Cali and Alberta both have great social skills, and their play together is cooperative and fun. They never fight and are good at reading each other’s signals. When one wants a break, the other complies.
Bringing a third dog into play always changes the dynamic, and when it’s a puppy or adolescent who’s still learning the rules of social interaction, everything changes. So, when Scarlett joins Cali and Alberta in play, the energy level goes up — and sometimes the tension level escalates as well.
Often, the three girls have a ball chasing each other around Scarlett’s huge yard, tugging on Alberta’s ears, sneaking veggies from the garden, and generally being silly together. Sometimes, though, one dog — most often Cali — seems to be trying to calm things down. When she’s not able to do this, I know that I have to get involved.
How do dog owners know when play is going well and when they need to intervene? This question is especially important at dog parks, where the playing dogs might not know each other well and where, unfortunately, many owners don’t pay enough attention to what their dogs are doing.
As our dogs’ protectors and advocates, it’s important that we are aware of what’s going on whenever our dogs are playing with other dogs (or with children). I suspect that, even among friends and family, most dogs don’t play much when their people aren’t around. I think that our presence helps them feel safe and confident that things won’t spiral out of control. It’s our job to understand that responsibility — and to step in when our dogs need our help.
So, back to Cali, Alberta, and Scarlett. The photos at the top of this blog post show healthy play. The dogs’ tails are held high. Their faces are animated, and their mouths are open in relaxed (not stressed) smiles. They are not holding their ears back tightly or tucking their tails.
The way they are playing is also important: There is not one dog who is always being chased — or doing all of the chasing. When they are wrestling, again, there is not one dog who always seems to be the target (or aggressor). They change roles, change games, go from chase to wrestle to tug to chase with a fluidity that comes from reading each other’s body language and paying attention to each other’s signals.
What does it look like when it goes wrong?
I step in if I see Cali’s tail go down or I see her trying to walk away. If she’s trying to leave the group and one of the others (usually Scarlett, an energetic eight-month-old) jumps on her or runs after her, I know that Cali needs a little help. Sometimes, she just stands there with her head and tail down, looking overwhelmed. Calling her to me or gently redirecting Scarlett to a toy works. Scarlett is a smart girl and wants to play — she’s not bullying Cali. She simply is not always ready to stop playing or quick enough to read the signal that Cali has had enough. I know these dogs and can read their body language pretty well. I can step in and ask everyone to calm down — and get them all to cooperate.
In more public spaces, like dog parks, owners might need to intervene more forcefully to help their dogs if play with unfamiliar dogs starts to deteriorate into something too wild or rough. Also, if there are a lot of dogs around, “dogs getting carried away playing” can turn into bullying or even a fight in seconds, with more dogs piling on.
Owners of relatively soft dogs (like Cali) who won’t stand up for themselves should be prepared to extricate their dogs if a situation becomes overwhelming — and this can happen any time a softer dog is playing with other dogs. Body language to watch for includes repeated looks to you, as if seeking help; lowered ears or head; a tucked tail; or any baring of teeth.
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.
If you don’t have a “regular” play group, look for a few well-matched (size and energy level) dogs and try to set up regular play dates. Or find ways to exercise your dog without other dogs. Plenty of dogs would rather play with their humans anyhow!