Dogs Need Play: Playing is important factor to maintain Pet behavior

So much of how a dog’s personality develops is based on their experiences with other dogs. This is not an unknown fact for the majority of dog owners. So why then are so many owners, experienced and inexperienced, reluctant at best to let their dogs play with other dogs?

The play is essential to a happy, healthy dog. From the time a pup is born to the day a senior dog has trouble climbing up the stairs, play PLAYS a major role in a dog’s life. Of all things that make and define a dog, play, in my opinion, could be number one.  No other thing is more “dog” than the way dogs play. Play teaches dogs how to communicate. Dog play builds appropriate dog language.

The play is so important to a dog’s well-being that is may just the be the biggest factor in how a puppy forms it’s personality, in a good way or a bad way. Puppies play with their littermates as soon as they begin walking around and they start pestering their mothers for play whenever a sibling isn’t filling the need.  Singleton pups are known to have behavioral issues from the day they are born– one of the main reasons for this is because they do not have siblings to interact with. No playing while in infancy. Their personality development hits a huge roadblock from day one.

Play and proper socialization of dogs go hand-in-hand. Through play with other dogs, dogs develop confidence and body awareness, obtain both mental and physical exercise, and most importantly,  learn bite inhibition and canine communication. Without experiences through play, puppies are essentially deprived of language. They do not understand how to read another dog’s signals telling them to slow down, they do not understand that biting can be painful when done with a certain amount of pressure, they do not listen to a low growl telling them to back off, on and on. When not allowed to play, dogs are much like people who have been extremely isolated throughout childhood. They have no experience and do not know how to live in the society without a lot of guidance. Otherwise, they would find themselves in trouble.

Dogs that have not been allowed to play and interact with other dogs show obvious signs. Typically, when around other dogs they really act quite awkward, tend to get over-aroused quickly and show signs of fear-based aggression. These dogs remind me of a friend I knew in school. This girl was never allowed to watch movies that may have had some violence in them, wasn’t allowed to play with dolls that appeared “risque” (so basically all Barbies) and never allowed to try the unhealthy food. In a word, she was very sheltered. So, no surprise that in middle school when my friends and this girl had a sleepover, she gorged herself on candy, soda and pizza, was totally obsessed with watching every single scary movie in the house, swore like a sailor and then got into a nasty physical fight with another friend. The next day she was physically ill from all the junk food and extremely paranoid about the amount of trouble she was going to be in if her parents found out, not to mention she lost quite a few friends. But, she just didn’t understand. She didn’t know how to interact and how to deal with things new to her. She was, well, socially inept.

Often time owners really don’t understand what they see during dog play, they just do not want to admit it for whatever reason. They do not understand that some growls and teeth flashing may be appropriate and needed. They do not know that pauses in play are signs of healthy play between dogs and for dogs just meeting, pauses (NOT freezes- those are different) in interactions are essential to keep things happy and progressing smoothly. Owners get upset when their dog growls at another doggie and they respond by scolding and removing their pooch. All the while, their dog was actually just communicating appropriately and insisting, appropriately, that their playmate was pushing their buttons.  And that is OK! Owners think a dog that paws their own dog and may push them over is an asshole but, in actuality, it most often is just one dog not knowing how to interact with a younger or smaller dog, or, different play styles taking effect. And even if that dog was being an asshole a bit, why such a big deal?! As long as it isn’t intensifying, it is probably nothing more than one dog taking advantage and being a little jerk because they can.  We all have to deal with assholes and jerks sometimes, don’t we? If you were never taught to turn the other cheek then you yourself would end up being an asshole and over-reacting about everything. Do we despise the drunk guy in the bar that gets pissed about anything and everything and tries to start a fight with everyone, right? What about the woman that can’t take a joke and takes offense to everything? Yep, annoying, ugh! Well, it is no different in dogs. They too have to learn to deal with that kind of assholes. Your best action in these cases is to teach your dog to get over it and move on (if they are not doing that on their own). Otherwise, you sound like that one mom we all know that thinks her kid is too good to play with all the other kids and picks friends for the child. Yuck.

I always find it funny, and admittedly annoying, that owners get upset when I tell them they need to allow their dogs to “speak their minds” and “tell another dog off” when necessary (and appropriate). These owners seem to think those are bad dog behaviors when in reality, those are often behaviors that prevent a dog from getting hurt and/or bullied. It doesn’t matter what kind of dog it is or what it’s purpose, ALL dogs need to be able to communicate. Body language in dogs consisting of appropriate growls, a show of a few teeth, head turned away, moving away, hackles raised (etc.), are frequently exhibited to PREVENT escalation of behaviors and hence, prevent fights. Yelling at your dog for growling when a pup jumps on top of them out of nowhere does nothing but tell your dog they can’t protect themselves when needed. Often times, when owners scolded their dogs for expressing their feelings their dog may end up reacting in actual aggressive ways or, redirecting angst to someone/something else which can then turn to redirected aggression when not addressed.

If you don’t know when the play is becoming naughty or too much, then just move your dog away. No big deal.  You don’t have to be a pretentious asshole. Just. Walk. Away. Not every dog is going to like every other dog (just like we don’t like every person) and so they are not going to play with just any dog they meet. That is also OK. Play styles don’t always mesh and communication just might not be great between them. You may find your dog is really picky about their friends. No worries. At some point, they will most likely find a buddy that plays well with them. You will never know though if you never try.

And just because the friendly stranger on the street with the friendly dog doesn’t “know better” doesn’t mean you should scoff at their willingness to allow play with their dog. Dogs are dogs. So let them be. They like to play. Of course be safe about it, but for goodness sake, let them play.

Of course, this leads to how you decide if play styles work well together AND how to let new dogs meet. That will be in my next post….