The Benefits of Play
Play is a behaviour that helps reduce stress in many different species- including dogs and humans. In fact, fearfulness and playfulness are mutually exclusive emotional states. As such, playing with your dog offers the opportunity to remove stress and fearfulness as well as strengthen your bond.
What a winning combination!
Dogs both play with each other and us. However, a dog’s motivation to play with its owner is not affected by play sessions with other dogs. This is likely because, dog-dog play and dog-human play are usually quite different, thus satisfy different needs.
Dog-dog play features a lot of body contact and is quite noisy. Typically play sessions will involve some degree of chasing and/or wrestling. In healthy play bouts, you will see a lot of behavioural signalling from each participant and dogs will adjust their styles/roles based on this feedback. Despite this, there are some dogs who get so carried away with the idea of playing that they will chase/wrestle regardless of the other dog’s say in the matter! These boisterous dogs are so determined to get their play ‘fix’ that they may terrorise their play partners (who are often smaller).
Situations like this is how dog-dog reactivity is borne, so if you see your dog playing with another dog and either member is looking like they have had enough- use that well honed recall and end the session!
Dog-human interactions tend to have more of a ‘language barrier’ compared to dog-dog play. As a result, you don’t see the same range of behaviours and role reversals that you would between two dogs. This can cause some trouble with each member sometimes unable to communicate that they want or do not want to play with their partner. Consequently, it can be difficult to know how to play with our dogs effectively and safely. I’ll detail some useful tips below.
Learn to recognise and mimic the play bow
When dogs want to invite play, they will typically move into what is known as a ‘play bow’ (see picture above). This gives you a reliable indicator that your dog is keen to play. We can also mimic the play bow relatively easily. Don’t worry you don’t have to get in the exact same position to do it (although it’s a great stretch for your chest and shoulders 😉 ), simply bend your knees and do a mini jump. This way you can politely invite your dog to play with you.
Implement a quitting signal
Although play is GREAT for stress reduction, it’s also quite exciting and can lead to over arousal. An over aroused dog can get in all sorts of trouble from mouthing, destruction and clawing. As a general rule, don’t start a play session with your dog if they are already over aroused (jumping up, mouthing and other excessive behaviours are a good sign of this). It’s also good to have a cue (command) that signals to your dog that the play session is over. To teach this, simply give the signal (e.g. “Enough!”), immediately stop playing with your dog and walk away with your hands by your sides. If you like you can also give your dog a treat for disengaging from the session. Do not resume playing with your dog until he has completed calmed down.
Observe your dog and listen to what her behaviour tells you
Each dog has his or her own particular play preferences. Some like chasing while others prefer fetch. Some dogs are always up for play, others only like to play in the mornings (… this is starting to sound like a euphemism :\ ). Learn your dog’s preferences and don’t try to coerce them into playing when they aren’t keen (i.e. the don’t respond to your play bow). Take a break and try something else at a different time. There’s plenty of games out there (e.g. hide and seek, nose work games, targeting games, chasing etc etc), if one doesn’t work, try another.
The most important thing is that you both are having FUN.