How I Met My Dog

Play Pals: Understanding How and Why our Dogs Play

Play is a common language spoken among all dogs. No matter the size, age, or breed, dogs love to play. But, why do our dogs play? How do we tell the difference between playing and fighting? Is all play behavior healthy behavior? Understanding the answers to these lingering questions can help decode the obvious and not-so-obvious science behind canine play.

Enhanced Motor Skills and Defense

According to a veterinary study at the University of Edinburgh, playing helps puppies gain important motor skills. Rolling, pouncing, jumping, biting and shaking are all play behaviors that increase a puppy’s coordination, balance and self-awareness.  When playing, puppies learn how hard they can bite and how to communicate play behaviors with other dogs.

An intense play session requires being alert and agile. Dogs that learn to play with other dogs from a young age are better equipped to right themselves when startled or knocked off balance. When playing, hormones (oxytocin and cortisol) are released in our dog’s brain. These hormones help dogs navigate a play session and control their levels of stress and happiness. The more practice your dog has with managing these hormones, the better prepared they are for how to react to real life stressors.

Building Blocks of Social Relationships

While play is certainly fun for our dogs, it also helps them establish social hierarchies and strengthen canine-to-canine bonds and even canine-to-human bonds.  Dominant and submissive personalities are expressed during play and help determine a loose social rank for littermates. For dogs, understanding when to be dominant and when to be submissive is a key part of social interaction and self-preservation.

When playing with humans, dogs prefer to play with people they know. Play between humans and dogs “improves social cohesion between humans and dogs, increasing their familiarity and reducing agonistic interactions.”* Play helps build a cooperative relationship between you and your pet. By playing together, both you and your dog will better understand each other’s body language and style of play.

The Difference Between Playing and Fighting

Most dog-to-dog interactions culminate in some type of play. But, due to varying circumstances, dogs do get into fights. There are key body language indicators that can help you determine the difference between a rough play session and an actual fight.

Play bows, open mouthed grins, body slams, bouncing, exaggerated growling noises, signs of submissive behavior like exposed bellies and a repeated desire to return to playing are all examples of positive signs of healthy play. A generally relaxed demeanor and posture indicates that your dog is not feeling stressed or fearful around another dog and that the play they are engaging in is all just fun and games.

Signs of a potentially aggressive encounter include a stiff body with raised hackles, pinned ears, low warning growls, and a curled lip. Like people, not all dogs get along with each other, and that’s ok! Giving dogs a chance to meet on neutral ground (somewhere like a beach or public park instead of inside of someone’s home) can put a positive spin on a potentially negative encounter. Always remember that dog’s can feel our energy through the leash. If you approach a situation tentatively or fearfully, your dog may mimic that behavior. If you have the opportunity to drop the leash and allow dogs to meet on their own terms, any aggressive behavior might be avoided altogether.

If a dog fight does occur, DO NOT reach your hand or any body part between the fighting dogs, as you will most likely get accidentally bitten. When left alone, most dog fights start and end quickly. If you must interfere, try to make a loud noise to distract the dogs or do something shocking like spray them with a hose.

Final Thoughts

Play is a fundamental part of development in puppies and adult dogs. Play builds motor skills, promotes healthy social interactions, prepares your pup for the unexpected and strengthens the human canine bond. To help your dog have positive play experiences, let them meet new canine friends often and on neutral ground. Be sure not to project your own emotions onto your dog. Let the pup play dates begin!

*(Somerville & O’Connor, abstract)

Practice Makes Perfect

Don’t remove your dog from a situation that doesn’t teach him/her anything. Instead, supervise repeated exposure and teach your dog how you would like him/her to behave in that environment. The more you practice, the better the dog will be.

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