Dogs Playing

Play isn’t always just play (or Tod Ruins Everything)

Posted on May 18, 2017 · Posted in Dog Training Articles
Dog PlayingPeople have some weird ideas about play for dogs. They assume that dogs that won’t play aren’t happy or fulfilled, and dogs that frantically play all the time must be in total bliss. Time for a brief session of Tod Ruins Everything (blatantly stolen from TV show of a similar name).
Before I start, this is specifically geared to inter-dog play not things like fetch or tug. I do think dogs occasionally play just for the fun of playing. This is when I see dogs that have known each other a long time and they have a wide disparity in status, or in very young dogs that are honing social skills and practicing prey acquisition behaviors (how to catch stuff). In this kind of true play we see role reversal where even a typically intolerant dog lets the others do all kinds of stuff to him (or her) that normally wouldn’t be allowed. This is specifically geared to inter-dog play not things like fetch or tug. 🙂
But I think a majority of play has nothing to do with “fun”. I notice here that when the mix of dogs changes there are a day or two of frantic play. Lots of chasing, play biting, wrestling, posturing both invitationally and assertively. Soon after this the play really drops down and we see the dogs doing a lot more of parallel activities. So they wander the yard sniffing together, cooperatively look for creatures to hunt, mark a lot of boundaries and over each other’s marks. Moving in mass, laying down as a group.
I think a lot of it comes from the quandary of simultaneously being a social animal and a predator that kills things for a living.
Dogs must have ways to settle a lot of disputes and grey areas without anyone getting hurt a large percentage of the time. They need ways to test competency without bloodshed. Play does this. The responses and postures are hard wired into dogs as a universal language.
If I chase you all day and can’t catch you I am faster. If you catch me you are faster. Unless you know to take shortcuts and defeat my speed. Then we know who is most clever. If when we do wrestle I always win I’m stronger. If you win you are stronger.
If our play fights have me flashing in and grabbing your legs before you know what happened I’m quicker and a better fighter.
Bouts of intense play when the group dynamics change sort this all out. Once it is sorted play decreases dramatically until another dynamic changes. Dog is added, dog leaves, dog grows and increases in abilities, dog becomes old or sick and decreases in abilities. All this will surge play again.
I do see continuous play in dogs that are very close in status, where the ebb and flow changes frequently. This is very common in dogs under a year old too. Early spay or neuter can also lock a dog into a juvenile state where this play behavior continues longer that it would with an intact adult.
Just some observations from a guy that watches groups of dogs interact a lot. So don’t assume your group isn’t happy if they won’t play, often that just signifies they are comfortable with everyone knowing where they fit in.
If you feel your dog does need help learning social skills, attending our group socialization class in Denton in the evenings is a great way to work on that. Please contact me via the contact form on my website to get started on that.