Appropriate Dog Play

Learn what to watch for so you can keep your dog happy and safe

Are the pictures below appropriate play between dogs?

Without knowing the context of the situation, it can be hard to tell what’s happening. Often, play between dogs resembles actual fighting, especially when you are not seeing them in context but only in snap shots. Dogs “mouth” each other’s faces and necks, pin each other down, wrestle, chase, snap, and bark.

Since play can resemble a real argument or fight, how do you know what’s appropriate and if your dog is having fun? There are a couple of things you can watch out for to make sure play is constructive for all.

Meta-signals

That’s just a fancy way of saying check their body language before, during, and right after play. Look for play bows, shake offs, loose, wiggly movements and soft, happy faces. If you see a tense body or face on either dog, play may not be fun for all involved.

Activity Shifts

Dogs should change activities or play styles during play time. Some dogs will wrestle then chase just a tiny bit, or wrestle then break for a brief moment. You want to see some shift in activity during play. It’s important for dogs not to get stuck in the same rut, like constantly chasing or wrestling as this can lead to over arousal and a potential problem. 

Role Reversals

Dogs should be taking turns being the chaser and the chasee, the one being pinned and the doing the pinning. While it may not always be 50/50 split, you’ll want to make sure there’s some reversal happening.  

Self-Handicapping

Dogs have the ability to do serious damage during play with biting and body slams. If they play with full force, it isn’t fun for anyone. You’ll want to make sure the dogs playing are self-handicapping and not going in with 100 percent force. This is especially important with dogs of different sizes. Big dogs must self-handicap when playing with small dogs. 

If you don’t see these things happening or you’re unsure if play is mutual, try a consent test. A consent test is a great way for the dog to tell you if they’re enjoying play. Simply break the dogs from play and if the dog you think isn’t having fun decides to reengage in play, it’s safe to let them continue. If he/she decides not to go back to the dog and play, then end the play session for now.

If you keep these important notes in mind, you’ll be able to keep your dog safe and help him/her have good play interactions with other dog friends.

For additional information on appropriate dog play, review the videos below.

What about dog parks?

Dog parks can be a wonderful resource for dogs and their guardians. It allows people and their pets to connect and lets dogs frolic off leash and play with other dog friends. Unfortunately, we’ve heard over and over again, “My dog did great with dogs until one day at the dog park…” While they can be a good outlet, dog parks are also riddled with risks and that’s why at Pit Bull Advocates of America, we don’t recommend dog parks. We believe that in most cases, the risks outweigh the benefits. A lot of dog parks are not properly monitored and many pet guardians are not well versed in managing the melting pot of play styles. More importantly, they often don’t understand what to do in case of a fight.

In place of dog parks, we recommend smaller, structured play groups with dogs of the same play style as your dog. Does your dog love to wrestle? He may overwhelm a dog that mainly likes to chase. Talk with your friends and family to see if they have a dog that likes to wrestle too, then set up a play date. Our Dog Day program is also a fantastic alternative to dog parks for our Milwaukee, Wis. friends.

If you’re considering going to the dog park, it’s important to know what to look out for to protect yourself and your dog. This article from The Whole Dog Journal breaks down the pros, cons, and considerations to be aware of before taking your dog to the park.