Assessing Play Styles
ASSESSING DOGS & THEIR PLAY STYLES
Understanding how individual dogs prefer to play is helpful when selecting which dogs to try together in playgroups. The Dog Play Profile summarizes these play preferences with other dogs:
The “pace” or energy level at which the dog usually plays
The type of play activities the dog seems to prefer
Whether the dog can adjust pace or switch activities to match a playmate’s preferences
How the dog responds if another dog behaves aggressively (e.g. growls, snarls, snaps)
A dog’s play profile is a rough estimation of the dog’s preferences based on observed behavior. Most dogs won’t fall neatly into one category, so when filling out the Dog Play Profile worksheet, select all the options that are appropriate for the dog.
The labels and classifications are meant to be helpful when starting new playgroups. They are not fixed personality traits. Many of the labels depend on the context and the playmate.
DOG'S SEX AND SPAY/NEUTER STATUS
There is some evidence that same-sex dog pairings are more likely to result in aggression. When possible, starting with opposite-sex pairings might be more successful. Some shelters will avoid pairing intact males with intact females, or, since playgroups are always supervised, may opt to monitor interactions between such pairs and interrupt mating.
BODY HANDLING ASSESSMENT FOR CONSENT TESTS
If you use handstands or harness or collar grabs to break up dog fights or to restrain dogs during consent tests (See Consent Test SOP and Methods for Breaking Up Fights), test the dog’s reaction to this kind of handling prior to placing the dog in a playgroup. Some dogs might react negatively.
During this assessment, start with less invasive versions of these restraints (e.g. touch the collar, touch the hips) for safety.
Regardless of the reaction, follow every handling test with treats. This will increase the chance that the dog will form a positive association with that type of handling. If you are concerned about a negative response to handling, you can use kevlar gloves during the assessment. Note that kevlar gloves may affect the dog's reaction to being touched.
If the dog shows no negative response to the least invasive handling test, test the full collar or harness grab or handstand, and note any problems on the Dog Play Profile.
There are several dog introduction methods to select from. The introduction method you use will depend on your shelter’s policies, and the individual dogs in question. For some dogs you might attempt multiple introduction methods before you find the one(s) that result in the most successful introductions for that dog.
PACE OF PLAY
Pace of play refers to how quickly the dogs are moving in play:
“Fast-paced” players are dogs who engage in high-speed games of chase and/or vigorous wrestling and other games.
“Slow-paced” players may prefer to play lying down, or chase each other at a leisurely jog.
Many dogs will fall between the two extremes and might be able to play with either fast- or slow-paced dogs.
Chase: Some dogs prefer to chase or be chased as their primary play activity.
Wrestle: Some dogs prefer physical-contact play (jumping on each other, pinning) as their primary play activity.
Toy play: Many dogs like to play with a toy with other dogs, including games of tug.
CAN THE DOG ADJUST TO PLAYMATES?
Some dogs adjust play pace and activities based on their playmates’ preferences. They can play happily with a fast-paced player, and then adjust to meet the energy level of a slow-paced player. To identify these dogs you will need to gather information with each dog interacting with a variety of other dogs.
RESPONDING TO AGGRESSION
Dogs tend to respond in one of two ways when another dog growls or snaps at them, although most dogs likely do both at least some of the time. A dog’s response can depend on many factors including recent experience, and familiarity, size, or sex of the other dog. Note any such pattern on the Dog Play Profile.
Retreat: Moving or turning away or rolling over in response to aggression from another dog
Fight back: Growling, snarling, or snapping in response to the same behavior from another dog.
If a dog shows fearful body language around other dogs (tucked tail, ears back, cowering, avoidance), special care is needed in selecting playmates. (see Dog Play Profile)
After introducing dogs and evaluating their play style and best methods for introducing the dog to play groups, fill out related documents. Note that, while access to other dogs fulfills a basic social need for many dogs, not all dogs enjoy playing with or being around other dogs.
Next: See Making Playgroup Matches