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What is Normal Play?

Dog-dog play comes in many varieties.  As a general rule, if all participants are having fun and no one is getting hurt, the play is probably acceptable. However, when managing playgroups it is helpful to be able to recognize when an interaction is play, and when play is starting to break down and might turn into a fight.

Play involves practicing behaviors seen in important real-life scenarios such as courtship, hunting, fleeing, or fighting. Therefore the following behaviors may all be seen in normal dog play:

  • Growling & snarling

  • Snapping & biting

  • Chasing, grabbing

  • Mounting

  • Pinning, wrestling

How do we tell play fighting, play chasing, etc. from actual fighting or more concerning interactions?  If we see the above behaviors, we also want to look for the following signs that the dogs are actually playing and not leading toward a fight:

  • Play bows

  • Bouncy, exaggerated movements

  • Relaxed face with open mouth

  • Self-handicapping (the dog is self-inhibiting by laying down or otherwise clearly not taking advantage of size or strength)

  • Reversing roles (one dog not always the chaser or on top on wrestling - although this pattern can be seen sometimes in consenting play)

  • Activity changes (e.g. shifting between chasing and wrestling. Again some dogs do not shift activities in consenting play)

When the above signals start to decrease and/or disappear from the dogs’ interactions, it may be time to intervene. See When to Intervene in Play for more information on how to recognize when play is becoming something to worry about.

If you’re not sure whether both dogs are enjoying the interaction, do a consent test.  See Consent Test SOP.

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