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What’s the Key to Polite Dog Play?

What’s the Key to Polite Dog Play?


Watching dogs play well together is one life’s greatest joys. One of my essential criteria when looking for a dog to replace Willie was whether he played well with Maggie. We tried two dogs out before we found Skip, neither of whom had any interest in playing with Maggie. Maggie ignored one, and hated the other. Skip and Maggie fell in love at first sight, but it took many months to teach Skip to play politely. He didn’t get why body slamming into Maggie at full speed tended to stop the play. Ahem. Between me and Maggie (and tug toys), Skip learned to play well with all dogs, but it took awhile. I talk about this in depth in a 2021 post, The Evolution of Play: A Case Study.

The key for them, and the key for all dogs, is to honor any dog who signals a pause. “Cut off signals” they are often called, when one dog stops, often turns to look at the other dog, or, perhaps, does a play bow. (CAAB Karen London and I have speculated for years that part of the function of a play bow is to create a pause that allows a decrease in emotional arousal.)

Here’s Maggie telling a pup that she is done with interacting. She’s turned to face, gone relatively still, and turned her face away.

Being a young pup, this guy needed a little more explanation, so Maggie elaborated:

That’s all it took; a growl and a pucker, and the pup backed off.

Here’s Maggie and Willie, after a hard chase game. Maggie stopped and became interested in a stick. Willie stopped trying to play, honoring her request for a break.

Most trainers and behaviorists agree that the key to interpreting play–polite or not?–is to watch for pauses, and whether those pauses are honored by the other dog. (There are some great videos of this in an excellent article by Christina Young, Teaching Polite Play, in the IAABC journal.)

But what if your dog, or another dog, doesn’t know how? Or simply doesn’t honor another dog’s pause? The good news is that you can teach dogs to pause in play, but you need to pay attention and have a plan in mind before the play session starts. The standard advice is to intervene, staying calm and quiet. The last thing the dogs need is someone rushing in and adding tension.

I counted on a good recall, if needed, when Skip and Maggie made a new friend this weekend. Poppy, a two-year old rescued Springer, came over with her family, Bonita and Fredericka. Poppy loves to run just like the BC’s, so there was lots of enthusiastic chase games after getting acquainted. After several mad dashes around the pen, Poppy just up and stopped. I was on alert, in case Skip forgot his manners, and ready to recall him. No need, he was on his best behavior, and stopped himself.

[Skip adored Poppy, and put on his guy-in-a-bar gold chain and fluffed up his ruff. (Note the tail!) Maggie gave her a huff at first meeting, and then discovered she could get her to play chase; love the play bows here that got the running started.]

Recalls are perfect if you are sure that the dog needing one will react right away. The last thing you want is to get aroused yourself because your dog isn’t responding. Coming when called while playing is an advanced skill, so if a recall cue doesn’t work first try, go to Plan B.

Plan B is to be armed with something you are sure, from experience, will distract your dog. Great food? (Dry kibble will be gobbled up by some dogs, and ignored by others.) The best toy in the world? If you are using food, that food needs to go right beside a dog’s nose, no good waving it around from yards away. The only caution here is to be aware if one of the dogs is food possessive. The safest practice is to have both owners have treats, and walk in together, treats moved to each dog’s nose, turning their heads away from each other, and then moving away a bit after the treats are eaten. Then start walking away from the dogs (no standing still, holding your breath, and staring!), which will encouraging them to either sniff around or start playing again. If rude play continues after one or two more tries, I’d cut it off completely. But cheerfully, no grumping at the dogs if you can avoid it.

So, Summary: Watch for pauses. Intervene if one dog tries to pause and the other won’t stop. Use treats for high value toys to distract the dogs, help them pause and de-escalate, and then let them decide whether to play again or not. Rinse and repeat, over and over again, and eventually, most dogs get the message.

The most common problems I see are 1) not paying attention when dogs play, 2) not noticing one dog bullying another when the victim has tried to stop, and 3) owners rushing in and adding tension rather than calming things down.

What about you? Is your dog a perfect player? Or got a nickname like Skip did when we first got him (starts with a d_____, just saying). What have you found that works best? And, (this deserves it’s own post!), what do you do when the other dog’s owner is oblivious? I’ll answer that now for myself: I don’t try to convince anyone of anything. I get in there myself to manage the situation, knowing that I am likely to hear “oh, but, he’s just playing!” and nothing I can say will convince them otherwise.

Dogs: Relatively easily trained. People: Harder.


MEANWHILE, back on the farm:

Jim and I no longer have lambs (well, our sheep don’t), but I get lots of lamb fun at friends. Here are some lambs at friend Donna’s house. The two on the left belong to mom in the middle, but the little brown one on the right just got nudged away and is calling for momma.

Took awhile, and enough bawling to flirt with FEMA laws about maximally-allowed decibels in a work place, but they finally found each other.

The bird life around our feeders has been a constant joy these last few weeks. The male goldfinches are so bright yellow/gold they looked like they’ve been dyed, and the chickadees are habituating to me so well that I can call them in now if they are anywhere near by. I am rejoicing in them.

And the spring flowers! Grape hyacinths are such a lovely contrast to so many other colors; in this case, the base of the deck Jim built.

And finally, the daffodils I planted over Willie’s grave are still beautiful. Oh, Willie, my Silly-Willie-Billie Boy. Still love you.

May all of our next weeks be full of something to rejoice, to miss, and to love. Love you all, love our village.





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