How do we help our dogs play nice?

A lot of dogs love to play. With the advent of ‘the dog park’ more dogs are now able to play with others. This is great for dogs that live in one dog families or younger dogs that aren’t fluent in dog language.
I think we can all agree that there is something special about watching certain dogs play together. What is it about these dogs that play so well that makes us smile just watching them? It may be a rottweiler playing with a six week old teacup poodle; when dogs self-handicap and play at equal levels its heartwarming. When dogs handicap themselves you will see role reversals and pauses in play.

Champ and Ellie playing with a Kong bone
Champ and Ellie playing with a Kong bone

Researchers have been claiming that play is simply practicing for real life survival skills. I don’t believe that 100% but I do think that they were on to something. A lot of dog breeds have different play styles (herding dogs tend to chase more and bully breeds tend to wrestle more). When a herding dog ends up killing another dog it will usually have chased down the other dog in an exaggerated form of its play style. So what do we do when dogs don’t self handicap?
Here is an exert from Patricia McConnel’s blog:When I see it happen I intervene without question. I’ll first try a loud, abrupt yelp, as if there had been an injury. That will often interrupt play, and I’ve seen some dogs adjust their enthusiasm as if it was their play partner who had been injured. However, I’ve also seen plenty of dogs who did not respond to a yelp. In that case I’ve tried, sometimes successfully, intervening by moving as quickly as possible between the two and body blocking the transgressor. I’ll look directly at them, use a low voice, say absurd things that the dog couldn’t possibly understand but that feel good to say (”You are one total loser dog and are going to be in big trouble in a minute…”) and back them up a good ten feet or so (depending on the dog). That has helped with several dogs, in that I can then use a verbal warning (”AH!”) when they open their mouths to bite.
In my experience owners tend not to intervene unless the dogs are flat out fighting.  Here are some cues to help you know if play is getting too rough and should be interupted:
when you see teeth (even when barking),
hear growling,
see the whites of a dog’s eyes (or shows other signs of feeling nervous or scarred),
relentless play/pestering,
continuous targeting (muzzling/biting) of the neck,
mounting and posturing (putting chin on another’s shoulder)
You don’t need to start screaming at your dog when you see these signs but simply calling your dog to you or otherwise distracting the dogs from one another will stop the play and give the dogs a break. This allows things to cool down and keep from escalating.

Champ and Ellie
Just like we want our kids to be polite we want our dogs to be polite; we don’t run into people and poke them repeatedly in order to get them to play with us so neither should our dogs. Mounting is another behavior that is very impolite.
When you do find a group of dogs that play nice take advantage of it! Puppies will learn how to play based on their examples even if they do have breed tendencies. Just make sure that the ‘example’ dogs know how to properly discipline because you don’t want them to let your puppy get away with bad behavior. Puppies have sharp teeth for a reason – so that they learn to be extra careful with their teeth! 🙂
This means we really need to learn about our dogs: are they being polite, are other dogs picking on them or trying to show them that their behavior is inappropriate. Here is another exert from a blog of Patricia McConnel’s: …Willie didn’t always play as well with others. Willie would start running with another dog, then get in front and air snap toward their face to stop their forward movement. Then he’d stand still with a satisfied look on his face. Look what I accomplished! Boy, am I a good herding dog! Eventually the other dog would just stop running, because what was the point? However, recently the lovely Dobberman Mishka seemed to have taught Willie to stop playing by herding. Mishka put up with his “herding” two times, and then growl-charged at Willie. Totally appropriate, very controlled; I remember saying “Good girl!” I was so impressed. Willie backed off with that confused, silly look that male dogs get around females who discipline them, and never tried it again. They began racing instead and now it’s Willie’s favorite game.
Champ and Ellie play tug of war

What do you think?

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