Dog Play

When your dog plays with another dog, do you worry that they’re fighting? Or that the apparently very rough play could turn into a fight?

Most of the time, there’s no need to worry. Normal dog play often looks scary, but it’s fine.

Some of my favorite dogs agreed to let me share video of their play so you can see …

Cali, Maisy, and I were on a nice walk. The sun was out, the grass was freshly mowed … and, suddenly, Cali simply had to play. She bowed to Maisy, and they were off. I dropped their leashes to let them move more easily. I don’t recommend letting dogs roughhouse with their leashes on, but I let them do it this time, just for a minute.

They often go for each other’s necks. They’ll flip over and wrestle. Maisy occasionally leaps right over Cali. If Maisy gets too enthusiastic, Cali lets her know by walking away or giving her a look.

Stella and Luna (gold star to anyone who gets the literary reference) are sisters. Sometimes, it looks like Luna (gray) is about to rip Stella’s head off. Often, it looks like Stella is chowing down on Luna’s neck. They’re not.

The most important signs that the dog play is fun and fine with both are:

  • They take turns; sometimes it looks like one is killing the other; sometimes the reverse. They both get to be chaser and chasee in turn.
  • They take little breaks or pauses — a few seconds maybe — and both re-engage.
  • When one does ask for a break, the other respects the request and they take a longer break.

If you’re concerned about your dog’s play, watch for the above positive signs and intervene if it looks like one dog is trying to call a pause and the other’s not listening. Or someone cries in pain. Or multiple dogs seem to be piling onto or chasing one — always the same — dog.

Cover of Doggie Language book

But most of the time, your dog’s just having fun in a very doggy way. And, though it looks like the other dog’s ripping her ears off or tearing a hole in her neck, she’ll walk away with nothing more than a bunch of slobber on her coat.

Learn more about dog body language and communication from this adorable book: Doggie Language

Take It Downstairs!

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When they get amped up playing inside — in the living room or dining room, to be specific — we tell them to “take it downstairs.” And they DO.

Downstairs is a mostly finished basement with a large room we inaccurately call the TV room. Sure, there’s a TV there, and a sofa. There’s also an open space and an overflowing toy box. And usually a half-dozen toys scattered around the floor. And, of course, a large dog bed. So it’s really the dog playroom, where we are sometimes allowed to watch TV. While cuddling one or more dogs on the sofa.

They are allowed to tug and play growl and wrestle and roll around to their hearts’ delight — downstairs. Not upstairs, where small rooms house my nice(r) furniture, my books, breakables …

In the summer, I have been known to shoo them outdoors when they start playing, but, as Koala points out (hourly): It’s Montana out there.

What’s impressive about the girls’ “taking it downstairs” is that their most energetic play sessions seem to coincidentally coincide with our phone or zoom conversations. Even so, even though they know we are distracted, they’ll take their toys and head downstairs.

A few minutes later, panting, happy dogs will reappear and settle down on the living room rugs for a nap. A tired dog is a good dog, after all.

Koala Discovers Her Inner Labrador

Koala is not a typical Labrador. Yes, she’s affectionate and cuddly and very, very food focused. But she’s also serious and rule-bound. She holds us to a schedule. She has no sense of humor.

She has her moments — she loves to play, but on her terms only. And she does love to stomp through puddles, but she’s not as eager to get into a body of water as most Labs. She’s usually indifferent to a ball tossed into the water. (Not Cali! Cali, a golden retriever, was born to swim after tennis balls. Over and over and over again.) Koala will fetch a ball on land, if you ask her to, but it’s clear she’s only humoring the silly human.

And Koala hates cold weather. She was born in Upstate New York and raised in Connecticut, so maybe by the time she moved to Florida, she was really just done with winter. At not-quite-2 years of age.

So, here she is in Montana, yet again. And yet again, it’s cold. It’s late October and … we had a blizzard. Somewhere between 6 and 8 inches of snow fell overnight.

When I opened the door to let Koala and Cali out in the morning, it was still snowing. She gave me her “are you nuts??” look, a look I know well. I convinced her to go out to pee.

