Home
Camille Ward

Camille Ward, PhD received her doctorate from the University of Michigan, studying cognition and the development of social behavior in dogs. She has lectured widely on dog behavior at scientific and dog-training conferences, and she is the owner of About Dogs LLC, a specialty practice in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Boost Your Dog IQ
Managing expectations about your dog’s behavior makes for a good relationship

We live in a fast-paced, results-oriented society, one in which technology advances at warp speed and solutions to many of our everyday problems are often just a mouse-click away. Our increasingly hectic lifestyles mean that we waste very little time getting our needs met. This is fine if we’re ordering a couch and decide that blue tapestry is more to our liking than vintage brown leather. Chances are good that we’ll get just what we ordered. The same is often true when buying a car, a boat or the latest status toy. For the most part, we get what we want, and we get it without much effort.

Living with inanimate objects is very different from sharing a home with a four-legged best friend, however. Dogs, as we are learning from a wealth of newly published research, display sensitivity, emotion and advanced cognitive skills; they also have an understanding of fairness, and perhaps most importantly, they have the capacity to form intense social relationships with humans, other dogs and even other species. In my 15-plus years of scientifically studying and training dogs as well as treating their life-threatening behavioral problems, I have yet to see a pre-packaged dog, one who comes out of the box perfectly behaved and needing only food, water and a leash. It just doesn’t happen that way. Nor should it.

Relationship Building
When we bring a new dog into our life, we enter into an interpersonal relationship that entails a responsibility on our part. As a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, my goal is to help clients foster relationships based on trust, understanding and friendship.

What does it mean to enter into a relationship with a dog? Among other things, it means that:

  • We see our dogs for who they are, which is based on thousands of years of evolutionary history. Dogs are not furry little people. They have their own heritage. Whenever possible, look at your surroundings through your dog’s eyes. If you were removed from the only world you knew and placed in an unfamiliar environment — like a puppy separated from her littermates or a dog rescued from the streets — chances are you might feel a little unsure, anxious and perhaps even fearful. It’s not unreasonable to expect that our new dog might feel that way, too. In some situations, a careful dose of anthropomorphism can be useful.
  • We cut our new dog some slack. Ike isn’t peeing on the leg of your brandnew baby grand piano because he’s mad at you. Perhaps instead, he’s feeling anxious about being left home alone, or maybe he’s just not fully housetrained yet; even adult rescues often need housetraining help. A new puppy or adult dog should never be given free rein of the house right from the start. It’s a recipe for disaster.
  • We learn to communicate with our dog in a way that she can understand. This is what good dog training is all about. If I were put in a room with a group of Spanish-speaking people, I wouldn’t be able to converse with them because I’ve never learned to speak Spanish. However, I have the ability to learn that language; with some training, people can learn to speak “dog,” too. Trainer Bob Bailey once said that “training is a mechanical skill.” It can be learned and refined with time and practice.

    As an academically trained ethologist, I also believe that a big part of learning how to communicate with our dogs involves developing keen observational skills. Spend some time quietly watching your dog and learning about her personality. Does she take on new tasks with joie de vivre, or does she tend toward a more laid-back, wait-and-see approach? Respecting who your dog is and what she needs to feel safe and understood fosters trust and builds lasting partnerships.

  • We connect with a trainer who understands how animals learn; emphasizes modern, positive-reinforcement– based training methods; and is involved in continuing education. A good trainer focuses on teaching the dog what you want her to do and rewarding desirable behaviors rather than catching the dog doing something wrong and punishing bad behaviors. A growing body of literature suggests that punishment- or dominance-based training methods do more harm than good by creating fear and anxiety in some dogs .* Hea lthy relat ionships — whether between two people or between a person and dog — are built on fairness and respect, not fear.

Expectation Pitfalls
Having realistic expectations for your dog at each stage of her life and training is important to forming and maintaining a healthy bond. Even if you’ve already made a good deal of progress toward your goals, be mindful of the pitfalls. The road to relationship-building is littered with unrealistic expectations. Following are some of the more common.

