How My Dogs Play

A medium sized tan dog with a black muzzle and tail stands, looking at another dog. the other dog is smaller, mostly black with rust color on her legs and head, and is doing a play bow.

Here’s an “Almost Wordless Wednesday” for you. Just a short movie showing Clara and Zani playing.

Even wholesome dog playing can be scary to people who aren’t familiar with it. Dogs growl, snarl, and mouth each other so fast and hard that you are sure they are doing damage. But many dogs, sometimes the most unlikely pairs, work out ways to play that are pretty safe and fun for both parties concerned.

In this clip you will see hackles raised (Clara), lots of snarling and screaming (Zani), and lots of so-called displacement behaviors from both dogs (look-aways, lip licks, ground sniffing). Yet what I see in the main is wholesome and fun play. I show some of the things I like about it in the movie: Clara’s self-handicapping, how they take breaks and vary their play, and how they negotiate the end of play and bleed off any built up tension. (Try to see when one of them first decides it’s time to quit. I’ll give my opinion in the comments if anyone wants to discuss.)

Throughout the clip, my third dog, Summer, is sitting quietly in front of me. I have trained her to do that instead of being the Fun Police, and intervening aggressively in the other dogs’ play. She got a treat right after the clip ended.

Enjoy!

 

Link to the movie for email subscribers. 

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Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek.

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21 Responses to How My Dogs Play

  1. Jenny H says:

    Good Video.
    Clara is BEAUTIFUL!
    Zani behaved as though there is terrier there.
    Clara and Zani are having a ball, but poor Summer looks worried.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Thanks! I agree about the terrier in Zani. Something that’s not apparent in photos or video is that she has an odd coat. Pretty sure she has a wire-haired parent or grandparent. I always figured Jack Russell (let’s face it, more likely than a wire-haired dachshund running around breeding). Yes, Summer hates other dogs playing, especially the sounds. We usually get farther away, but I stayed to film. At least she doesn’t try to intervene anymore.

  2. Marjorie says:

    They play really well together. Clara is quite a girl, she lets Zani make pretty much all the advances and uses her ears well, turning them back, and blinking her eyes, then Zani moves in. Things stay pretty horizontal, and they don’t really engage in vertical positions. Like you say, they vary their play with a chase and break things off with body positioning, head turning and lip licking. Summer turned her ears back when the camera was pointed at her, was she nervous or letting you know all was ok?

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Marjorie, you got me to watch it again with your comments about Clara’s ears and eyes. You are right! I like those blinks. One time the camera was on Summer I think she turned an ear back to the other dogs; I’m not sure about the other times. She is generally uptight when they play so a bit worried in general. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Phoenix scares the crap out of me sometimes when she plays! Most of the time it is play but she can be rude and too rough. Her previous owner allowed her to fence fight constantly with the neighbor’s dogs and so when dogs are running she gets way too excited and over aroused. We are working on it!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      It can be really hard to assess play sometimes, can’t it? When Summer (the one I keep out of it now) used to play with Zani, she made me pretty nervous.

      It sounds like you have sussed out one of the problems well. Rehearsing all that aroused display behind the fence didn’t so her any good. Good for you for working on it!

  4. Diana Allensworth says:

    hi eileen
    i’m hoping this posts this time 🙂
    just wanted to say that i also thought the play was very mutual.
    i wondered if clara wasn’t ready to quit at 2:02 when she first offered ground sniffing, but maybe this was just a way to get zani to calm down. but it seemed to me that zani actually escalated after that and her vocalizations had a bit more ‘edge’ to them, until her final sneeze/snark at 2:10, at which point both dogs offered behaviors that lowered the intensity immediately: air and ground scenting, head turns, lip licks, turn aways, slower and quieter movements in general. i really loved the grand finale of zani’s shake-off, followed by clara’s. also love clara’s squinty eyes.
    really great example of appropriate/reciprocal play.
    thanks so much for sharing.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Thanks, Diana. That’s a good theory at 2:02. I was just watching again and noticed Clara showing her teeth at 1:52. Not all that unusual in their play, but I kind of sticks out in this clip. I wonder if she was trying to get Zani to back off a little there too? Thanks for your comments. Insightful as usual.

      • Diana Allensworth says:

        yes about clara’s teeth! and it does seem in response to zani’s quick jabs and vertical play.
        then she does a lip lick and zani offers a play bow (“just kidding clara – can’t you take a joke?”). i just really love watching dogs communicate!

