Canine Play Secrets - Be Better At Playing With Your Dog

Jan 11 / Jay Gurden/Sally Gutteridge
Play is magic and an amazing boost to mood and relationship but how often do you play with your dog? Let’s take a closer look at canine playtime. 
Play between often occurs for the sake of the game, it’s fun, it’s an opportunity to learn and build relationships. 

Watching happy dogs playing is a wonderful thing. Every movement and every part of their bodies are a pure expression of joy and the enjoyment of life. How dogs play is often a modified and restricted version of hunting behaviours. They chase each other, mouth and bite (although the bite is inhibited), pin each other and roll over on the ground, pounce and wrestle with each other.

Play is important for puppies. In learning about how dogs play when still with their mother and littermates, they develop important motor skills and communication skills. At this young age, they begin to learn about the rules of canine play. This is when the development of bite inhibition starts, as the puppy learns to control the strength of their bite. If they play too roughly, their mother or the other puppies in the litter will break off the play session and may rebuke the puppy.

As they grow, puppies continue learning how dogs play from other dogs around them, both peers of a similar age and older dogs. This is why it is important to make sure puppies meet socially competent dogs of different ages during their socialisation period and continue meeting dogs to avoid forgetting any of the lessons throughout their lives.

Signs to look for in how dogs play to ensure that it is good play include:

Equal (Or Happily Unequal) Play

The dogs take turns to win or lose. Or if one loses more, they don’t mind.

Natural Play Breaks

Regular timeouts to relieve any growing tension. 

Happy Play Faces

A relaxed and happy facial expression like this one shows a happy dog. 

Observation Is Empowerment

Observing dogs empowers us and gives us the opportunity to really understand how they feel. Here's what you might see when you watch two dogs playing: 

  • Plenty of give and take. The dogs take turns to win or lose. Or if one loses more, they don’t mind. In the past it was considered that dog’s play by a rule of 50:50 meaning that play is entirely even between two individuals. It has since been explored in more detail. We can now assume that play between two individuals is as unique as the dogs themselves. Some may ‘win’ the game more frequently than others as a matter of course. 

  • Frequent breaks in play – for natural timeouts and to relieve any growing tension. 

  • In these breaks, dogs may often show ‘displacement’ behaviours, normal dog behaviours that look out of place such as stopping play for a quick sniff or scratch. If the dogs then go back into playing happily, the break is to check that everyone is still happy enjoying the play.

  • Behaviours like play bows. Although the bow is not always inviting play, when used in the context of happy dogs playing well together, the play bow is a signal to the others involved that what is coming next is intended as play, with no serious intention or aggression.

It is important that we use careful observation and intervene if the situation stops being fun for any of the dogs. Although due to how dogs play the play can look quite intense, overly rough play should not be permitted. Watch the play carefully. If one dog is always playing the aggressor and another dog is trying to get away, whimpering or yelping, or giving constant appeasement signals, then it is not good play, and we should intervene to remove the overwhelmed and worried dog to safety.

Playing With Your Dog

When we play with our dogs (as a completely different species), the role is similar, we treat it like a dance and follow the rules of fair play whilst also maintaining our dog’s confidence and growing their desire to engage with us, which will spill over into all areas of our life together.  

Engagement is a vital part of your relationship with your dog and it’s something that works perfectly to build your bond, to keep your dog’s focus and add glue to your relationship through the tougher times. 

A dog who is engaged with us will be less likely to run away or respond to distractions because they are focussed and already having fun with their human. To achieve engagement, we simply need to work out what motivates the dog then use it with wisdom. Motivation is always decided by the dog, some love scattered food whilst others love a tug toy. 

Watch your dog as you try a few different attempts to make them happier by introducing something to your interactions for example: 

  • A bit of nice food, 
  • A special toy,
  • Changes in the tone of your voice, 
  • Physical touch, such as scratching or stroking.

All dogs prefer some things more than others and by testing with different types of reward you will be able to see which your dog likes most and use it for play and engagement. 

You and your dog become one through your relationship. Try to consider that the single entity you become has a bank of trust and investment within it. Each time you become engaged with your dog, something is added to that bank and each time you become disengaged or disenchanted with your dog, something is taken away. The unity that is you and your dog sharing a life together changes on a daily basis. Your balance as a single entity changes based on your mood, your dog’s mood, your single and mutual wellness or the experiences you have, whether together or separately. 

Most Dogs Like Food Rewards

Many Dogs Love A Special Toy 

Some Working Breeds Are Naturally Motivated

The more you engage with your dog through bonding activities, such as play, the more stable your bank of trust and investment in your relationship is. Simply put, the closer you are during peace times the more belief your dog will have in you when he is scared. That practised engagement is extremely useful when you accidentally stumble upon something distracting on walks. Remember this:  

  • Dogs love interaction with people and crave engagement in a game or coaching session.

  • A dog requesting engagement may bring a toy, bark to ask for interaction or, more rarely, play bow to you. 

  • Engagement is one of the most important things in a successful relationship

  • The body language of an engaged dog will be loose, happy and lean towards play. The dog will be predominantly focussed on you, for the next instalment of whatever they find motivating.

  • If you and your dog are sharing space and having a good time, and it’s powerful secure and enjoyable for the dog, they are likely to be engaged with you and less focussed on the environment around them. When you play together, you own the space around you.

So, by learning to play at home and practising your dog’s preferences, you will have a much more effective toolkit to grow and use when your dog experiences distractions and things that would normally call his attention away from you. 

If you would like to learn more on how to play with your dog in a way they truly understand - check out our Discounted Canine Play 5 Workshop Bundle.

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The Dog Rescuers Guide

Designed to raise awareness and knowledge on the understanding of dogs. It’s suitable for anyone that is considering bringing a dog into their home and their family.