  • One training class will teach your dog everything she needs to know. A single class is just a warm-up, one that needs to be followed with more classes or in-home training. Dog training builds upon previously learned skills; expectations are gradually raised as the dog becomes increasingly successful at performing the trainer’s requests. Training should be fun for everyone (dog and human). If you’re asking your dog to do something and she’s unable to follow through, you may simply be asking too much of her too soon — she’s not ready for that level, she may be stressed or she may be having a bad day. We humans have bad days, and nothing says our dogs can’t have bad days, too. If this happens, take a break and reassess the training plan. Never take it out on the dog.
  • Once your dog learns a behavior, you never need to reinforce it. I once met a couple walking their rambunctious young Labrador in the woods and asked if they did any training with their “wild child.” The man replied, “Yes, we took her to puppy class, but she forgot everything that she learned.” Just like your own workout program, when it comes to dog training, “use it or lose it” prevails. Don’t blame the dog if she can’t remember something you taught her last year but haven’t practiced since then. u
  • At home with no distractions, your dog comes when called, so she’ll do the same thing at the dog park, even if she’s engaged in a game of chase with her best dog friend. No, she won’t. This simple reality often throws people. I hear things like “Peaches is usually so good about coming, except when she’s at the dog park or there are other dogs around. Then, she doesn’t seem to care.” Training Peaches to come to you (or to reliably perform other behaviors) when there is nothing else interesting nearby is one thing; training her to come when she’s running full-out at the dog park is almost akin to teaching another behavior entirely. You need to train and re-train in each environment in which you expect your dog to perform the behavior.

    In puppy class, I start teaching “come” away from distractions. I let the pups play with one another, then after a minute or two, I put a tasty treat right in front of the dog’s nose and say the dog’s name, followed by the command (“Sasha, come!”) in a happy, upbeat voice while luring the dog a few feet away from her playmate. She gets the treat, and then I release her with an “okay,” which means she can go back and play some more. It’s a proverbial win-win.

    I had an occasion to put this training to use a couple of years ago when my one-year-old Doberman, Jimmy, was visiting a dog park near my house. Two dogs had started fighting, which quickly drew the attention of other dogs nearby. What started out as a fight between two quickly evolved into a fight among many. Nervous, I looked for Jimmy and noticed that he was gearing up to join the fray. My heart pounding in my throat, I tried hard to keep my voice happy as I called “Jimmy, come!” To my surprise, he turned away from the melee and ran full-speed toward me. Phew! That was close!

  • A well-trained dog responds to our directives 100 percent of the time. Nope, that’s not the case. When I tell people this, some are surprised and others are relieved. Dogs are living beings; sometimes they just aren’t going to do what we ask even if they know how to do it. A realistic response rate is roughly 80 percent, and this comes after a good bit of time has been invested in training.
  • All dogs like dog parks. Again, nope. Some people love large parties, and they find meeting and mingling with a group of total strangers exhilarating; for others, the experience is fraught with anxiety. Some of us (yours truly included) prefer small, intimate gatherings with a few close friends. Dogs are the same. Don’t force your dog to go to a dog park or daycare facility if she doesn’t like being there. If you do, you may inadvertently set the stage for future behavioral problems. Special Considerations for Puppies Puppies are like sponges, soaking up information about their world. So it’s important that their guardians learn to communicate with them in a humane and effective way right from the start. Through my business, About Dogs LLC, I offer a special “Puppy Head Start” lesson for clients who are waiting for a well-run group puppy class to start but in the meantime are going crazy because they don’t know how to handle their new pint-sized wrecking ball. Here are a few of the concerns that I often address through Puppy Head Start:
  • Just because your St. Bernard puppy is jumping on the children when they run, biting and mouthing hands, and eating shoes, it doesn’t mean she’s going to grow up to be Cujo. I get frantic calls, sometimes well after office hours, from people who are convinced that they have an aggressive puppy. In some cases they do, but more often than not, they and their families need to learn how to manage a puppy (and how to manage the children around the puppy), provide appropriate outlets for natural behaviors like chewing, and create an environment of predictability and structure in which desirable behaviors produce salient rewards for the new dog. As a result, “good behaviors” are reinforced and become more common.
  • Unfortunately, some dog books foster unrealistic expectations. For example, people might think, “Why isn’t my puppy housetrained in seven days like the book says?” In my experience, there is no set time line for housetraining puppies. Yes, we all want it to go as fast and as smoothly as possible, but it doesn’t always happen that way, even if we are being extra vigilant. It took my Labrador, Marty, whom we brought home at eight weeks, only a month to learn this, but my Doberman puppy, Acorn, was seven months old before she consistently signaled to go outside. And it was entirely my fault. Acorn would play with Marty for hours, having so much fun that she would take a quick potty break on her dog bed before resuming play. Shame on me! I was so caught up in the dogs’ fun that I sometimes forgot I needed to be working on housetraining too. I couldn’t blame Acorn for my own oversight.

