Growing up in a house with one dog (and, for a long time, one dog who didn’t like other dogs), I never really appreciated the nuance of dog play. Sure, watch dogs run around a field together and it looks like they’re having fun, but I never looked beyond that level. Once I began working in shelters and had more opportunities to watch dogs play, I started to more fully appreciate the elements that go into dog play. That appreciated has only been more fully developed as I have moved into teaching – especially teaching puppy classes, which provide more opportunities for free play than most adult dog classes, as well as the unparalleled opportunity to watch dogs learn to play from week to week and develop their communication skills.*
This first video shows two puppies – chocolate lab Molly, 12 weeks, and pekingnese/cairn terrier Spartacus, 7 months – who have just met and are playing for the first time. During the first 1-3 seconds, there is relatively loose body language from both, with exagerrated movements characteristic of play. At second 4, Molly runs to her family, most likely because she is nervous. While they are matched in size, Spartacus is older than her. Also, they are in a new, indoor space that neither is familiar with. Spartacus follows her and offers a mini-play bow – this is his invitation to resume play. Molly immediately follows this with a shake – another stress signal, but then resumes play, running across the room towards me (and the camera). All of this takes place in 15 seconds. Because these are unfamiliar puppies, I interrupted the play shortly after this, to give Molly a chance to reset, and also to teach them about pausing during play.
The second video shows two adult dogs – my dog Sirius Black, and my friends’ dog, Gweneviere.** These dogs are both adults with fairly well developed play skills, and they already know each other. Again, the video begins when the dogs are already playing. In second 5, you will see them pause in their play – this is a mutual pause where both dogs stop moving. Sirius reinitiates play with a tiny playbow type movement – remember these dogs know each other well and are used to each other’s play styles – and then play resumes. Notice, that, although this play can look rough, both dogs are handicapping themselves to prevent injuring the other. Also, because they are taking breaks, I do not need to interrupt the play the same way I do with the puppies, but I do need to watch, in case the situation changes.
*For this opportunity, I thank Jeni Grant (trainyourbestfriend.com) for the opportunity to work in her puppy class and also acknowledge the influence of Alexandra Horowitz’s book Inside of a Dog for reminding me that – no matter how closely I think I am watching – I am still missing elements of dog play until I go back and review the video.
**One note: Sirius is clipped to a cable in this video – this is because the fence is low enough for him to jump; however, the cable is long enough not to restrict his movement within the yard. In generally, and in line with many trainers, I recommend against having dogs meet on leash or in extremely confined spaces, especially when the dogs don’t know each other, or the situation is stressful – such as veterinary hospitals and even training centers.