Cali of course was delighted. But then Cali is usually delighted: She loves snow. She loves water. She loves rain. She loves sun. She loves grass. She loves summer. She loves winter.

Cali was a bit worried when she went to her toy box and all that was in there was a bunch of white powder, but she nosed around a bit and located a frozen tennis ball. She gave me her look … and I ventured out, in slippers and robe, to free the frozen treasure and toss it for her.

And Cali was off, racing around plowing through the snow with her nose to find her ball. Dropping it into the snow so she could find it again. Begging me to come out to play …

Koala looked on in disgust.

I beat a quick retreat indoors.

Then I looked out the window: Koala was racing around the back yard and — what was that? A wagging tail?! She made a couple of joyful, very Labrador-esque laps.

She must have sensed me watching.

She glanced over her shoulder, stopped running, and started sniffing the ground. She did her business and quickly came back inside.

Her burst of typical Labrador playfulness, her flash of joy as she played in the snow disappeared as quickly as it appeared. But Cali and I both saw it: Koala’s inner Labrador.

Hands Off My Ball …

Golden retriever Cali holds on to her tennis ball

Cali is a hoarder.

I’m lucky, though; the only thing she hoards is her tennis ball. She adopts a ball each morning — the one I throw for her the first time we play ball. Then, that is the only ball she will play with for the rest of the day. I can toss three balls (or 30), and she’ll sniff each one, but she’ll pick up only her ball.

The game starts like a normal dog-and-human ball game. I throw. She runs, catches or picks up the ball … then things fall apart. Ignoring the “retriever” part of her heritage, instead of bringing the ball to me, she runs off. She’ll choose a corner of the yard, usually in the shade, and lie there, holding her ball. All day if I let her.

If I want to continue the game, I have to chase her. She plays keep-away. Sometimes, this is what she wants. She’s clearly enjoying running, faking me out, being chased, and “letting me win” after we play a brief tug game with the ball. I then throw the ball — which she loves (in fact, she seems to have written a comic about it!) — and the whole thing starts over.

Or doesn’t.

When she’s had enough, she retreats to her corner and gets up and moves away if I approach her. Hoarding.

When we’re near water, there’s a different pattern — she’ll swim after the ball, bring it onto the bank, drop it, shake as much water onto me as she can, and eagerly wait for me to throw it again. She’ll do this over and over again, far longer than she pretends to play fetch on land. When we’re done, though, she wants to carry the ball as we continue our walk to head back to the car. I am clearly not to be trusted with it.

She’s right. Sometimes, when a ball is really dirty and slimy, just the way Cali likes it, I have been known to make it disappear.

Dog Park Kerfuffle

Cali holds her tennis ball at Jacob's Island dog park, early on a cold morning. A light dusting of snow covers the grass.
Cali at Jacob’s Island, a Missoula dog park

Are dog parks wonderful places to let your city dog off leash to safely run and play or are they the potential source of serious problems and likely places to pick up infections, get hurt, or worse?

Yes to both.

It’s been a couple of years since I last wrote about dog parks on The Thinking Dog, and an online exchange about dog parks, brought to my attention by a friend, got me thinking about the topic.

First this New York Times piece came out: The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually. Not much ambiguity there. It’s pretty clear where this writer stands.

A response was quickly forthcoming from Marc Bekoff, a person I have studied with and admire greatly: Let Your Dog Tell You If They Want to Go to a Dog Park.

The NYT piece raises valid concerns, including the risk of disease or injury. I know dogs who’ve been seriously injured by dog-aggressive dogs at dog parks, and a local dog park was recently closed for a week or so for disinfecting after some dogs picked up an infection there.

The author also talks about the idea that dog parks are for “dog socialization” and explains that that’s not where or how to socialize your puppy. True, and also obvious.

Finally, she delves into the issue of dogs who find dog parks stressful or otherwise unpleasant. She closes with this: “There is no shame in not surrendering your dog to what has become the quintessential urban dog experience: running with dozens of strangers in a small, smelly pen as people stand by, looking at their phones or gossiping,” and encourages owners to spend quality time with their dogs instead.

