The first Thursday of each month is Puppy Social Hour at Top Notch Dog. It is an opportunity for young puppies to do all sorts of important and fun things. They get to venture out to a new place, meet new dogs and people, practice coming to their person out of a group of dogs, calm down nicely between play periods, meet a friendly stranger or two, and get a little worn out. The puppy owners learn what normal puppy play looks like and how to help their pups out if they need it. My job is to make sure all the puppies leave the social hour better than they arrived. I want them to have a good experience, with both the puppies and people they meet.
Therefore it is not a free-for-all; I match play partners carefully, use gates or even a drag line on an individual pup if needed, and coach the owners when they need some assistance.
Last night featured a wonderful group of puppies and people. It was a perfect example of a mix of play styles, and the puppies adjusted to each other beautifully (despite some huge size differences!).
So what is good dog play? Here is a list of some of the good, the bad and the funny things that dogs do when they play together. This time we saw only the Good and the Funny, I am happy to say.
Good things to see when dogs play:
- Taking turns (equal time on top in wrestling matches, trading off who has the valuable item like a toy or stick)
- Inefficient movements (flopping around, falling down, rolling over, leaping, exaggerated head movements like giant biting and snarling with plenty of teeth showing)
- Play signals sprinkled throughout (there are many; play bows and paw raises are examples)
- Reading the signals of the other dogs and adjusting accordingly (backing off if there is a short yelp or cessation of movement, and then trying again more gently)
- Breaking off from play of their own accord to sniff, explore, rest, check in with a person, or get water
The Bad when dogs play together:
- Bullying behavior in which a dog relentlessly targets one or more dogs (which may include standing over them motionless, body slamming, or targeting a body part)
- Terrified behavior (i.e. tail tucked, trembling) from which a dog does not recover, but rather cowers or hides
- Non-stop, obsessive play without breaking off
- Consistent failure to read other dog’s cues and moderate intensity of play accordingly
- Drifting into true predatory mode, with emergence of quiet, efficient movements, like staring at and intensely stalking another dog (play signals will be absent)
- Misunderstandings arising from mismatched play styles, possibly leading to fights or feeling overwhelmed (for example, in general dogs like labrador retrievers and pit bulls often engage in body slamming, whereas a border collie may prefer to chase and be chased, while terriers may like to bite hard and wrestle)
Funny things always seem to happen when dogs play with abandon. Like lazy play, which is what I call it when dogs lie on the ground near each other and wrestle only with their mouths. There was plenty of that in this group. We also had a comedian in the bunch, who liked to get the others going by biting their tails. And the little sheltie, the lone herding breed, wanted to play chase games, but couldn’t get anyone to run away from him. At one point he stood five feet apart from another dog. They were just staring at each other in a game of puppy chicken. Then he stamped his tiny foot, trying to get the other puppy to spook and take off. He tried again. “Where is this other puppy’s go button?!?” he seemed to be asking. And then there was Miss Stop Drop and Roll; she would get all the other puppies chasing her, and then, as they converged on her, would flatten herself, roll over multiple times as they passed over her (psych!), and then start the whole thing over again. Big fun.