Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who
partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Good dog play involves dogs who are having fun and look forward to the
interaction. Learn how dogs use signals to emphasize their intent to do no
The Ingredients for Healthy, Normal Play in Dogs
First off, what is play and what constitutes “good play” behavior in dogs?
Many animals exhibit play behavior and elements of play behavior. The
rehearsal of such play behaviors in dogs is and will be extremely useful and
necessary for the health and success of their future social interactions.
Just as children practice games that mimic chores observed in adults (cooking,
playing doctor), puppies and dogs often play in ways that include the
enactment of hunting moves such as stalking, chasing and pouncing.
On top of hunting moves, dogs may also borrow behaviors from other facets of
life, and therefore, you may see elements of fighting behaviors, fleeing
behaviors and even courtship behaviors in the mix of a dog’s play behavior
With all these often “serious” behaviors added into the mix, one may wonder
how in the world do dogs not end up fighting all the time, considering the
potentially antagonistic and easy-to-misinterpret nature of growling,
snarling, jaw-sparring, biting, body slamming, pinning down and mounting?
It turns out, dogs with good social skills incorporate several elements that
are meant to be easily read and interpreted by the dogs they play with. Below,
you will find information about the several signs of healthy, normal play
behavior in dogs and their interesting purposes including:
- How dogs use meta-signals to emphasize their intent to do no harm during play.
- Examples of role reversals in dog play and how dogs implement them.
- The cute strategy skilled larger social dogs use to play with smaller dogs.
- How pauses during play help dogs recharge their “batteries” during play.
- A little “test” that can help determine whether both parties are having fun.
- Signs of potential inappropriate play.
- The dirty little secrets behind the making of dogs with not-so-good play skills and the importance of early socialization.
Dog inviting other dog to play using a play bow.
1. Meta-Signals: Communication About Communication
Good dog play involves dogs who are having fun and look forward to the
interaction. In order to emphasize amicable interactions, dogs utilize what is
known as meta-communication —simply a form of communication that implies
non-threatening behaviors. This term was often utilized by anthropologist
Gregory Bateson, who referred to it as “communication about communication.”
Dogs with good social skills use meta-communication during play to send the
message that, what they are doing, no matter how rough or antagonistic it may
seem, is not to be taken seriously. I like to compare this form of
communication to our use of quotation marks to signal irony or sarcasm.
For example, one person may say: Yes, I remember Mrs. Sally. She was the
“meanest” teacher on earth. In this case, all folks familiar with the use of
irony punctuation or the use of irony emphasization in spoken language, know
that the quotation marks (or emphasis when saying “meanest”) in this
particular context indicate that the word “meanest” should be interpreted at a
second level (in this case, to remind that Mrs. Sally was the sweetest teacher
on earth and she had no mean bone in her body,)
Of course, dogs can’t talk, so they’ll rely on body language to give out what
is referred to as “meta-signals”—important signals used for metacommunication.
The most popular meta-signal used in dogs is the partial or full play bow,
which informs dogs: “this is just play, anything that follows is not to be
taken seriously.” Other signals denoting an intent to play include play faces
(wild eye, grinning expressions, play faces with open mouths) deceiving
movements, play sneezes, and overall, bouncy body language with rocking-chair
Did you know? Ian Dunbar uses the term “atmosphere cues “ to denote all
those subtle and less subtle gestures (e.g., paw lifts before chasing,
growling and biting, all with intent to play) meant to signal a change in the
meaning of everything that follows. He uses the term atmosphere because of the
“atmosphere” that they are set in.
These dogs are taking turns being pinned to the ground.
2. Role Reversals: The Joy of Taking Turns
On top of the use of meta-signals, good dog play also encompasses several fun
role reversals. What are role reversals in dog play and how are they carried
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Role reversals, as the name implies, involve dogs taking turns taking
different roles. For example, the playful chaser shifts soon into being the
one chased, the playful biter shifts into the one being bitten, dogs on top
end up being on the bottom, and so forth.
But what is the purpose of role reversal in dog play? Role reversals in dog
play apparently are just another way to further prove the non-antagonistic
function of play.
Play is fair game, where there are no winners or losers, each player this way
gets “a taste” of several different roles that provide different emotions with
the result of no hard feelings among the dogs.
Normal play has no winners or losers, so it often includes equalizers, like
role reversals and self-handicapping. Role reversals occur when the winner
of the game switches roles.