I have been at urban dog parks that are indeed small, smelly pens where the humans ignore the dogs.

But that is not typical of my dog park experience. And I would never go into a park like that with my dog!

Bekoff effectively addresses the sweeping generalizations in the NYT piece while stating what should be obvious: All dog parks are different.

Many are large, open, wonderful spaces, maybe with woods or walking paths.

Dog park culture varies greatly too. In many, there are regular gatherings of people and dogs who are friends. Many dog park people are conscientious dog owners who are actually paying attention to their dogs. Some even play with their dogs! You can and should spend “quality time” with your dog at the dog park!

Many dog parks have quieter times when dogs like Cali, who wants to play with her tennis ball undisturbed by other dogs, can run and roll in the grass and be free. Now that Cali has her own back yard, she doesn’t need the dog park as much … but when we lived in apartments, she really needed the off-leash time and the exercise.

Not all dogs want to play with other dogs, and not all dog parks are wonderful. But they’re certainly not all bad, either. Wherever you stand on dog parks, and whether or not your local options are appealing to you and to your dog, my bottom line is that over-generalizing doesn’t make sense.

You and your dog need to figure out what works for both of you. If you’re lucky enough to have enjoyable dog parks nearby, go ahead — enjoy some outdoor, off-leash quality time with your dog at the dog park!

 

 

 

What’s a Dog to Do?

Cali thrusts a slightly rumpled newspaper at her human.

By Deni Elliott

Weeks of sheltering in place have taken their toll. Even our dogs have gotten bored with the stale smells in the same circuit of empty sidewalks that they’ve walked morning, noon, and night, day after day. We’re all looking for ways to amuse our canine companions, including people, like me, who are visually impaired and partner with guide dogs.

Guide dogs are used to as much socialization and stimulation as their human partners normally have, and they can’t have Zoom happy-hours to compensate. Pre-virus, guide dogs’ daily lives were filled with work: leading their people to the office, going to meetings, running errands at lunch, meeting friends for dinner or going to the theater at the end of the day. Now they are as likely as their previously active human partners to be climbing the walls. They grumble and sigh, “When are we going to DO something? When are we going to GO somewhere?”

People paired with guide dogs know that we need to go out for regular walks on harness to keep our dogs’ guiding skills sharp. But that still leaves a large part of every day. Here are some suggestions from Guiding Eyes for the Blind grads that would engage any inquisitive canine who has a basic obedience repertoire:

  • “Hide-and-seek” is an easy game for a start. Leave the dog on a sit-stay in one room, go into another, and call your dog. Have a treat ready for when your dog finds you. Take your friend back to the starting place and repeat. You can get progressively tricky by hiding behind the couch or drapes or crouching down next to the bed. If you want to teach a new recall skill, introduce a dog whistle, clicker, or simply clap your hands.
  • Deborah Groeber, a retired attorney, adds a level of difficulty with “Find it.” She shows her guide, Iris, a favorite toy, then leaves the dog on a sit-stay while she hides the toy in another room. Deborah returns and tells Iris to “find it.” The dog seeks out the toy and returns it in exchange for a treat. The work for Iris gets progressively harder as she hunts the toy down in places she is not likely to look, such as behind the shower curtain or in the corner of a bookcase. But the last “find it” is purposely easy so that the game ends with Iris feeling successful.
  • Victoria Keatting, a massage therapist and member of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Graduate Council, is using her extra time to teach guide dog Watson to solve interactive puzzles, which she bought from Chewy.com. Treats are hidden in compartments that the dog can reach only by manipulating levers or spinning disks with his nose or paws. Once Watson understood that the treats Victoria placed didn’t fall through for him to retrieve underneath the puzzle, he enjoyed the dexterity practice.
  • Some of us are using our time at home to have our dogs help out with the daily chores. At our house, Golden Retriever Cali fetches the morning paper, and Guiding Eyes Koala deposits the dogs’ food bowls, after meals, into waiting human hands for washing. Both dogs are supposed to put their toys in the toy basket before bed, but that’s most likely to be enforced only after a human gets startled by tripping over a squeaky toy. (Watch Koala stack the food bowls.)
  • As even the best of friends can sometimes seem underfoot, author Peter Altschul sends guide dog Heath off for a weekly playdate with a friend’s dog. Unlike the concern raised if neighborhood children play together, there is no worry that an exhausted dog will bring home COVID-19.