    I now have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, Tango. He’s 11 months old, and it’s been six weeks since he’s had an accident in the house; plus, he’s scratching at the back door when he needs to go outside. I think (fingers crossed) that he’s finally housetrained. Smaller dogs often take longer than larger dogs to figure this out, and some breeds can be more challenging than others. But with patience and attention on your part, they can all learn.

  • There is no excuse for getting rough with your puppy or dog. Alpha rolls (forcing a dog on her back), scruff shakes (picking a puppy up by the back of her neck and shaking her) or muzzle grabs (cupping your hand around the dog’s muzzle in an attempt to discourage mouthing) are never acceptable. The only thing they potentially teach your puppy is to be fearful of you, which can pave the way for future aggression.

    Friendships between people are based on realistic expectations of who the other is (and is not), and it’s the same with our dogs. When a new dog enters our life, we can choose to create a deep, lasting friendship with that animal, or to let things drift into irritation and remoteness. The type of relationship we develop depends on our capacity to understand and meet our dog’s needs, based on realistic expectations of what is possible. Relationships are like a dance, and when that dance works, the relationship grows and endures, and enriches our lives in many priceless ways.

*Blackwell, E., et al. 2008. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3 (5): 207–217; Herron, M. E., et al. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117: 47–54.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is Your Dog’s Rough Play Appropriate?
Some like it ruff

We have been videotaping dog-dog play for more than 10 years and, together with our colleagues, have analyzed hundreds of hours of data to test hypotheses about play. We present our results at animal behavior conferences and publish in scientific journals. Here, we focus primarily on dog play that some might consider “inappropriate” or “not safe.”

In the field of animal behavior, researchers often refer to social play as “play fighting” because it includes many of the behaviors seen during real fights. For example, during play, one dog might chase and tackle another, or use a neck bite to force a partner to the ground. Dogs will also hip check or slam, mount, rear up, bite, stand over, sit on, bark, snarl, growl, bare their teeth and do chin-overs (i.e., place the underside of their chin over the neck of their partner). However, despite the overlap in behaviors, some clear differences exist between play fighting and real fighting. When playing, dogs inhibit the force of their bites and sometimes voluntarily give their partner a competitive advantage (self-handicap) by, for example, rolling on their backs or letting themselves be caught during a chase — behaviors that would never happen during real fighting.

In addition to inhibited bites and selfhandicapping, dogs clearly demarcate play by employing signals, such as play bows (i.e., putting the front half of the body on the ground while keeping the rear half up in the air) and exaggerated, bouncy movements. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called play signals meta-communication, meaning communication about communication. Humans employ meta-communication a lot. For example, when teasing a friend, we may smile or use a certain tone of voice to indicate that we’re just kidding. Similarly, dogs play bow to invite play and to convey playful intentions during play. Marc Bekoff, while at the University of Colorado, did a study1 showing that dogs are most likely to play bow just before or immediately after performing an especially assertive behavior, such as a bite accompanied by a head shake. This pattern suggests that playing dogs recognize moments when their behavior can be misinterpreted as serious aggression and compensate by reminding their partner, “I’m still playing.”

By using meta-communication, social beings can step through a looking glass into a world that operates by different rules. Meta-communication allows humans and dogs to pretend — that is, to perform actions that appear to be one thing but actually mean something completely different. To people unfamiliar with the notion that some nonhuman animals have this ability, play that includes archetypal aggressive behaviors, like snarling and growling, can be quite confusing. Close attention to the context, however, can help us differentiate between play aggression and real aggression.

