I once had a dominance trainer tell me that every time my dogs wrestled they needed to be corrected until they learned to play properly. For spite, I purposely displayed photos like these.
If I’ve horrified you with some of these, I apologize. Let me appease you with some of the photos that followed almost immediately (within seconds) after these were taken.
Not a single drop of blood has ever been spilled during one of Panzer and Shelby’s play sessions. Well, that’s not entirely true, one time Panzer bit his tongue, which he can’t seem to keep inside of his head and that caused some blood to be spilled. But that doesn’t count for purposes of this post 😉
The point is to say that sometimes it appears that what we humans consider “proper” or “appropriate” play is very different than what dogs consider “proper” or “appropriate” play. Panzer and Shelby are a bonded pair, they are actually a tad too bonded (add it to the list of things to work on). They sleep on top of each other, play together, howl together, move from room to room together, they even walk up the stairs together. They’re like a little Cerberus most of the time. And neither one is dog aggressive, although Panzer admittedly has his moments, especially with puppies.
When people see my dogs play, they often display faces of horror and outrage. We most likely wouldn’t let our children play like this. But dogs are not children. I am a firm believer that dogs should not be left to “work it out themselves” when there is an actual conflict, but I’m also a firm believer that you should be observant of your dog’s body language and decide whether or not there actually is a conflict, especially in tight quarters like some of these pictures.
Example. Yesterday, Panzer and Shelby were playing with the neighbors’ labs, Maggie and Ben (who have been showing up a lot in this blog I noticed, you can see them in one of the pictures above). Panzer has a bit of a history with Maggie, he isn’t entirely comfortable around her, and he nipped her ear and made her cry once, which didn’t make him (or us) very popular with the neighbors for a couple days. But we’ve been working with him, and they’ve been doing relatively well (no more making puppies cry!) Yesterday, they were playing very well indeed until Maggie got a bit too close for comfort.
Panzer was not comfortable with Maggie creeping up on him (you’ll notice the paw lift from her, she’s trying to tell him that everything is cool). Panzer didn’t agree, but fortunately, he was off leash and was able to get away.
Which he did, rather quickly. The real trouble started when the neighbor’s son came over to collect Maggie who wouldn’t recall (different story for a different day). I leashed Panzer and started to walk away, while Shelby heeled by my side. Relentless, Maggie followed, jumping up on Panzer and Shelby and me. With the neighbor’s son coming closer and closer into his flight zone and Maggie refusing to leave him alone, Panzer redirected his frustration onto Maggie, snarling and lunging. She rolled over and tucked her tail far up between her legs. When I saw Panzer’s face, his eyes were hard, his teeth were bared, but the lips were different than in the pictures above. His lips were curled up and over, exposing his gums and his muzzle was wrinkled with his whiskers far forward. He was standing rigid and erect over her tiny body. This was not play, this was serious.
Immediately, I called, “Panzer” and thankfully, he looked up and his eyes softened, his mouth closed. I threw him a treat and coaxed him inside. Maggie did not follow. This morning, they played again, and all was well in the world. But that was a bad situation that led me to ponder the differences between play and…well not play and how close the line is and what is safe and what is not. Play causes arousal and excitement, the blood is pumping, things are happening very quickly. Excitement is quicker to turn into rage than calm.
So maybe in some ways, that dominance trainer was right, that calm play is, at the very least, safer. Maybe. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m still of the mind that some rough and tumble play is good and fun. I know that my dogs come inside from a rough tumble displaying fewer stress signals, tired and happy with big, bright eyes. The calm play they do in the house doesn’t have the same effect, nor does vigorous exercise with me or on their own. For example, Panzer is not nearly as worn out from an hour of swimming as he is from 20 minutes of good wrestling and chasing with Shelby.
What can I, the regular, average everyday dog owner do then? Well, the first thing is to learn how to spot the differences between play and not play. Get a good book on canine body language and take pictures and videos of your dogs playing with other dogs. Watch video of not play. Learn, study, experience. The second thing would be to learn how to handle your dog in a situation where play becomes not play. Redirection is great. Have a reliable cue that is proofed around distractions. You’ll be surprised what you see, I’ve noticed that when play becomes not play my dogs are looking for an out, they don’t want to fight. It’s like that kid at school who wants to prove to all the other kids that he’s big and tough but if his mom calls he says, “Well, we’ll duke it out tomorrow, I have to go.” And obviously, be safe. If you feel that your dog is not playing, really not playing or can’t play or won’t play or isn’t nice or may be aggressive, do not let your dog play with other dogs. Instead, consult an experienced, positive reinforcement based trainer right away.
But if your dogs are playing and enjoy playing and play rough, try not to fret, be careful, be observant, but let them play like dogs play, don’t force them to play like humans want them to play!