Comfort and familiarity among friends inspire behaviors we might neither expect nor see in almost any other circumstance. For example, typically when I have company over to my home, I’m at the very least going to put some clothes on, clean the house up, turn off whatever embarrassingly offensive reality show might have just been on the television, temper my proclivity towards foul language–a bit–and probably not drink quite as liberally as I might were I alone or with close friends and family. However, if one of my best friends is coming over, all bets are off as to whether or not I’ll bother with putting on a clean shirt or waiting to kill half a bottle of wine before she even arrives. (It’s highly likely I probably won’t be wearing a bra or shoes either, but we’ll leave that alone for now.)
While my dogs rarely drink or worry about wearing appropriate clothing, they do have behaviors they display at home together that are indicative of their familiarity with one another. “Is Your Dog’s Rough Play Appropriate?”, written by Camille Ward and Barbara Smuts, is an excellently thoughtful and detailed piece on the importance of understanding dog play, particularly dog play between dogs who are familiar with one another, and those situations in which dogs are negotiating new relationships. Their discussion of meta-communication is a perfect example of how we humans manage to anthropomorphize dogs in some of the most absurd and inappropriate ways, and yet don’t give them any credit as a species for possessing the same capacity for advanced social engagement that we do.
What strikes me as particularly poignant about an article like this is the importance of truly understanding and getting to know your subject matter (dogs, lions, tigers, bears, whatever) before you get in over your head working with it. Because understanding WHAT you’re looking at is critical in appropriately generalizing expert knowledge and doing right by the animals you’re working with. And it never fails to surprise me just how long it can really take to do that.
In my own effort to better understand dog play and behavior, and at the suggestion from an exceptional trainer and behavior consultant, I’ve started recording play sessions and interactions between my own dogs, as well as them with less familiar dogs.
The clip below is of my two younger dogs, Peaches (female, 3 years old) and Buster (male, 2.5 years old) playing in our backyard. These two dogs have lived together since they were puppies (8 months and 3 months respectively). Both have had years of positive, relationship-based training and therapy dog preparation and training. When this particular clip was taken, they had already been playing hard for ~10 minutes and continued playing afterwords–after a short break–for another 10 minutes. Their play used to make me incredibly nervous because I was sure they were hurting each other, or “getting too worked up.” But in the absence of broken skin or damaged limbs, it’s now making more sense to step back, be quiet, and read their body language a little more. I liken it to transitioning from watching Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant as a kid and thinking it’s all real, to seeing MTV’s first season of Tough Enough and learning just how intricately and thoughtfully choreographed professional wrestling can actually be. If everyone doesn’t get their turn at being slammed over the head with a folding chair, well then it’s just not fun.
(Note: The high-pitched squeaking in the background is not being made by either of them. It’s one of my other dogs, Hudson, standing behind me waiting for me to throw his ball.)
On a scale of 1-10 (10 being their roughest play), this session is probably somewhere around a 4. I’m not going to pretend to know yet where the line is between their play and a problem (or if there even is one), but I’m doing my best to figure it out and research as much as I can on the topic in the meantime. And luckily, in the meantime, they both know well that breaking play and coming when asked to usually means a treat or two.
Additionally, the authors of the above mentioned article included an “Important Considerations” clause at the bottom of the article. I have reproduced it below because it is essential information, particularly for novice dog owners and handlers who might inappropriately generalize this type of information.
First, when we talk about play fighting, we mean play between two dogs rather than play between many dogs (we will address multi-dog play in a future article). Although multi-dog play can be fine, sometimes it involves ganging up, and then it’s time to intervene.
Second, we are referring to play fighting that doesn’t involve toys, which can become the object of guarding and aggression.
Third, we recommend caution with young, inexperienced puppies. If traumatized by other dogs early on (for example, in a poorly run puppy class), a puppy may grow into a dog who is fearful, defensive or even aggressive with other dogs. (See Patricia McConnell’s “Early Education” in the May 2011 issue for more on well-run puppy classes.)
Fourth, rough play typically works best between two dogs who are friends (see our article, “Does Your Dog Need a BFF?” in the June 2010 issue). Dogs who play together a lot often develop play rituals, such as S afi and O sa’s mutual snarling, that may not be appropriate between dogs who don’t know each other well. Finally, work with your dog until she reliably comes when you call her for a brief play pause.