Even though play fighting is very different from real fighting, people often feel the need to intervene. Sometimes it is obvious at the beginning of a bout that two dogs are playing, but once the dogs start growling or their arousal intensifies, observers may no longer be sure that the dogs are still playing. After all, humans instinctively avoid a dog who is snarling or baring his teeth, and it is natural to think that our dogs should do the same. When people interrupt really rowdy play, they assume that they are “playing it safe,” that is, doing no harm. But what if this assumption is mistaken?

Our research shows that for many dogs, play fighting is the primary method used to negotiate new relationships and develop lasting friendships. Although play is fun, it also offers serious opportunities to communicate with another dog. In this sense, play is a kind of language. Thus, when we regularly break up what we consider “inappropriate” play, are we doing our dogs a service, or confusing them by constantly butting into their private conversations? Most importantly, how can we tell the difference?

First, we need to determine whether both dogs are enjoying themselves and want to continue playing. Look at their postures and facial expressions. Their movements may be light, bouncy and exaggerated and they may have relaxed, open mouths (like those on Bark’s Smiling Dog pages). Watch for play signals, which can often be quite subtle — a quick dip or bounce rather than a full-blown play bow. If you’re not certain that a dog really wants to be playing, try briefly holding that dog back. If she presses her body into yours and avoids looking at the other dog, she’s showing relief at the interruption and you should help her avoid the other dog. If she pulls against your grip in an attempt to interact with the other dog, release her. If she runs toward the other dog or directs a play signal in his direction, then she is saying that she wants to keep playing.

An interaction like the one just described is straightforward and easy to read. However, what about instances that may not be so clear-cut? We encourage you to discard any preconceived notions about what dog play should and should not look like — at least for the time being. For example, are traditional “no-no’s” like neck biting, rearing up, body-slamming and repeated pinning by one dog ever okay when two dogs are playing? It all depends on the individual dogs and the kind of relationship they have with one another.

Consider an example of a close canine friendship founded on unorthodox play. When Sage, a one-year-old German Shepherd, first met Sam, a four-monthold Labradoodle, he was very rough with Sam. He would pin Sam with a neck bite every few seconds. No sooner would Sam stand up than Sage would neckbite him and flip him on his back again. At first, we thought that Sage might be too rough for Sam, so we would intervene by holding one or both of them back. However, each time, Sam would try his hardest to get to Sage, despite the inevitable pinning. As Sam grew larger, eventually matching Sage in weight, Sage added body slams and mounting to their play. With the exception of frequent rear-ups (in which they adopted identical roles, facing one another and boxing with their front paws), Sage usually maintained the more assertive role (neck biting, pinning, slamming and so forth). Yet, because Sam was always an enthusiastic partner, we let them continue to play together.

To this day, their play remains asymmetrical; Sage repeatedly brings down Sam with neck bites and continues to bite Sam’s neck once he is down. Sam wriggles on the ground and flails at Sage with his legs while Sage, growling loudly, keeps biting Sam’s neck. More than once, bystanders have thought the dogs were fighting for real, but Sage’s neck bites never harm Sam, and Sam never stops smiling, even when he’s down. Sometimes, when Sage is done playing but Sam is not, he’ll approach Sage and offer his neck, as though saying, “Here’s my neck; go ahead and pin me.” This move always succeeds; it’s an offer Sage cannot resist.

With Sage and Sam, allowing play to continue was the right decision. Their early play interactions burgeoned into a lifelong friendship. Even today, the two middle-aged boys will sometimes play together for five hours at a stretch, stopping only occasionally for brief rests. When they are finally done, they often lie together, completely relaxed, with their bodies touching. Their faces are loose and smiling, and they seem almost drunk in an endorphin-induced haze.

This relationship shows that play does not necessarily have to be fair or balanced in order for two dogs to want to play with one another. Years ago, scientists proposed a 50/50 rule: for two individuals to engage in play, they must take turns being in the more assertive role. Scientists thought that if one individual was too rough or forceful (e.g., pinning her partner much more often than she was being pinned), the other dog would not want to play. Until our research, this proposition was never empirically tested.

Over a 10-year period, we studied pair-wise play between adult dogs, between adult dogs and adolescents, and between puppy littermates. Our findings showed that the 50/50 rule simply did not apply. Dogs do not need to take turns being assertive in order for play to take place. However, this doesn’t mean that dogs never role-reverse during play, because they often do2 (e.g., Sage is in the top-dog position most of the time, but sometimes Sam gets to be top dog too). It just means that role reversals usually aren’t equally balanced.

