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Why do dogs play rough, and when is enough, enough?

Social creatures that they are, play is a significant mode of communication for our dogs, and this can manifest in many different types of play; toy oriented, human oriented, gentle pitter patter and energetic rough and tumble alike!

Play fighting in dogs is a natural and beneficial behavior that mimics real fighting, but is performed in a friendly and controlled manner. It is a common way for dogs to interact with each other, particularly during their younger years. Here’s what play fighting entails:

Reciprocal Interaction:

  • Both dogs take turns being the “attacker” and the “defender.”

  • The roles often switch back and forth, ensuring that neither dog is consistently dominant. Inhibited Biting:

  • Dogs use controlled, gentle bites, making sure not to inflict harm.

  • This behaviour helps dogs learn bite inhibition, which is crucial for safe interactions. Play Signals:

  • Play Bows: A common signal where a dog lowers its front legs and keeps its rear end up to indicate a desire to play.

  • Bouncy Movements: Exaggerated, playful motions that are less efficient and more relaxed than those used in actual fighting.

  • Relaxed Facial Expressions: Open mouths, "smiling" expressions, and relaxed eyes indicate playful intentions. Vocalizations:

  • Growling, barking, and other noises are typically softer and higher-pitched than those used in serious fights.

  • Yelps or squeaks might occur if a dog accidentally bites too hard, prompting the other to adjust its behavior. Body Language:

  • Loose, wiggly bodies rather than stiff, tense postures.

  • Wagging tails, often in a loose and fast manner, indicating excitement and pleasure. Self-Handicapping:

  • Stronger or more dominant dogs might intentionally hold back their strength to allow smaller or weaker dogs to participate actively in the play.

Play fighting is a totally natural inclination in our dogs, and they engage in rough and tumble for several important social, developmental, emotional reasons.

Social Bonding: Play fighting helps dogs strengthen social bonds with each other and equally with their human companions. Through these interactions, dogs develop trust and mutual understanding, which are essential for maintaining strong social relationships.

Learning Social Cues: Puppies and young dogs learn important social cues and behaviors during play fighting. They learn how to communicate effectively with other dogs, understand boundaries, and practice proper social etiquette. This helps them navigate social interactions throughout their lives.

Physical Exercise: Play fighting provides dogs with much-needed physical exercise. It helps them burn off energy, maintain physical fitness, and stay healthy.

Mental Stimulation: Engaging in play fighting offers mental stimulation for dogs. It challenges their problem-solving skills and keeps their minds active, reducing the likelihood of boredom-related behaviors like chewing or digging.

Practicing Survival Skills: In the wild, play fighting helps young animals practice and hone survival skills such as hunting, fighting, and defending themselves. Domestic dogs retain these instinctual behaviors, and play fighting allows them to practice these skills in a safe environment.

Releasing Stress and Anxiety: Play fighting can serve as an outlet for releasing pent-up energy, stress, or anxiety. It allows dogs to blow off steam and return to a calm state afterward.

Hierarchical Understanding: Through play fighting, dogs can establish and understand their place within the social hierarchy. They learn how to assert themselves appropriately and recognize when to submit to more dominant dogs, which helps maintain harmony within a group.

Monitoring Play Fighting:

While play fighting is generally healthy and beneficial, it’s important to monitor it to ensure it remains safe. Signs that play fighting might be getting too rough include:

One-Sided Play: Play should be mutual and reciprocal. If one dog seems to be consistently dominant or one dog is trying to escape or avoid the play, it’s a sign that the play might be too rough or one-sided.

Excessive Barking or Yelping: While some barking is normal during play, excessive barking, yelping, or crying out can indicate that a dog is feeling uneasy.

Pinned or Cornered Dog: If one dog consistently pins another dog down or corners them without allowing escape, it may be a sign that the play has become too intense.

Body Language Cues:

  • Stiff Bodies: If the dogs' bodies become stiff and tense, it can signal that they are no longer playing.

  • Raised Hackles: Raised hackles (the hair along the back standing up) can indicate heightened arousal or potential aggression.

  • Showing Teeth or Hard Stares: Dogs showing teeth, giving hard stares, or other threatening postures are indicating that the play has turned serious.

  1. Reluctance to Re-Engage: If a dog repeatedly disengages from play and tries to avoid further interaction, it might mean they are feeling overwhelmed by the roughness.

  2. Owner Interventions: If you frequently need to intervene to separate the dogs, it suggests that their play might be too rough and potentially problematic.

To manage and mitigate rough play, you can:

  • Supervise Play: Always keep an eye on dogs during playtime, especially if they are not familiar with each other.

  • Teach Breaks: Encourage breaks during play to prevent overstimulation, interrupt play and allow the dogs to calm down.

  • Separate if Necessary: If play gets too rough, calmly separate the dogs and give them time to cool down.

  • Socialization Training: Ensure your dogs are well-socialized and understand how to play appropriately with other dogs. Your dog can learn all the essential ropes of the canine social sphere in Daycare at K9 Anytime.

  • Match Playmates: Try to pair dogs with similar play styles and energy levels to ensure the play remains enjoyable for both parties.

Ask the team at K9 Anytime about any behaviours your dog is displaying that you'd like advice on or help with. Ensure your dog is properly socialised by keeping up with their essential weekly attendance in daycare and watch them flourish into well balanced, rounded and highly capable dogs!


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