Nothing gets a tail wagging like a romp with your best pal! There are many reasons why we should encourage our sociable Shibas and gregarious Greyhounds to play. Playing builds social bonds with other dogs and reduces anxiety during tense situations. It also teaches dogs how to deal with unexpected events, because play is messy, unpredictable and hectic! More obviously, play is physically great for your dog: it helps develop joints, muscles, tendons and bone strength as your hound swivels and swerves around his or her fur pals. Dog play is also serious cardio!
Most importantly though, as canine behaviourist Marc Bekoff says, “Dogs just want to have fun”. Play is tail-wagging, drool-inducing, pant-provoking pleasure! In his book Canine Confidential, Bekoff writes: “Play is an activity that dogs love almost above everything else, during which time rapidly melts away. For many dogs there simply isn’t enough time to play.” That’s why it's our job as pawrents to give our pups that time, and nurture safe, consensual playtime with pals.
Not All Dogs Want To Play
Note that Bekoff writes “For many dogs”. Before we dive into the logistics of dog play, remember that not all dogs are extroverts: your hound might be more of a people person, preferring the company of his or her human pack, and that’s pawsome! We should never put our dog in a situation they’re uncomfortable with, so if your pup is fearful of or uninterested in potential playmates, don’t force it. They may have had a traumatic experience in the past, or want to meet new friends slowly, on their own terms. Some dogs only want to play with dogs they already know. Your dog can also play by themselves, chasing his or her tail, roughing up a favourite toy, or madly sprinting about the house or garden during ‘zoomies’!
Rough Play Is Okay
If your hound is the outgoing type, playing with other dogs is a great way to burn off energy and build social skills. Prioritise walks where he or she can be let off the leash to run with their pack and engage in a bit of rough ‘n’ tumble. While dog play can sometimes look a bit scary to us humans, dogs have clear rules and boundaries they abide by to make sure nobody gets hurt.
Firstly, play is always voluntary: a dog can quit whenever they want and their pals will respect that. Secondly, dogs practice something called ‘self-handicapping’. This means that although they mimic actions used in ‘aggressive’ activities like fighting, hunting or mating, they tone it down a notch during play. In fact, even when dogs bite one another as part of the game, they hold back to ensure nobody actually gets injured. That’s why a Chihuahua can play safely with an Alsatian and your King Charles Cavalier can frolic comfortably with their Staffie friends, despite the obvious differences in size and power. In fact, often the bigger, stronger dog will ‘role reverse’, rolling over on their back during play in a way they would never do in a real fight.
In her excellent book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, Zazie Todd lists three signs that will tell you (and, more importantly, tell other dogs) that your pup wants to play. Firstly, their mouth will fall open in a happy, excited gesture called ‘play face’, ears pricked forward and eye contact engaged (nothing like the ears pinned back, avoidance face of fear that we explored in this post). They’ll also demonstrate an excited, bouncy gait, eager to get involved with the game. Finally, they’ll crouch down on their forearms, bum in the air, tail wagging: the famous ‘play bow’! The play bow not only functions as an invitation to ‘play with me!’ (your dog might bow to you too) but also as a signal to start playing again after a pause in the game. Other play signals include face pawing, running up to another dog then quickly running away again, faking in one direction but going in the other, or running full pelt at a potential playmate! Can you imagine if us pawrents socialised this way?
Puppy Play Is All-Important
If you’re able, it’s vital to encourage your puppy to play between 3-12 weeks of age. This is because, by socialising your pup early, you can make sure that they understand the canine code and develop healthy friendships with other dogs. By playing with littermates and doggy pals, puppies learn to bite without causing actual harm (called ‘bite inhibition’). Anybody who’s experienced a nip from a needle-toothed puppy will understand why this is so important! When a puppy bites another dog too hard, play will stop, teaching them not to do it again. Puppyhood and adolescence is also the time your pup will most want to play: after they reach three years of age, your dog is likely to be a little less excitable and fussier about who they play with!
Dogs Don’t Just Play With Other Dogs…
Making time to play with your dog is hugely important, for all the same reasons above. It reinforces your bond, helps train recall and commands like ‘drop’ or ‘leave’, and most of all: it’s fun! Whether you and your pup like to play fetch, tug of war, or just chase each other round the garden, active games are a great way to keep your dog mentally stimulated and physically active and healthy.
Dog play is a wonderfully positive thing physically and mentally, and pawrents will know that there’s nothing more rewarding than watching your pup let loose with their pals. What’s more, we can learn a lot about dogs just by watching them play. Spend an hour watching dogs rolling, bowing, tumbling and running with each other on the beach or in the park, and it’s clear that our four-legged friends have a sense of empathy, cooperation and fairness. And that they know how to have a really good time!