Play is a very important part of the canine learning curve. Even as very young puppies, dogs set their boundaries through playing with their littermates. When dogs meet new dogs, they use their social skills to determine how their relationship will develop. One dog asserts his dominance, the other concedes and behaves submissively. Once dogs are happy in one another’s company, they use play for fun. For your dog to form healthy relationships with other dogs, he must play correctly. Your job as a responsible owner is to guide him without disrupting the natural flow of canine fun.
Every dog has its boundaries and limits. Some dogs love full-contact, high-energy interaction and some hate it. During play, dogs use body language to show other dogs how far they will be pushed. Dominant dogs will tell off a dog who oversteps his boundaries, while a submissive dog will whine and use submissive gestures to plead with the other dog.
Understanding body language is the key to distinguishing between normal play and aggressive play. During normal, fun interactions, both dogs will have a relaxed posture. Their tails will most likely be wagging and they’ll both display an alert expression. If play turns aggressive, this all changes. The aggressive dog may show his teeth, raise his hackles and attempt to physically dominate the other. The dog on the receiving end may react with fear or fire. If he’s scared, he’ll cower, hunch, avoid eye contact and will look for an escape from the situation. If he reacts with aggression of his own, he’ll mirror the gestures of the other dog.
Never deny dogs the opportunity to regulate their own interactions. If you step in every time you think your dog is playing too rough, you take away a learning opportunity. In most cases, a growl, yelp or turned back are enough for a dog to learn his playmate’s limits. Dogs are effective communicators.
Monitor your dog at play and learn what his body language and vocalizations mean. Only by observing in context can you learn the true meaning. Even a growl can be playful, if accompanied by a “bowed” posture and wagging tail. Intervene when you strongly suspect one or both dogs are anxious, frustrated or on the verge of being aggressive. Mild gestures such as a short growl, biting on the mouth and barking are not reason to intervene. But if these gestures are ignored, consider stepping in and giving your own dog a time-out.
By playing with your dog at home, you can show him what is and isn’t acceptable during play. For example, if he nips your hand, a loud “ouch” followed by you stopping the play session should discourage future indiscretions.
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