— Lisa Radosta, veterinary behaviorist
Notice how gently this dog is mouthing the smaller dog.
3. Self-Handicapping: Matching for Equality
In order for dogs not to injure themselves during play causing physical or
emotional scars, they must, to a great extent, inhibit/restrain themselves.
They often do this through bite inhibition and control of their speed and
On top of this, when there are inequalities among the playing parties such as
one dog being larger, stronger, and healthier, dogs must fine-tune their
playing styles and make several adjustments so as not to hurt a playmate that
is disadvantaged in some way. The technical term for such inhibition is “self-
This is often an endearing trait that many dog owners witness when their large
dogs play with smaller dogs or puppies. You might see these large dogs put
themselves in disadvantageous positions or situations such as lowering their
body or staying in a vulnerable belly-up or they may tug more gently when
playing with a dog that’s half their size.
Again, the purpose for this is likely to create equality, but not in a way to
infer that dogs have the cognitive ability to understand a sense of fairness
and equality per se, but more likely because, by engaging in role reversals
and self-handicapping, dogs can show their playful intent without intimidating
the smaller opponent and therefore, this keeps the game going.
Did You Know?
A study has shown that during play among litter mates, male puppies self-
handicapped when playing with females more frequently than females self-
handicapped with males.
These micropauses allow dogs to think about the next move.
4. The Pause That “Refreshes”
As dogs play, you may notice that dogs may take several very brief pauses.
These momentary pauses may range from very brief split seconds to slightly
You may notice the split-second pauses occurring as both dogs look at each
other wild-eyed, with a grinning play face, when performing a play bow or just
prior to taking off running, while the longer pauses occur as one dog shakes
his fur, goes to drink a sip of water or takes a small break sniffing the
The shorter pauses seem to allow dogs a few moments to gain a moment of
“reflection” as they think about their next move before shortly resuming play
again. It’s almost as if their brains come to a temporary halt and start
buffering before going to the next round. The other dog may entice the other
dog to resume play by carrying out a partial play bow or a deceitful move.
The longer pauses, on the other hand, seem to allow both parties to simply
take a breath of fresh air and recharge their strength. When one dog
disengages, it’s a good sign when the other dog pauses as well—albeit just for
a brief time.
In any case, pauses during dog play are good and a sign of healthy, normal dog
play. According to at least one researcher, the intervals between pauses are
typically very short with new acquaintances (lasting only a few seconds) but
become longer as the two dogs become more comfortable with each other.
This smaller pup is “coming back for more.”
5. Coming Back for More Play
Sometimes, dog play may not show the clear-cut signs of healthy, normal play,
and dog owners may wonder whether their dogs are truly having fun or not.
It does happen occasionally that some dogs appear to get stuck in a habit or
pattern of behavior where one dog appears to be often chased or pinned
repeatedly without engaging much in the healthy role reversal discussed a few
paragraphs above. In this case, how can one determine whether this is healthy,
normal dog play?
Sure, the body language of the dog being chased or pinned repeatedly may offer
an insight. Are the ears back? Is the tail between the legs? Is the chased dog
trying to hide? Does she seem uncomfortable when cornered or when the other
dog is in her face? If so, chances are good she isn’t enjoying the
interaction, but sometimes, things aren’t cut and dried as desired, or
perhaps, the dog owner may not be able to interpret body language accurately.
There is one way easy way to find out whether the “victim dog” is feeling
intimidated and not comfortable in a specific play session. All it takes is to
get ahold of the “instigator” for a few seconds and observe the “victims””
Does she seem relieved and try to leave, or is she looking for her playmate
and trying to re-engage him to play? If the latter takes place, most likely
she enjoys this type of play and is just coming back for more.
This German shepherd’s approach may be too overbearing for the pinned dog.
Notice the tension around the mouth, ears back and puckered lips. However,
this is just a moment captured in time and doesn’t necessarily provide the
Caution is needed when several dogs “gang up” against one dog.
Signs of Inappropriate Dog Play
When the above-discussed elements of healthy, normal dog play are low in
proportion, or even absent, there are risks for dog play to become heated up
and intense which may lead to just squabbles or even serious fights.
Inappropriate dog play may lack role reversal and encompass repeated behaviors
(chasing, pinning, body slamming, mounting) with little or no pauses in
between. Dogs on the receiving end may tire and reach a breaking point when
they will attempt to send back-off signals or attempt to disengage, but these
signals may not be read by the instigator, either due to a lack of social
skills or the dog purposely harassing.
