Here’s the Skinny on Dog Play Styles
The play style of individual dogs is the more important factor when determining which dogs should play together. Just as important is the NUMBER of dogs that will be together at one time. For instance, it is commonly the case that a dog in a small group will adapt his natural play style to the other dogs around him – including small dogs. Put that same dog in a larger group that includes more “rough and tumble” players and he simply won’t be able to resist the urge to get his romp on!
There are important lessons to be gleaned from this experience observing dog behavior and dog play styles. And there’s also quite a bit of nuance – things that are lost on those who are not dog trainers or dog behavior consultants. Many dogs will play in different ways in different situations, depending on where they are, how many dogs are around, the size of the other dogs, the play style of the other dogs, their comfort level, and other factors. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the common play styles of dogs.
Common Dog Play Styles
If you’ve been around dogs a lot, you’ve probably seen this type of play. The “cheerleader” will always be positioned on the periphery of the actual play, barking (sometimes incessantly), running around with the group but never actually in the middle of the action, and occasionally nipping. This type of play also occasionally involves “policing” dog play – the cheerleader will sometimes jump into the middle of dog play and break things up. While this appears to be “rude” or bad manners, it’s really just another style of play.
Body slammers will run and slam themselves into others, rotate their bodies in circles so that they’re contacting other dogs with their rumps. It’s pretty self-explanatory and when you see two body slammers going at it in a play session, it’s something of a wonder!
Wrestlers like to make full contact, like body slammers, but spend more time actually engaged with one another than running into one another. One dog will commonly get on top of another and “pin” that dog, and then the dogs will just as commonly change places, so that the “pinner” becomes the “pinned.” Dogs that play nicely as wrestlers will both change places with their playmate(s) and self-handicap as necessary.
Neck biting is another common element of wrestler play, and bared teeth are almost the norm – while it can look quite frightening if you don’t know what you’re witnessing, it’s generally harmless. Gentle neck biting play frequently occurs while both dogs are lying down.
Note that there are cues to be aware of and to look for with wrestling dogs. One in particular is a dog pinning another dog and not letting the pinned dog move when he wants to get up. Another is a long pause (what we call a “freeze”) by the pinning dog, sometimes in combination with a snarl.
Tuggers love to grab something – anything – and goad another dog into grabbing the other end. The dogs then proceed to play tug-of-war with one another. Anything seems to work – perfectly good “tug toys” often sit idle in favor of a stick!
Dogs with lots of energy, and certain breeds, like to chase one another and consider a good play session one where lots of ground is covered quickly. These dogs will often play tag with one another until the have to collapse on the ground panting…then they do it all over again.
Soft touching seems to be more common in shy dogs and older dogs. These dogs don’t want to engage in an all-out wrestling match, and would be aghast if one of their canine buddies started body slamming them. Instead, they feel comfortable with soft touches of the noses, nuzzling of the neck, and what appears to be “kissing” at times.
We’ve seen some dogs that just LOVE to play. To accommodate their innate desire to be in the middle of the action, they appear to adjust their play style to match their playmates at the time. It’s rare that any one dog will exhibit EVERY type of play style, but we’ve seen body slammers becomes chasers, wrestlers play tug, and so forth. We once witnessed a 75-pound lab/golden retriever mix use just it’s head to play with a 7-pound chihuahua, then chase after a ball, then wrestle with a larger dog (these were our own dogs, not those of clients). The bottom line here is that it’s a good idea never to make assumptions about what style of play your dog may engage in, and the size of your dog is not the only factor when determining play groups.
A Final Word on Dog Play Styles
We’re going to be exploring dog play styles in much more depth in the future, including how breed plays a large part in play style, how to create good dog play groups for dog daycare, and much more. This brief article just scratches the service of dog play styles and behavior, but we’ll be doing a “deep dive” on the topic going forward.
But what about small dogs and big dogs?
Glad you asked. We’ve observed many, many dogs playing with one another at our dog daycare, and we tend to know the dogs that attend our daycare very well. We know which dogs are best buds, which aren’t as fond of one another, which big dogs can play with small dogs, and which should be kept separate.
It is often the case that bigger dogs can play well with small dogs, and it happens frequently at our facility. HOWEVER, having a small dog around multiple larger dogs is where things can go awry. The rambunctious play of larger dogs – especially body slammers and wrestlers – could potentially hurt a small dog. This would be entirely unintentional, but poses a risk nonetheless.
Something we must also always be aware of is “predatory drift.” The terminology itself is quite descriptive, so you can probably guess what this means. In short, predatory drift is related to the prey drive that is inherent in dogs, where “prey drive” simply refers to a dog’s natural drive to pursue (typically small) prey. To observe this, watch your dog’s reaction to a squirrel running outside the window – your dog’s interest in the squirrel is related to his prey drive.
Now, some dogs may not care a bit about a squirrel running outside while they’re inside – place the dog in closer proximity, and that is likely to change. Where this tendency is worth noting (and watching) in a daycare or play setting is when dogs of different sizes are playing together. Since smaller dogs may resemble prey to larger dogs, it is possible for some almost imperceptible change to occur in the nature of play whereby the larger dog will become excited and tend to “drift” away from play and toward viewing the small dog as prey.
We deal with this by keeping small dogs and large dogs separated during the day, but then creating controlled “play groups” in a third area – either another room or outside in our fence-in area – so that the little guys and gals who love some of our larger dogs (and vice versa) get a chance to play together.
In this manner, the dogs in our care are kept safe at all times, but also have the opportunity to play with dogs of a variety of sizes (as we see fit) that they enjoy spending time with. And, yes, dogs do develop friendships of a sort that is kind of tough to fully describe, but very obvious once you actually witness it!