Unlimited snuggling, petting, additional pampering, and connection create the silver lining that our dogs enjoy as we shelter at home. But every household has its boundaries. At our house, dogs are allowed only to watch our morning yoga routine. They no doubt privately laugh at the funny human tricks. But no canines are permitted on the mats. Following the internet instructor is enough for the people to handle before coffee without dog feet, tails, and happy tongues complicating our poses.

 

A Place to Play

Koala noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

 

Everyone needs a place to play. Even dogs. Especially dogs.

Cali loves, loves, loves her back yard. She’d live there if I let her. She’d also dig it up, rearrange the plants, harvest all the green tomatoes (but get good and sick inside, preferably on a rug), and dine on raspberries every night.

Cali and Koala do play in the yard a lot. But Koala is a delicate Florida Labrador, and cannot take the cold Montana mornings. Or the warm Montana afternoons. She wants to be inside.

It’s a dilemma.

I don’t want them wrestling and playing tug in the living room, but they can’t or don’t want to play outside all the time.

We’ve solved this issue by making the TV room in the basement a dog play area. Now, when they pick up a toy and Cali gets that mischievous gleam in her eye, we intervene. Before she entices Koala to play and gets them both in trouble, we tell them to “take it downstairs.”

It took a bunch of repetitions with us steering them downstairs, but they’ve caught on. Now they happily trot off down the stairs and play freely (and loudly). When they have friends over, they might take their friends down to play in the rec room.

They have a toy basket downstairs where most of the tug toys are kept. Well, that’s the idea, anyhow. There are often toys scattered over every inch of the floor, but sometimes, Koala even picks up the toys and puts them away. They’ll both clean up with a lot of encouragement (and a few cookies).

Fair Play

Have you ever watched dogs of very different sizes play together?

Koala recently made a new friend in the neighborhood, Lilly. Lilly is a 3-year-old Mastiff. Koala is a rather petite Labrador.

Lilly, a Mastiff, tried out our extra-large tennis ball

That didn’t matter a bit. They immediately launched a rambunctious bout of play. Cali was a little worried and tried to police their fun, but they ignored her. When she couldn’t resist barking at them, she had to be escorted out of the play area.

Cali is escorted off the grass as Koala and Lilly wrestle

Koala and Lilly wrestled and chased each other and rolled around in the grass, having a blast. No one got squashed or hurt.

Lilly chases Koala

Koala has the best social skills of any dog I know, and she has a wonderful sense of how to play with any dog, big, small, young, old … it doesn’t matter. In seconds, she figures it out and invites the other dog to play.

Cali tends to get anxious when other dogs are too rambunctious. And I think she’s a little envious when other dogs come over and Koala plays with them. Cali takes longer to size up the situation, while Koala jumps right in, so I think Cali feels left out sometimes.

When all three dogs got to go out for ice cream together, Cali realized that Lilly would be a fun friend to hang out with, and she relaxed a little.

 

Snufflepupagus

I always loved Mr. Snuffleupagus. Maybe that’s why I immediately found the idea of a snuffle mat appealing; I like the name. Too lazy to make one, I’d sort of been looking to get one for Cali, but hadn’t actually done anything.

Then, at my friend Tom’s house, I saw one for the first time. I knew that Cali would love it. The idea is that you bury kibble or treats in the mass of fleece strips, and the dog uses her nose to sniff and snuffle — and find the treats.

Cali loves food (she’s a golden, after all) and she loves using her nose. Perfect.

Tom told me that he got it from a fellow trainer who lives nearby. That’s “nearby” in Montana terms, which may not mean what you think it does.