Problems during play also arise when dogs become overly aroused during play.
Those monitoring dog play should, therefore, pay attention to signs of trouble
such as more rapid vocalizations, movements that become less bouncy, and a
reduction in self-handicapping. Increased arousal levels may lead to less
inhibited bites, which may cause obvious problems.
Other behaviors to be watchful for also are dogs ganging up against a dog,
grabbing and shaking components, and an increase in the intensity of play.
Remember the phrase “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out”?…This
is equally true of dogs. Many a good dog has ended up in a fight because she
became overly aroused while playing with another dog. “
— Patricia McConnell, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) Emeritus
The Making of a Dog That Engages in Inappropriate Play
When puppies are born, they are pretty helpless in their first days. Born
blind, deaf, and unable to regulate their temperatures, they totally depend on
their mom for nourishment and warmth.
As the puppies open their eyes and become more mobile, they start exploring
the world around them. During this time, puppies learn important life lessons
such as how to inhibit their bite, body language, and how to properly play
with their littermates.
Once puppies are sent to their new homes at around 8 weeks of age, they are
often isolated from other dogs due to concerns over infectious diseases such
as parvo. These pups are therefore often deprived from interacting with other
dogs, up until they have finished their whole vaccination series which can
mean several months.
Then, once the puppy has completed his vaccination series, he is walked on
leash and taken to several places. Because he hasn’t seen other dogs for quite
some time, the sight of other dogs by now has become super salient. It’s
therefore not surprising if the pup is overly excited (and perhaps even
frustrated because he can’t meet all dogs) and the owner is upset by the puppy
being so overly excited and nonresponsive to him.
Should this puppy get to eventually meet another dog, his overexcitement may
cause him to perform rude behaviors such as being in the other dog’s face and
overwhelming the other dog with no savoir-faire which may lead to scuffles.
Now the dog owner is even more concerned, and soon the avoidance route is
taken (the owner walks the dog in areas away from other dogs or at times there
are not many dogs around).
The puppy, therefore, grows into an adolescent dog with little social skills,
and when he is unleashed to a dog park, his over-the-top excitability coupled
with his inappropriate play style and inability to read other dogs’ body
language may lead to issues.
To a good extent, a good part of all of this could have been avoided through
puppy classes run by professionals with an emphasis on providing impeccable
hygiene and proof of vaccinations (one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior
to the first class), to prevent any spread of diseases, and monitored free
play to help refine the pup’s social skills and create positive associations
in the interactions with other dogs.
In hopes of preventing behavior issues as such, the American Veterinary
Society of Animal Behavior has issued a position statement emphasizing the
importance of socializing puppies to different people, well-socialized
animals, situations, places, etc. as much as possible during the critical
socialization window taking place in the first three months of a puppy’s life.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should
be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before
they are fully vaccinated. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are
the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.
- The Pause that Refreshes Play or warming up for a fight how to tell the difference, by Patricia McConnell
- DVM360: “Is my dog playing … or fighting? by Lisa Radosta
- Bekoff, M. & Byers, J.A. 1998. Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, AVSAB Position Statement On Puppy Socialization
- Fight, A Practical Guide to the Treatment of Dog-Dog Aggression, Jean Donaldson
- NBC News: When puppies play, it’s ladies first, By Jennifer Viegas
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and
is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 03, 2020:
We enjoy too watching dogs play, it’s often better than watching TV!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 15, 2019:
Watching dogs play and tussle together is a joy. Just today we witnessed that
in a local dog park. Two large dogs were really going after one another in a
playful way. It brought smiles to our faces. I was there to take some photos
for my website. At the current time, we are without a canine buddy. We only
have a house cat. At one time we owned three dogs at the same time. We saw
much in the way of play between them.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 04, 2018:
Sounds like your dogs had great communicative skills and respected each
others’ “that’s enough” signals. So important to drain that energy to prevent
“over-the-top” play which may lead to squabbles. Happy rest of the week to you
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 30, 2018:
What I’ve seen is that at some point, one will make some sort of noise to let
the other one know, “back off.” Once in a while, one will get too much in the
other’s face and we might have to tell them to take it down a notch. Usually,
that’s enough. In the decades we’ve owned dogs, I can’t even remember having
to intervene in a serious fight. But then we’ve made sure they get enough
exercise to drain their energy so they don’t have to resort to over-rough,
Much needed article for multi-dog households. Happy Weekend!