Sisters at Play

IMG_1137Cali’s sister Dora visited recently for the weekend, which meant nonstop action. Cali actually has lots of sisters. She lives with Big Sister Jana full time. Jana has been an excellent role model, teaching Cali necessary life skills, including barking at passersby and rolling in sand so joyously and thoroughly that, between them, they make sure to take the beach home with them. Then there is Alberta, the part-time sister and playmate. They are evenly matched in size and have similar energy levels. When they are together, everything becomes a tug toy.
But DorIMG_1141a is special. Dora is Cali’s litter sister. They were plucked from their siblings on the same day (Cali by me and Dora by my close friends) and whisked away, first on a long car ride, then on an airplane where everyone made a huge fuss over them. They spent a scary first night away from Mom snuggled together in a crate. Since then (or maybe even before) they’ve shared a special bond. Whether it’s been days, weeks or even months since they last met, their greeting is rowdy, loud, and energetic. Their play is very physical and rough, but no one ever gets hurt. At rest, they often touch paws or sleep in a heap.
Play is often seen by researchers as practice for important life skills. One researcher, Dr. Marc Bekoff, suggests an additional crucial role for play: it is the basis for developing social ethics. In play, young dogs (or other social beings) learn not to hurt each other, to follow certain rules, to communicate their intentions honestly.
Both Dora and Cali have excellent social manners. When meeting new dogs, they exhibit all of the correct doggy signs for getting acquainted and inviting play. Both are wise enough to be deferential to larger dogs and to show respect for elderly dogs. They’ve internalized those ethical practices that they have learned through playing with a variety of dogs. But sister play is different.
InIMG_1134 their sister play, they also bow and use the full range of doggy play signals, but the signs are sometimes abbreviated or perfunctory. They feel safe enough to throw themselves into play without worrying about being misunderstood. There is lots of ear-pulling and gnashing of teeth. Their faces wear fierce expressions. They emerge panting and wet. And wearing huge smiles. There is a level of familiarity and trust between them that gives their connection a quality that Cali’s play with others — even Alberta and Jana — lacks. Social manners matter most when dogs assess the intent of strangers. Smart dogs know when they need to be polite. And when they don’t. And, for Cali and Dora, family is safe enough that politeness can take a backseat to full-on fun.

3 thoughts on “Sisters at Play

  1. […] If you’re not sure of the other dogs, it’s best to avoid the situation. We’re fortunate to have a play area where we live that attracts a regular crowd of very nice dogs. Cali has become comfortable with most of these dogs. Even so, she usually prefers to play ball with me and rarely engages with another dog. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy lively play; when she’s with her sisters or a good friend, she lets her guard down completely. […]


  2. Pam, thanks for these posts. I wish my new friend, Toby, and Lulu the Cat could develop some of those mutually understood social skills! They play Ambush, and it doesn’t always end happily, though no blood has been shed.


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