Surprisingly, in some of the relationships we studied, individuals initiated play and preferred to play with others who were consistently assertive with them. For example, in a litter of mixedbreed puppies, one female, Pink, initiated play with a female littermate, Blue, more than twice as often as she initiated play with any of her other littermates (including another sister), even though Blue adopted the assertive role during play 100 percent of the time. Similarly, in our study of adult dogs, when the female German Shepherd, Safi, was playing, she was virtually always in the top-dog role. Despite this imbalance, other dogs sought Safi’s company and often invited her to play.

Sometimes people interrupt these interactions because they fear that rough play will escalate into an allout dogfight. However, in hundreds of hours of observations of play fighting between two dogs with established relationships, we have never witnessed a single escalation to real fighting. One of the authors hosted six to eight neighborhood dogs in her backyard every day for nine years, including two female German Shepherds, a male Husky, a male Husky mix and three mixed-breeds. Their play included all of the traditional “no-no’s” mentioned previously, but no dog ever received so much as a scratch. Other scientists report similar findings. The Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csányi writes, “In some Hungarian animal rescue organizations, more than a hundred dogs … coexist peacefully.3”

Some people have the notion that rough play is practice for real fighting (or even killing). If this were the case, the dogs mentioned in this article did a great deal of practicing for fights that never occurred. Scientists originally hypothesized that animals play fight in order to enhance their combat skills, but recent research doesn’t support this assertion. Although we still do not completely understand why animals engage in social play, research suggests that animals play to help form social bonds, enhance cognitive development, exercise and/or practice coping skills for life’s unexpected situations. All of these benefits, if real, are important to our dogs.

Lately, there has been a lot of attention paid to the question: what is “safe” dog play? Although we recommend carefully monitoring play between dogs who are significantly different in size or age, or who do not know each other well, our studies have shown that dogs are very good at figuring out which dogs they want to play with and how to play well with their friends. Presumably, dogs are better than humans at speaking and understanding dog language. Perhaps it is time to humble ourselves and listen to them.

Safi, a female German Shepherd, and Osa, a male Golden Retriever mix, were best friends for many years. When they played, they snarled a lot, lips curled and teeth exposed. The snarls looked fierce, but they often preceded silly behaviors, like flopping on the ground. Also, when something in the environment suddenly interrupted their play, the dogs’ faces would instantly shift into neutral, alert expressions while they focused on whatever had stolen their attention. Then, as though on cue, Safi and Osa would put their scary faces back on, almost as if they were Halloween masks, and turn toward one another. Their expressions were so exaggerated and obviously fake that they always made us laugh. Some dogs can even be trained to show a snarl on command in a context that is otherwise perfectly friendly. These observations show that dogs can exhibit nasty faces voluntarily, just as we do when we are only pretending to be mean.

Growling, like snarling, is a seemingly aggressive behavior that means something different during play than it does in other contexts. We have often videotaped play between another female Shepherd, Zelda, and a male mixed-breed, Bentley. When watching these tapes, we noticed that, following brief pauses in play, Zelda often stared at Bentley and growled fiercely. Whenever she did this, Bentley leaped toward her and the chase was on. Bentley moved toward rather than away from Zelda because he knew her growl was not real.

This phenomenon was also noted by other researchers, who recorded growls from dogs in three different contexts, including play4. Play growls have different acoustical properties than growls given as threats, and when researchers played the growls back, dogs distinguished between play growls and growls given in agonistic (i.e., conflicting) contexts. If dogs can distinguish between types of growls in the absence of contextual cues (such as another playing dog), surely they know when a play partner’s growl is just pretend.

 

Endnotes
1 M . Bekoff. 1995. Play signals as punctuation: the structure of social play in canids. Behaviour 132(5–6):419–429.

2 E . B. Bauer. 2007. Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour 73:489–499; C . Ward, E . B. Bauer, B. B. S muts. 2008. Partner preferences and asymmetries in social play among domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, littermates. Animal Behaviour 76:1187–1199.