In any case, Deni and I decided to take a nice drive one Sunday afternoon. We met trainer Joni Muir, who makes these mats during long Montana winters. We chose two colorful mats and were on our way.

Unsurprisingly, the highly food-focused girls needed little guidance. Their noses work just fine, thank you.

I took Cali’s upstairs. While I’m working, she often hangs out with me. When we need a break, I take a few minutes to hide treats in the fleece forest. I keep telling her not to watch while I hide them, but she doesn’t listen.

She then spends about 10 minutes finding them. She first does a survey of the entire mat and nabs the obvious ones. I’m using Charlee Bear treats, and they are always tucked out of sight. So the obvious ones are not obvious to me.

She then does a methodical up-and-down sniff of the entire mat, in rows. Then a second survey in columns. She is very thorough. Only once have I found a single overlooked (oversmelled?) Charlee Bear.

Koala joined us upstairs a few times while Deni was away, and I set them both up with their mats. Cali was a little pushy and got started a few seconds ahead of Koala, the instant I put the first mat on the floor. Even so, I think they had a photo finish, both scenting and scarfing their treats in a few minutes.

I suspect that, the more we use the mats, the more they will smell like food and the harder the girls will have to work to suss out the hidden treats. But their noses are so much more sensitive than mine that I can only speculate. Freshly hidden treat could smell completely different from day- or days-old treat residue. Only the dogs know!

 

A Perfect Day (for Cali)

Cali, a golden retriever, swims in a riverI’d like to get out and hike more. It’s summer in Missoula. I’m an outdoor novice; I don’t go camping (which means I have Missoula all to myself on summer weekends) and I can really only do easy hikes. Even so, I like to get outside in our short, but stunning, summers.

But Cali’s not great off leash. She gets engrossed in something and next thing she knows, she’s miles away and 20 minutes have passed.

There are many wonderful trails where I can’t or wouldn’t let her off leash even if she were more reliable. They’re at the edge of vast wilderness, have too many tempting smells and critters to follow, and I’m not willing to risk losing her. Every weekend in the summer, the Missoula NPR station reads our lost dog reports, and sometimes there are pictures at the trail heads … it’s sad and scary.

So, when I have a little time and it’s a nice day, I face a dilemma. Do I pack Cali into the car and go off somewhere to satisfy my desire to hike? Or do I choose an option that will be more fun for her?

Hiking is fun for her, but still, it’s usually a long walk on a short leash in a pretty place that she’d love to explore, if only her mean mom would let her.

Compared with one of our standbys, a large open area inside Missoula where she can run off leash, and where I usually throw a ball for her to chase … well, no contest. Especially in the summer when there’s water to play in!

I feel a little bad each time I decide to head there rather than gear up for a more adventurous outing, but then, as I make the turn off of Reserve St., and Cali knows for sure where we’re going, her excitement reassures me. This is what she’d choose. This or a trip to Big Dipper ice cream (or both).

She dances with excitement as we get out of the car and I dig out her ball; she squeals with joy as I release the leash. Then she’s off, running, the instant I throw the ball. She doesn’t bring it back, of course, so I walk to her, she lets me take it, and I throw it again. And again.

We walk along the irrigation ditch, currently full of cool water. We walk through a wooded area. When we get to each of the two little pools, I throw the ball into the water for her to swim after. Now she does bring it back, over and over, so I will keep throwing it upstream. Her favorite thing is to get out of the water and drop the ball at my feet. Then, just as I bend to pick it up, she shakes off, sharing the cool water. We both get back to the car dirty, tired, and happy.

I think that she has more fun doing this, even if it’s the same outing two or three times a week (or daily) than she would if we went to new and interesting places … where she had to stay on leash. It’s not that dire; there are a few other places where she can be off leash. But in the summer, this spot, with the trees, water, and open space, is pretty hard to beat. Instead of worrying about taking her more places, maybe I need to focus on taking her more often for perfect Cali days … a swim, some mud, maybe a little ice cream!