  5. Chris in Boise says:

    It’s really good to review how Clara and Zani interact, as this clip captures a lot of very healthy play. Thanks for sharing! This is a most timely video; I’m watching our new BC Obi teach our not-so-new BC Habi about reciprocal play. Obi has exceptionally good social skills, and Habi is not fluent in dog-dog communication. The little that she’s played before has been pretty rough; she was always the “attacker”. and we often had to step in to break things up. We adopted Obi only two months ago, and he has brought her confidence level up ever so gently to the point that now in backyard play she’s cheerfully on the receiving end of hip checks, chases and other rowdiness. I never thought we’d see reciprocity, but there it is. Obi is now moving onto the next level – getting her to play in the house. Miracles will never cease!

    I should have filmed a few of their early play bouts, when Obi was spending most of his time teaching her to trust him (what a self-handicapper: you could see the twinkle in his eye as he let her throw him to the ground again…and again…and again – and he’d bounce right back up ready for more) to compare to the current healthy give-and-take. Hmmm…I should film some of these early in-the-house play sessions, as Obi is self-handicapping a lot to encourage her. See what an inspiration you are?!

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Wow, how interesting that your newer dog is teaching your “not-so-new” dog to be comfortable with play. I do love to see dogs shape each other’s behavior in these wholesome ways. Of my dogs, Zani has genius level social skills, and Clara’s are basically good, but it has taken some trial and error for Clara to learn that things go better if she plays nicely.

      I’m glad you are going to video some play. You’ll be glad!

      I have been considering publishing a comparison with some early play between Zani and Summer (before Clara was in the picture). When Zani first came, she and Summer played almost constantly for a couple of months. Nobody ever got hurt, and things didn’t get out of hand, but the play just didn’t feel friendly. Summer is my “poor social skills” dog. Maybe I can look back on that footage and figure out why.

      Thanks for the comment! Glad you enjoyed the video.

      • Chris in Boise says:

        I’d love to see a comparison between Summer-Zani play and Clara-Zani play. Not that you have any shortage of ideas for posts!

        Also, belatedly thank you so much for the link to the Levels Training yahoo group. I’m now signed up (now all I have to do is figure out how to use Yahoo groups…). Several years ago, reading Sue’s posts on Stitch and Syn’s training blew my mind, and Habi and I have been playing with the levels inconsistently ever since. Thanks for the kick in the pants to get truly on board.

        • Eileen Anderson says:

          Funny thing. I looked at some old clips from 2010. I’ve always said that Summer’s play makes me a little nervous, but what I see now is that Zani was relentless. Summer actually put up with a lot! When Summer wouldn’t play, Zani would bark at her non-stop, and Summer hates noise. It wasn’t a good pairing. Clara is a better playmate for Zani, being more laid back. I’ll post some of those old clips one of these days.

  6. Lucy Dunbar says:

    Hi Eileen. I love this video! Thanks so much for posting it. Watching Clara and Zani’s play really put a smile on my face. I’m still very much learning observational skills, so don’t have much to add there. But I wanted to share that my two dogs, Jessie (2yo BC) and Charlie (4yo greyhound x BC) often play together and can sound and look pretty ferocious. I have wondered before whether I should intervene – but I actually think they have it under control. I have never seen them play like this outside – only inside the house. Jessie is much smaller than Charlie – about half his size – and he is much more powerful than she is. Jessie has the upper hand when it comes to agility, though and has been known to slide right underneath his belly and run rings around Charlie while he stands looking a bit stunned! Charlie is usually the quieter one but when they play together, he is much noisier – giving out high pitched barks and lots of growling.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts about whether play between two dogs that know each other well has any effect on how the dogs might interact with other, unknown dogs? Jessie is quite reactive – I think there are a lot of similarities between her and Summer, from what I’ve read on your blog. I once worried that if I allowed Jessie to play so “aggressively” with Charlie that this would allow her to think she could also be aggressive with unknown dogs. I don’t think I was right about that, though. I now think that there is actually a lot of trust between Jessie and Charlie that allows them to play together like this. At the same time, though, I don’t think this has taught her how to politely and calmly interact with other unknown dogs! That is very much a work in progress…

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Lucy, that’s interesting about your dogs. And in answer to your question–my **guess** would be that since dogs are such good discriminators, playing wouldn’t carry over. My dogs have all had different play styles with each other and with me.

