Photo of dogIs it play, or something else?

How to tell if your dog is playing, bullying, fighting, or running away.

Recently, Lily had an unpleasant experience involving two young border terriers on our local walk. These dogs barked aggressively at her whilst charging towards her at top speed. On reaching her, they body barged her and snapped at her and were trying to stand on her shoulders (T- Shaping). When I asked the owner if he was going to call his dogs away, he replied “they’re only playing”. I explained that this was not play, it was aggressive behaviour. He disagreed. I won’t dwell on the rest of the conversation at this point (!), but later it occurred to me that perhaps he genuinely has no idea his dogs are not playing.

Many of my clients have had similar encounters with owners who believed their dogs were playing. So how can we tell if it is play or something more sinister?

Dog play follows certain rules. It’s likely that different breeds have different styles. However, usually before dogs engage in play, they are likely to perform some form of greeting behaviours first. For example, sniffing the other dog’s butt or inguinal area. Just charging up to another dog to play without introductions is rather rude. If the dogs know each other, then possibly they can run over and engage in play, but really, they still usually go through some greeting rituals first.

When well socialised dogs play, they follow certain rules. For example, when playing chase, they generally take it in turns to chase and be chased. When being chased, the fleeing dog will often look over the shoulder to let the other dog know it’s still OK to chase them (also known as self-handicapping). Then after a while, they will stop and reverse roles. If the dog is not looking over the shoulder and continues to run fast, and if roles are not reversed, it’s possible the dog is trying to run away rather than playing.

During play, especially if things have become a little rufty tufty, dogs will drop into a little play bow to just make sure the other party understands that they are playing, not attacking. The play bow will be directed towards the other dog, bottom will be up and so will the tail be up. The mouth will be open in a soft smile with loose tongue (not drawn back into long lips with grimace, which would be appeasement) and the eyes will be bright and soft, ears relaxed and loose. If the bow is sideways on to the other dog and tail dropped, this is more likely to be appeasement. To appease means the dog feels threatened by the other dog and is trying to avoid a conflict situation.

Here is a photo of what looks like a bow but it's appeasement as the dog is not facing, the bottom is not right up and the tail is down and ears are pulled right back. Notice also the splayed toes, which shows a lot of tension.

Two dogs displaying appeasement behaviour

Some dogs like to play “boxing”, standing on the hind legs and boxing each other with their paws. Again, if only one is engaging in this activity, it might not be play, but if both are, and their bodies are soft, mouths open and loose with soft eyes, then it is a boxing game.

Here is an example of boxing.

When watching this film, you will notice we had been about to do a "consent test", (break it up and see if they still wanted to pay like that) as it had started to look a bit less relaxed. At this time, Frankie (small black dog) decided to sort things out for himself.

Note how Frankie signals the end of play by stopping and shaking off. Notice Tilly (lab puppy) play bows to request continuing play but Frankie disengages. He's had enough. Although it looks like Tilly is continuing to pursue, she got the message and actually plays with a different small black dog, who happens to look quite similar to Frankie. Excellent conversation. This is what happens when pups get the chance to experience appropriate play opportunities.

Some dogs like to jaw spar. This is a game where they make their faces look comically scary, lips lifted up showing all their teeth, often snorting as they do so. They clash jaws together whilst wrestling/boxing. Their bodies are relaxed and tails loose. They can do this standing on two back feet, standing on four feet or rolling about on the floor. The dog on the floor’s tail should be loose and free rather than tucked up. If you see a tucked tail, it’s worth trying to break up the game just to make sure the one underneath is still consenting. If the dog goes back to play again, and does so calmly, let it continue as the dog has consented.

When trying to assess if dogs are playing, you need to look at all the dogs involved. In the case of Lily yesterday, the two border terriers barked aggressively and charged at her. There were no greetings and not a single bow. They jostled her, tried standing on her shoulder, snarling and snapping at her. If she had known this was a game, she would have joined in. Lily self-handicaps herself by lying on the ground for small dogs to play. She made no attempt to do this.  As it was, she stood helplessly as she couldn’t move without being nipped at. I had to go over and try to get her out. She made it clear that, in her opinion, this was not play. If this had been kids in a playground, it would have been abundantly clear this was not play.

I know it can sometimes be difficult to tell, but I hope this short article helps you to decide if your dog is playing, bullying or being bullied. This by no means covers everything about dog play. If you are unsure, try to interrupt and see if it looks like both dogs are consenting. But do make sure they are not just reluctant to back down from a fight. Bodies should be soft, mouths should be open, ears and eyes should be soft and the movement should be fluid rather than jagged and uptight.

Do take time to observe your dog at play and to watch other dogs that play with your dog. Don't be afraid to step in and calm things down if you feel your dog is either overwhelming another dog, or the one being overwhelmed. 

Denise Nuttall B.Sc (Hons) Applied Animal Behaviour, M.Res Dog Cognition and Forensic Psychology

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