When Do We need To Intervene During Dog Play?

Most dogs reach maturity at around the two year mark. Following this, it is less likely that they will play with dogs that are not already familiar to them. This reservation is likely to extend to people too. Play becomes a less important part of their daily lives. Often, they will still play happily with their “friends”. some dogs, will not have any desire to play with other dogs at all. Dogs that are rescued, are often limited in their social exposure and may never play. For more about puppy development see: The Neuroscience of puppy development. Start before you get him home

From the off-set all play should be monitored and supervised. This will form the way he interacts with other dogs for the rest of his life. Set him up with the right foundations our 7 Day Puppy Survival Guide (owner/enthusiast/professional has all the information you need to set your dog up to succeed, including step by step socialisation video of dog-dog play to show you what to watch out for.

The take home message here, is that, this supervision will allow people to be able to recognise when play is going to go wrong. What are the signs of acceptable, questionable and unacceptable play? When to call your dog and how to set him up to defer to you in any instance. Why “letting them sort it out among themselves” is just the wrong advice.

When organising play dates for your dog, it is best to match the sizes of the dogs appropriately. This is also important, if you are setting up puppy parties. It is imperative to get this right, as (if not done properly) it could give the dog a lasting negative experience which he could carry throughout his life. Puppy parties have to carried out in a controlled setting and monitored. Not a free for all, for puppies to run riot. Never leave your dog unsupervised in a “dog park” (if you attend one).

There are three kinds of dog play:
  • Acceptable
  • Questionable
  • Totally inappropriate
Here’s how to tell them apart:
Acceptable dog play :

You do not need to do anything when this type of play is going on. It is self monitored and balanced. It is reciprocated and there is a give and take aspect. The dogs are having fun. Dogs have relaxed body language and may appear a bit “goofy”. Playing chase is a sharing opportunity, where they may take it in turns. If this is mis-matched and one dog is trying to hide or get away, this type of play needs to be interrupted. Ideally, a dog that is feeling uncomfortable should default to you, to “tell you about it”. This is where a good bond, training and trust are so important with your dog. He should defer to you in any situation that makes him feel uncomfortable. Look to him to see if he is uncomfortable and take the necessary precautions to secure his safety.  If your dog is the chaser, please call him to you. Remember, he should not be off-lead unless you are able to call him away from distractions. Please see:Recall Instructor Course or 7 Day Recall Survival Guide (owner/enthusiast/professional) to find out how to achieve this.  In good play, both dogs are give friendly play gestures, such as bows, turning and bumping hips. They will both stop and rest when things get too rough. The ideal balance is about 50-50 or 60-40.

Please do not under any circumstances “let the dogs sort things out among themselves” this is bad advice and how aggression starts to become the default. You should be the default when anything goes wrong. Your dog should defer to you for help in any situation which is making him feel uncomfortable.

Other signs that a dog is feeling anxious:
  • Dilated pupils
  • Tense ears, held back
  • Rigid shoulders
  • Stiff back
  • Not meeting gaze
  • Nervous scanning
  • Eyes wide open
Some Of Our Posters which are available here:  Essential Training Resource Guide
Dog Bites Never Come Out Of Nowhere:



How People Could Be Causing Reactivity In Their Dogs:

conditioning fear with prong

On-Lead Greetings Are Not Always Bad But They Can Be A Recipe For All Kinds Of Issues:


Steps Of Communication Which If Ignored Can Lead To Problems:


We always set a dog up to succeed. We want to teach him how to be calm in situations, he will not learn to be calm if he is a state of anxiety. This is because his hormone response element (HRE) levels will have increased and this will decrease his potential for learning. HRE stop the transcription factors which are responsible for protein synthesis. This is a key factor in the bodies molecular response to learning.  As a result, in a situation of stress, you are more likely to get automatised behaviour responses, such as the fight or flight. If you want to find out more about the neuroscience of behaviour please see the following on line seminars: Introduction To the Science Of Behaviour (Beginners) Seminar  Or, Introduction To the Neuroscience of Behaviour On-line Seminar

Questionable dog play:

Best to call your dog to you before things go too far (see ladder above). If you are not careful this could lead to fall out. Please watch out for the following:

  • Scuffling, if one dog is always being picked on and there is more than one other dog involved, this should be stopped.
  • Tug with each other. This is fine, but watch out for body stiffening, growling, intense stares, enlarged pupils and intent. It could be a sign of possessive aggression. Best to quietly intervene and remove offending item if safe to do so (always use positive reinforcement to break these kinds of dispute up).
  • Stalking, This is a questionable one, some dogs stalk as part of a play sequence but it is often the first stage of a prey sequence or body slam.
Inappropriate dog play:

Some dogs, especially those from the same household are likely to push the boundaries of play and sometimes this borders on the inappropriate. There is a familiarity factor here. Even in these situations, it is best not to let things escalate because this is where fall out occurs. If you encounter any of these types of play, it is best to call your dog and end the session.

Watch out for:
  • Biting of the neck or other parts of the body. Grabbing.
  •  Barking at the other dog, especially in their faces. If it appears that the dog is “bullying” the other dog into play, then it is best not to let him do this. Puppies often do this. Do not let them, it is dangerous, they could get “told off”
  • General over arousal and escalation of play.
  • Humping, this is done by both sexes, it does not mean sex, it is often a sign of anxiety, it is not an appropriate way to elicit attention in this way, it is more reflective of a narrow repertoire of behaviours to get attention and it can be self soothing. It is not appropriate for your dog to approach others (particularly unfamiliar dogs) in this way, it is likely to end up in a fight. Best to re-direct and soothe the humper!
  • Air snaps. This (as you can see in the ladder) is a way of the dog signalling intent, wanting to increase distance and it is not an actual bite, this is the next stage of the repertoire if the dog is not listened to. Listen to the dog. Why is the dog doing it? What is the context?
  • Standing with his head over the other dogs shoulders. This is provocative, confrontational and rude. This is similar to bullying and you should call you dog immediately in this situation before it escalates.
  • Body slamming. NO WAY. Not appropriate.
  • Putting other dogs on their backs with mouths around the neck of the other dog and holding him to the floor.
  • Dogs forming a gang. This is often attributed to them forming a pack. It is more likely to be a form of emotional contagion especially when a group of familiar dogs “crowd” another dog. This is intimidating and should be stopped. A good recall in this situation is a great way to prevent this from escalating. If you want to find out more about emotional contagion (basic form of empathy) and whether or not dogs show empathy, we discuss the neural mechanisms in this short course. Which covers anatomy, brain systems, evidence and resources: Emotional Contagion & Empathy, The Neural Mechanisms & Evidence In Dog Behaviour
  • Unsupervised play. How is your dog going to understand that he can defer to you, what the boundaries are and that he has a get out clause in any situation which is causing him stress. Please do not let it get to the stage where he is being defensive as a default. This is a problem behaviour. Never let your dog play unsupervised, anywhere.

If you cannot call your dog away from any situation, use a long-lead and practice recall (You must use a harness when using a long-lead), please do not use a flexible lead for training, or, at any other time, they are dangerous and ineffective. Our recall courses show you how to appropriately handle the equipment, set the dog up with the right foundations, proof the training and we cover getting him from the car, to his walk. See: Recall Instructor Course or 7 Day Recall Survival Guide (owner/enthusiast/professional)

When you call your dog away from play, let him calm down before releasing him to play again. If your dog has had a set-too, keep his interactions to a minimum for the remainder of the walk. Or, take him home. Remember it takes around 72 hours for cortisol levels to return to normal after an episode of stress. Please be aware, his triggers can become stacked on top of each other. This might mean, he will be more prone to reacting to things that (usually) only moderately concern him. If he does react and this is not dealt with in the right way, you are likely to get problems develop. You need to give him time to rest, space and quiet. This will help him recover from an ordeal. It is everyone’s responsibility to supervise their dogs to keep play friendly.

If you are not able to call your dog away from play, or are struggling to redirect your dog, you should not have your dog off the lead. If you want to learn how to recall your dog from any distraction please go to: Recall Instructor Course or 7 Day Recall Survival Guide (owner/enthusiast/professional).

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