After reaching my dog talk saturation point at the Sense & Sensibility Seminar in Chicago last weekend, I’ve been a little lax with returning to the blog. I’ve still got a post brewing full of highlights from Patricia McConnell and Steve White, but in the meantime, I’ve been incorporating some of their thoughts on dog play into our playdates this week.
Learning to read body language and better understand dog-dog interaction has been an enlightening experience for me as a dog owner. I’m still not all that great at it, but I’m light years from where I started. The fact that I’m now able to let Hudson play more because I use his body language rather than his vocalization to interpret his arousal level is huge. (Here’s an old video post on Hudson’s vocalization while playing with Peaches.)
Observing and monitoring dog play is similar to managing a classroom full of students. There’s a lot going on, there are multiple variables at play, and it’s usually all happening really fast. Which is why video is so essential, particularly when you’re still in the early stages of learning to properly interpret what you’re seeing. In teacher education, creating and analyzing records of practice and video cases of teaching is the ultimate pedagogical tool. Who knows why it took me so long to generalize that knowledge to working with and learning about dogs?
Patricia McConnell offered two great reference points to keep in mind when watching dogs and interpreting play: 1) the importance of pausing during play, and 2) the need to focus on individual elements of play in order to understand what you’re seeing.
Playing with Pauses vs. Playing without Pausing
In a nutshell: Dog play with pauses is good. Play without pauses is problematic. For anyone who’s watched dog play before, you already know exactly what a pause is. It’s that brief moment–maybe a half second, maybe a few seconds–when the dogs pause before carrying on with play. That pause might include a “shake-it-off” or a play bow, or perhaps one of those brief moments where they stop and stare at each other like a couple of wild-eyed loony toons before body slamming each other.
Pauses mean that the dogs are self-regulating their levels of arousal and don’t need your help to keep it civil. On the other hand, play without pause is that wild, relentless play instigated by one or both dogs where momentum takes over and everybody’s a little too amped up. It’s not about how rough the play is, but rather about the energy. It’s here where things can go wrong pretty quickly and it might be a nice time to offer a break in play and let them catch their breath or call it quits for the day.
Earlier this week, Buster had a playdate with a handsome young man named Ivan, and I took the opportunity to record a bit of their play and then play it back later to see what I noticed.
Some context for the video: Buster is 3.5 yrs old and Ivan recently turned 6 months old and is in full adolescent puppy mode. Both are neutered males, and were adopted as puppies from rescue groups. The two of them met for the first time for a playdate the week before last in the same location (Buster’s house) and played well for about 30-minutes. Buster overwhelmed Ivan a few times and made him squeal, but he immediately backed off, after which Ivan ran right back for more. I was thrilled to see Buster playing with a dog who moved at his same breakneck, wild child pace.
The three video clips below were taken during their second playdate, in the order that they appear. The playdate lasted about 40 minutes and throughout the playtime, both dogs were regularly breaking play, running over to us and sitting and offering downs for treats.
I’ve left out the audio because Ivan’s mom and I were chatting it up in the background and it’s a bit distracting. There were no noteworthy vocalizations from either dog except for one or two puppy frustration barks from Ivan and the occasional grumble when someone was trying to make a point. Otherwise it was the typical play pant/dogs laughing kind of sound.
Here’s early on during play:
The things I noticed in this first video:
- Their pauses during play are REALLY long, some of them lasting several seconds at a time and appearing back-to-back.
- During just those 50 seconds of video, I counted 8 or 9 pauses, including the one when the video started.
- The dogs are keeping a decent amount of distance between themselves much of the time.
- Tails are high, and both dogs seem not quite relaxed. Not tense, but not fully relaxed either.
- Buster offers some play bows, and Ivan makes several attempts to move around to Buster’s backside, out of his line of vision.
This next video is midway through the playdate, and to me, seems to be indicative of relaxed, mutually enjoyable play:
Things I noticed:
- There are fewer pauses, eventhough this video is twice as long as the first one.
- Buster is the one initiating most of the pauses and flattens Ivan once or twice when he fails to honor the pause.
- Ivan starts to mimic Buster’s play style and moves, such as bowing more, rolling over onto his side, and using his paws to shove and box. He’s also taking more risks now.
- Some of Buster’s moves seem exaggerated (i.e. his spinning play bows), as though he’s trying to be more demonstrative for Ivan and teach him how to play (Maybe I’m just projecting my hopes here? Interested to hear others’ opinions.)
- Ivan is starting to read Buster well and pay attention to the signals he’s sending (i.e. the moment where Ivan makes a move to pick up the orange ball, but then pauses once Buster notices, after which Buster immediately flops over on his side and indicates he doesn’t care about the ball anymore.)
- The happy, big-mouthed lolling about in the grass together at the end of the clip is adorable!
This last clip is near the very end of their playdate. And, after looking back at this clip, I’d definitely have to say that we should have stopped play and called it a day at the end of the 2nd clip, when they were chilling out on the grass.
Things I noticed:
- There are NO pauses
- Ivan, being the classic 6-month old puppy that he is, has lost his ability to self-regulate at this point, is overly aroused, and totally relentless
- Buster makes several attempts to pause play, throwing out play bows and using his body to block and pin Ivan, trying to slow him down, with little success
Interestingly, their first playdate the week before was about 10-15 min shorter, which clearly made the difference. Also interesting is the fact that Kim, Ivan’s mom, was the one who chose when to appropriately end the play the week before, and commented this time that he was getting too pushy. Meanwhile, I was so happy to see Buster having a playdate with a dog who enjoyed his ruff’n’tumble style play, that I was completely ignoring the fact that Buster was done, and Ivan was ready for his puppy time-out. Bravo, Kim.
The whole concept of pausing seems remarkably obvious once I started thinking about it. Stopping to pause once in a while is a pretty crucial piece of human survival as well. In fact I can recall a number of sent emails and Facebook posts before which I could have really benefited from a long, thoughtful pause. Stopping to breath and self-regulate seems like one of the simplest and most basic moves we can make, regardless of context or species. Unless of course you’re a sweet little bunny running for your life from our cat. In that case, whatever you do, don’t pause.