills like getting enough to eat, avoiding being eaten, avoiding injury/disease and reproducing. This is exactly what we observe in dog-dog play, play fighting (wrestling and mouthing), play feeding (chasing), play fleeing (being chased) and play reproduction (humping, pawing). But how do we know these behaviours are indeed play and not actually the real thing?
What to look for in good dog-dog play:
Self- handicapping - Dogs using reduced force when playing. For example, dogs are capable of crunching bone with their jaws, but when they bite during play they do so without causing injury. That is using inhibition and self-restraint. Another example is when a large dog handicaps himself by laying down to play with a smaller dog (the photo above).
Role reversals and Activity Shifts - Taking turns chasing and being chased, taking turns being attacked and attacking, pausing and alternating between games.
Play-signals - Signals to tell the other dog “this isn’t the real thing, this is just play.” and include Play bows (often to initiate play, or during mid play), Bouncy gaits while chasing (contrasted to the flat chase of a dog in predatory mode) and Play faces which are a grinning expression with the tongue often drawn back.
An example of Play face, pawing and a play bow.
What to be wary of:
Two dogs on one - No one likes to be ganged up on.
Big on Small - Be very careful if you let a big dog wrestle with a smaller dog. Always be aware if you think the larger dog is able to pick up and shake the smaller dog. Never allow a big dog to play chasing games with a small dog.
Chasing games that are too flat (it looks too much like “the real thing”) or go on too long without reversals. And again, never allow big dogs to chase very small dogs.
Dogs who act wounded or very fearful - Dogs evolved from group hunters (wolves) who had “wounded animal radars.” Sometimes when dogs yelp in pain this can simulate prey (common with small dogs who are afraid of big dogs and are more apt to have panic reactions) and it can trigger in some dogs what is known as “predatory drift.” This is when an interaction between dogs begins as social behaviour (play, arguing or a fight) and then drifts into a predator/prey interaction. This is a serious concern and the primary reason to avoid letting big and small dogs play chase games!
What if you are not sure that both dogs are enjoying it? DO A CONSENT TEST!
Playing rough including growling is normal in dog play provided it is mutually consenting between the dogs. But if you are struggling to tell the difference or if you are not sure both dogs are enjoying it you can do a consent test. In fact, be liberal with them!
HOW TO: Anytime you want to be sure both dogs are consenting you can haul off (or recall) the presumed “perpetrator” dog, then watch and see if the supposed “victim” dog takes the opportunity to get away OR if they come running right back for more.
More examples of Play Face, Bouncy Gaits, and Play Bows
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