3 V. Csányi. 2000. If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. New York: North Point Press.

4 T . Faragó, P . Pongrácz, F. R ange, Z. Virányi, A. M iklósi. 2010. ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour 79:917–925

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is Your Dog’s Rough Play Appropriate?
Some like it ruff

We have been videotaping dog-dog play for more than 10 years and, together with our colleagues, have analyzed hundreds of hours of data to test hypotheses about play. We present our results at animal behavior conferences and publish in scientific journals. Here, we focus primarily on dog play that some might consider “inappropriate” or “not safe.”

In the field of animal behavior, researchers often refer to social play as “play fighting” because it includes many of the behaviors seen during real fights. For example, during play, one dog might chase and tackle another, or use a neck bite to force a partner to the ground. Dogs will also hip check or slam, mount, rear up, bite, stand over, sit on, bark, snarl, growl, bare their teeth and do chin-overs (i.e., place the underside of their chin over the neck of their partner). However, despite the overlap in behaviors, some clear differences exist between play fighting and real fighting. When playing, dogs inhibit the force of their bites and sometimes voluntarily give their partner a competitive advantage (self-handicap) by, for example, rolling on their backs or letting themselves be caught during a chase — behaviors that would never happen during real fighting.

In addition to inhibited bites and selfhandicapping, dogs clearly demarcate play by employing signals, such as play bows (i.e., putting the front half of the body on the ground while keeping the rear half up in the air) and exaggerated, bouncy movements. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called play signals meta-communication, meaning communication about communication. Humans employ meta-communication a lot. For example, when teasing a friend, we may smile or use a certain tone of voice to indicate that we’re just kidding. Similarly, dogs play bow to invite play and to convey playful intentions during play. Marc Bekoff, while at the University of Colorado, did a study1 showing that dogs are most likely to play bow just before or immediately after performing an especially assertive behavior, such as a bite accompanied by a head shake. This pattern suggests that playing dogs recognize moments when their behavior can be misinterpreted as serious aggression and compensate by reminding their partner, “I’m still playing.”

By using meta-communication, social beings can step through a looking glass into a world that operates by different rules. Meta-communication allows humans and dogs to pretend — that is, to perform actions that appear to be one thing but actually mean something completely different. To people unfamiliar with the notion that some nonhuman animals have this ability, play that includes archetypal aggressive behaviors, like snarling and growling, can be quite confusing. Close attention to the context, however, can help us differentiate between play aggression and real aggression.

Even though play fighting is very different from real fighting, people often feel the need to intervene. Sometimes it is obvious at the beginning of a bout that two dogs are playing, but once the dogs start growling or their arousal intensifies, observers may no longer be sure that the dogs are still playing. After all, humans instinctively avoid a dog who is snarling or baring his teeth, and it is natural to think that our dogs should do the same. When people interrupt really rowdy play, they assume that they are “playing it safe,” that is, doing no harm. But what if this assumption is mistaken?

Our research shows that for many dogs, play fighting is the primary method used to negotiate new relationships and develop lasting friendships. Although play is fun, it also offers serious opportunities to communicate with another dog. In this sense, play is a kind of language. Thus, when we regularly break up what we consider “inappropriate” play, are we doing our dogs a service, or confusing them by constantly butting into their private conversations? Most importantly, how can we tell the difference?

First, we need to determine whether both dogs are enjoying themselves and want to continue playing. Look at their postures and facial expressions. Their movements may be light, bouncy and exaggerated and they may have relaxed, open mouths (like those on Bark’s Smiling Dog pages). Watch for play signals, which can often be quite subtle — a quick dip or bounce rather than a full-blown play bow. If you’re not certain that a dog really wants to be playing, try briefly holding that dog back. If she presses her body into yours and avoids looking at the other dog, she’s showing relief at the interruption and you should help her avoid the other dog. If she pulls against your grip in an attempt to interact with the other dog, release her. If she runs toward the other dog or directs a play signal in his direction, then she is saying that she wants to keep playing.

An interaction like the one just described is straightforward and easy to read. However, what about instances that may not be so clear-cut? We encourage you to discard any preconceived notions about what dog play should and should not look like — at least for the time being. For example, are traditional “no-no’s” like neck biting, rearing up, body-slamming and repeated pinning by one dog ever okay when two dogs are playing? It all depends on the individual dogs and the kind of relationship they have with one another.

