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Pet Happenings December 2010

by Sue Sternberg

The more dogs I see interacting, the less I understand PLAY. What is its definition as it concerns the domestic dog? The overwhelming behaviors I see at public dog parks are social conflict, bullying, avoidance---but almost no behaviors I would define as healthy play.

healthy play
healthy play

The current sub-culture in the dog world is that dogs should interact together, and that ‘play’ with other dogs is somehow believed to be essential for dogs, not just while they’re young to ‘socialize’ them, but throughout their lives as continuing socialization, interspecies communication, aerobic exercise, and ‘fun’. I put many of these words in quotations, as I’m not convinced that when we put puppies or dogs together to ‘play’ they are learning to socialize better, or communicate better with their own species. Because, more often than not, I don’t believe the dogs are engaged in healthy play.

I have been visiting and videotaping dog parks all around the country for the last several years. I’ve also filmed many hours of shelter dog play-groups. While downloading and editing, I have studied, frame by frame, many of the interactions of the dogs, and identified what I have observed to be the least risky, slightly risky, and most risky behaviors.

Least Risky Behaviors:
I have observed the healthiest play to be characterized by the following behaviors:
1. Self-Interruption
2. Shared Physical Space
3. Ability to Compensate and Modify for Size or Power Differences
4. Eyes, Head and Spine Not All in Alignment
5. Mirrored or Tandem Movements During Play or During Interruptions
6. Accepted or Reversible Roles

When a dog finds a compatible playmate and they engage in many of the above healthy behaviors, future play dates should be encouraged. It is generally easier for dogs to re-engage with known ‘friends’, rather than meet and greet and start over again with a constant supply of unfamiliar dogs.

Explanations of Least Risky Behaviors:
1. Self-Interruption: This is when the dogs playing disengage from each other and pause for a brief period of time. The behaviors most common to self-interruptions are sniffing, orienting to a distraction, and drinking. The interruptions seem to serve as a way to lower arousal levels, and often occur when the play has escalated to a level where one or more of the dogs is getting too rough or overexcited. One of the benefits of owners who actively supervise play is that they can manually and artificially interrupt play when it escalates and has gone too long uninterrupted, and initiate a time out until all the dogs calm down. A good gage of play that is too edgy or rough is that the dogs can no longer be interrupted verbally by owners or the humans present. This is a good barometer of healthy vs. risky play: can you call your dog and get his attention and get him to stop; if not, train it.

2. Shared Physical Space: A difficult quality to describe—but dogs that are playing well are almost like human dance partners, the physical space between them is even, shared, close but not intrusive. The best play partners are dogs who share the air space between them.

3. Ability to Compensate and Modify for Size Differences: Whether it’s a bloodhound playing with Chihuahuas, or a bully breed playing with an Italian greyhound, healthy play exists when the larger or more powerful of the players adjusts his or her style to accommodate the more fragile of the group. This is often seen when a large dog lies down to wrestle with a smaller dog; or when a physically powerful dog moves slowly or more gently when playing with a dog of dissimilar physical stature.

4. Eyes, Head and Spine Not in Alignment: The most relaxed and congenial body language between dogs seems to include, in all dogs engaged, eyes, heads and spines unaligned. When a dog aligns its eyes, head and spine, he seems to be gearing up for a more powerful, intense, and possibly confrontational interaction.

5. Mirrored or Tandem Movements During Play or During Interruptions: Just like with human friends, dogs seem to pick up on the gestures or movements of one with whom they’re getting along—and dogs will often move in mirror images to one another, such as a bow to the right followed by a bow to the left, while the other dog, at the same exact time, bows first to the left and then to the right, creating a Harpo-Marx-in-front-of-the-mirror like moment. Dogs can often be seen sniffing the ground together during breaks in the action, and they will often share the same curve of the spine, the same level of tail carriage, the same timing of air-sniffing, etc. The only exception can be when two dogs from the same household are engaged in play with other dogs. These dogs, while moving like seasoned figure skaters, are however, commonly hunting or bullying other dogs.

6. Accepted or Reversible Roles: While I was educated to expect dogs engaged in healthy play to exhibit role reversals, I much more often observe dogs who stay in their roles, but to me it seems balanced as long as both dogs accept their chosen roles. For instance, during games of chase, there are dogs who prefer always to be chased, and rarely, if ever, do the actual chasing. And vice versa. Also, there are dogs who seem to like to play wrestle while lying on the ground or on their backs, which leaves the play partner(s) to take up the standing, or stand-over position, but more often than during swapping of positions, healthy play seems to include an acceptance of and compatibility with preferred positions.

The following “Pet Happenings” articles will review slightly risky behavior, and risky behavior to ensure a thorough examination of what is acceptable behavior for dogs when they are interacting, and what should be interrupted. If you are interested in more information from Sue Sternberg please check out and We also carry her books in store, and the HSMV has sponsored seminars continuing in January.

Sue Sternberg is a contributing author that is a dog behavior specialist. This article is a first in a series about dogs and play. We at the BARKery believe that dogs can play well and enjoy each other greatly, but supervision is key when your dog is meeting another dog for the first time. Dogs just like people need time to understand who is compatible as a friend, and often people take for granted that dogs know how to play with each other. It’s not a built -in behavior for dogs, and we need to supervise to ensure there are no problems. Whether it’s on leash or in the coming Moab Community Dog Park, you can ensure that the interactions will go well if you know what is defined as risky behavior and what is less risky.

–Jessica Turquette of Moab Barkery

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