When to Intervene in Play
Watching dogs play can be a joyful experience, but monitoring play to prevent fights can be stressful. Knowing when to intervene can help make playtime a more positive experience for the dogs, and prevent some fights.
Staff and volunteers will vary as to when they choose to interrupt play, based on how risk-averse they are, their biases and past experiences. Some people are comfortable letting dogs play with few interruptions. Others are more conservative and will interrupt more frequently.
If the methods used to interrupt play are not frightening, startling or uncomfortable (e.g., no shake cans, rock jugs, spray bottles, etc.), there should be little negative emotional or behavioral risk to interrupting play. See How to Intervene During Play Outside of Fights, Consent Test SOP, and Breaking up Fights.
Play time should be interrupted when:
Play signals are decreasing or lacking (see What is Normal Play, and list of play signals below). Examples of decrease in/lack of normal behaviors include:
Play is one-sided, with one dog persistently on top or chasing
Chase becomes “flat” (the gait is not bouncy, body is flattened)
Dogs are interacting with closed mouths & stiff bodies, sometimes with high/stiff tails
2 or more dogs are chasing, pinning, or cornering another dog
A dog is ignoring another dog’s attempts to end play (moving away, growling, snapping, cowering)
Play should also be interrupted any time playgroup supervisors are unsure whether all dogs involved are having fun (see Consent Tests).
The following play signals indicate that dogs are playing. If all dogs are exhibiting these play signals, play does not need to be interrupted. Remember though, the play doesn’t have to have all of these for it to be normal. See What is Normal Play:
Open mouth and relaxed face
The following behaviors are also likely to occur during normal play:
Reciprocal play (taking turns being on top, being chased, etc)
Changing activity or type of play, or momentarily taking a break from interacting with other dogs
Fights should always be interrupted (How to interrupt a fight). Fights are made up of many of the same behaviors as play (growling, snarling, snapping, wrestling), but the play signals listed above are absent.
Some play behaviors cause concern but are not necessarily problematic
(see What is Normal Play?). These include:
Wrestling on Hind Legs
Some dogs rear up on their hind legs when interacting with each other. Provided play signals are present and all dogs are consenting it does not need to be interrupted.
Many people become uncomfortable when dogs are moving quickly in play or wrestling vigorously, but if play signals are present the play is likely normal.
Mounting is sexual behavior that sometimes appears in normal play. It does not need to be interrupted if all dogs are consenting.
Many dogs enjoy body slamming, hip or shoulder checking and the like. If play signals are present and all dogs are consenting it does not need to be interrupted.