      On the other hand, I know of a dog who is both dog- and people-reactive and just generally high strung who has become more comfortable and mellow since getting a friend who finally got her to play. A good playmate can be such a positive thing.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  8. Gerry says:

    A nice play session, and I especially like your teaching Summer to control her anxiety. Rather than analyze, I’ll just agree with many of the comments and start with the other side, about the people. For several years I’ve run play groups at a large municipal shelter, where we have many unknown shelter dogs with varying energy levels and skills, and a constantly changing dog population. Combine this with nearly every day at a local dog park with some of my fosters. My primary interest here is in the people. Besides the many with misconceptions like he’s being dominant, or she’s protecting, my question was how well could how many people learn enough about dog behavior to be able to predict what will happen.

    From my prospective, you can argue all you’d like about what a particular posture or action really means, but the ONLY true test is in predicting behavior. While much better if they know the dogs, few people appear accurate with strange dogs, and with learning to follow behavioral sequences instead of a single posture or pose. Something that limits the utility of most of the Dog Language books. In the end, only one person at play groups could predict the more difficult cases. Many others did a fair job, but became alarmed too quickly for things the dogs will settle (and either enjoy or learn from), and missed some obvious alerts. And after working with that group and explaining detail, there were only small changes.

    One other observation here is that, over several years, few if any dog trainers have ever entered this play group. At their East side shelter they did have some dog trainers, but they excluded pits and large dogs or those with any aggression history, while we worked with some of them. Nor do I find trainers at the dog park.

    At the local dog park, some of the regulars did much better, being familiar with many of the dogs. They learned that the same action can represent a far different intensity for different dogs, and also be perceived somewhat differently by others. Once they learned this, they became much more adept at assessing new dogs coming in. Alternately, I’ve seen many people who had several dogs at home, but assumed all others followed the same rules, and some people had to be calmed down with explanations at the dog park, and rarely seemed to learn any more.

    So now when I visit a client or assist a dog trainer’s class, I have a little better idea of how to recognize just what that dog owner will be able to manage and understand. People are never equal, but this allows better helping many, and recognizing those situations that will not work out, no matter what you try.

    On Lucy’s question of learned dog social skills between friends extending to other dogs, there’s no simple answer. I get many scared dogs who learn play from two others here, over a period of days. But that doesn’t prepare them for dogs who are nervous or have different play manners and where they don’t have days to learn them. So an older dog here teaches them manners and deference, and they learn not to be scared when they are corrected, but to move away peacefully. Then, they go to meet many others at the dog park. From that same start, some adjust to meeting new dogs in days, while others take weeks.

    As for “aggressive” play allowing a dog to think she could also be aggressive with others, that’s not really the important factor. Duke is a big Aussie at the park who runs over dogs while playing, but immediately stops if a dog says “no”. In play at any activity level, it is manners and deference that allow peaceful adjustments and avoid fighting.

    It is fun to watch two well mannered and playful dogs meeting for the first time. Not unusual to see them “negotiating” different play styles until they reach a common ground.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      What great observations, Gerry. I hope you write this up into a blog post somewhere yourself!

      In 2009 when I was worried about the “edge” to the play that my then new dog Zani did with resident dog Summer, my trainer told me something smart. I was concerned about Zani because she was smaller, and Summer is hard to read and a bit unpredictable, meaning her warning signals are hard to catch. My trainer said, “Watch the other dog.” In other words, Zani might have a better sense of Summer’s “safety” as a play partner than I did. Please don’t anyone take this out of context as a reason not to supervise your dogs! But taking the play session as one long “consent test,” you can sometimes get good information paying attention to whether the smaller dog keeps coming back for more.

      An interesting thing is now when I look back on those videos, what I see is Zani being rather obnoxious and overly persistent and Summer putting up with a lot. I was not able to perceive that at the time because of my own assumptions and concerns about “poor little Zani.”

      Great comments about people’s perceptions. Thanks!

      • I get a number of new 2nd dog questions from adopters and fosters about very active play, and you just quoted my most common reply: “Watch the other dog”. In many cases they have months or more of experience with the 1st dog, and have a fair sense of when that dog is not comfortable, so this works out well.

        • Eileen Anderson says:

          Thanks, Gerry. Credit goes to my teacher/trainer for that line. I don’t have a lot of breadth of experience with a lot of dogs. Watching the “other dog” has stood me well over time with my crew though. (Including that sometimes I realize that I have identified the wrong dog as the “other dog.”)

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