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02 May 2010

Play or Warming Up for a Fight

This is one of many dog ownership tips I'd like to share with you under the name 'Paws for Thought' written by a friend at work, posted here with her permission. Please note that these posts are written by a dog lover learning more every day and happy to share. They are intended to give you options and ideas to think about. They do not replace the help of a professional (such as a vet, behaviourist, trainer or lawyer). Posts can be shared with others as long as you make sure that any references contained within the post remain with the post and please do not take chunks out of context. Preference is definitely for the whole post to be shared rather than pieces.

Patricia B. McConnell has written an article called 'The Pause That Refreshes.  Play or Warming Up for a Fight - How to Tell the Difference' in the Nov 09-Jan 10 Edition of 'The Bark.  Dog is my Co-Pilot'  magazine.  I thought I'd share some of the things she has to say. If you want to read the full article then this edition is out in some newsagents right now for around $10.

About play

* In play you see many behaviours that replicatee those seen in fights - and many people find this really concerning.

* Scientists are having a hard time defining 'play' because it contains so many components of fighting, predation and reproduction and that doesn't leave much to distinguish play from these other activities.

* One scientist, Mark Bekoff defines play as 'all motor activity that appear purposeless, with motor patterns from other contexts modified and altered..' 

* There are however observable behaviours that distinguish healthy play from impending trouble.

What do you generally see in play?

* Behaviours often exaggerated (think of pups leaping and pouncing).

* Stopping and starting rather than continuing on with a behaviour (shaking a toy as though killing it but then not going on to eat it - hopefully).

* Lateral (sideways) direction of movement rather than forward.

* A tremendous amount of 'self handicapping'.

This is perhaps the most critical aspect of healthy play and it occurs when a stronger or faster dog adjusts their play to a lower level so that they don't use their full strength against the other dog (or child or human). Think of the large dog lying down (or even on their side) to play with a puppy or smaller dog.  Self handicapping is vital if you have teeth - imagine what would happen if dogs played with the full strength of their teeth and jaws (then again don't).

Self handicapping takes a certain amount of maturity.  For young pups and the inexperienced (and of course teenagers) the excitement and release of rules of behaviour in play can quickly cause the level of arousal (excitement) to scale up quickly and this is what often leads to danger.

* The next time you're watching two dogs play (it's easier with just two) keep an eye out (or video and rewatch) for the following:

- How many times were 'bites' delivered using a soft mouth?

- How many times did the bigger or stronger dog lie down and let the smaller one jump on them?

- I would add: How many times did roles swap?  (ie the dogs take turns being chased or rolling or whatever)

* What you want to watch for is for when self-handicapping starts to break down (often due to level of arousal).

How do you tell when things are heading towards a fight or aggression?

* The key question you should be asking is not 'Is this bothering me? ' but rather 'Is this bothering either of the dogs?'

* Watch the dogs and consider:

- Was that last 'play bite' a bit too hard or too long?

- Did the bigger dog body slam the other in a way that hurt or might cause injury?

- Do they keep willingly engaging with each other or is one dog looking for an out (tree to hide behind, exit from the space etc)?

- Do you see lots of 'play bows' (these behaviours are thought to mean that everything that follows is just in fun and not to be taken seriously)?

- Do you see lots of time outs where both dogs stop moving? Something like move, stop, move, stop, move with the pauses lasting only seconds when dog's first meet and then becoming longer as they become more comfortable.

- Are the dog's vocalisations changing - becoming rapid, higher or lower?

- Are their actions becoming more intense, jerkier and less self-handicapped?

My advice would be:

* Interrupt any play session (between dogs or people) regularly to check that everyone is still under control.  You can do this by asking your dog to do something like sit or come to you. If they comply then they are still showing self control and should be immediately released back to play (which in itself becomes a major reward for listening to you and doing what you ask).  Interrupt quite quickly and before things escalate to start with and then as you get to know the level of your dog's arousal and how much self control they have you can extend the time. 

* If at any stage you get that feeling in the gut, uneasy sense or the hair on the back of your head stands up act immediately and remove your dog from the situation.  Reassess what was happening and next time cut it off before this level.

More posts on play and body language will follow throughout the year.

For more information on Patricia McConnell, her books and advice on dog behaviour and training check out and

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