Consider an example of a close canine friendship founded on unorthodox play. When Sage, a one-year-old German Shepherd, first met Sam, a four-monthold Labradoodle, he was very rough with Sam. He would pin Sam with a neck bite every few seconds. No sooner would Sam stand up than Sage would neckbite him and flip him on his back again. At first, we thought that Sage might be too rough for Sam, so we would intervene by holding one or both of them back. However, each time, Sam would try his hardest to get to Sage, despite the inevitable pinning. As Sam grew larger, eventually matching Sage in weight, Sage added body slams and mounting to their play. With the exception of frequent rear-ups (in which they adopted identical roles, facing one another and boxing with their front paws), Sage usually maintained the more assertive role (neck biting, pinning, slamming and so forth). Yet, because Sam was always an enthusiastic partner, we let them continue to play together.

To this day, their play remains asymmetrical; Sage repeatedly brings down Sam with neck bites and continues to bite Sam’s neck once he is down. Sam wriggles on the ground and flails at Sage with his legs while Sage, growling loudly, keeps biting Sam’s neck. More than once, bystanders have thought the dogs were fighting for real, but Sage’s neck bites never harm Sam, and Sam never stops smiling, even when he’s down. Sometimes, when Sage is done playing but Sam is not, he’ll approach Sage and offer his neck, as though saying, “Here’s my neck; go ahead and pin me.” This move always succeeds; it’s an offer Sage cannot resist.

With Sage and Sam, allowing play to continue was the right decision. Their early play interactions burgeoned into a lifelong friendship. Even today, the two middle-aged boys will sometimes play together for five hours at a stretch, stopping only occasionally for brief rests. When they are finally done, they often lie together, completely relaxed, with their bodies touching. Their faces are loose and smiling, and they seem almost drunk in an endorphin-induced haze.

This relationship shows that play does not necessarily have to be fair or balanced in order for two dogs to want to play with one another. Years ago, scientists proposed a 50/50 rule: for two individuals to engage in play, they must take turns being in the more assertive role. Scientists thought that if one individual was too rough or forceful (e.g., pinning her partner much more often than she was being pinned), the other dog would not want to play. Until our research, this proposition was never empirically tested.

Over a 10-year period, we studied pair-wise play between adult dogs, between adult dogs and adolescents, and between puppy littermates. Our findings showed that the 50/50 rule simply did not apply. Dogs do not need to take turns being assertive in order for play to take place. However, this doesn’t mean that dogs never role-reverse during play, because they often do2 (e.g., Sage is in the top-dog position most of the time, but sometimes Sam gets to be top dog too). It just means that role reversals usually aren’t equally balanced.

Surprisingly, in some of the relationships we studied, individuals initiated play and preferred to play with others who were consistently assertive with them. For example, in a litter of mixedbreed puppies, one female, Pink, initiated play with a female littermate, Blue, more than twice as often as she initiated play with any of her other littermates (including another sister), even though Blue adopted the assertive role during play 100 percent of the time. Similarly, in our study of adult dogs, when the female German Shepherd, Safi, was playing, she was virtually always in the top-dog role. Despite this imbalance, other dogs sought Safi’s company and often invited her to play.

Sometimes people interrupt these interactions because they fear that rough play will escalate into an allout dogfight. However, in hundreds of hours of observations of play fighting between two dogs with established relationships, we have never witnessed a single escalation to real fighting. One of the authors hosted six to eight neighborhood dogs in her backyard every day for nine years, including two female German Shepherds, a male Husky, a male Husky mix and three mixed-breeds. Their play included all of the traditional “no-no’s” mentioned previously, but no dog ever received so much as a scratch. Other scientists report similar findings. The Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csányi writes, “In some Hungarian animal rescue organizations, more than a hundred dogs … coexist peacefully.3”

Some people have the notion that rough play is practice for real fighting (or even killing). If this were the case, the dogs mentioned in this article did a great deal of practicing for fights that never occurred. Scientists originally hypothesized that animals play fight in order to enhance their combat skills, but recent research doesn’t support this assertion. Although we still do not completely understand why animals engage in social play, research suggests that animals play to help form social bonds, enhance cognitive development, exercise and/or practice coping skills for life’s unexpected situations. All of these benefits, if real, are important to our dogs.

Lately, there has been a lot of attention paid to the question: what is “safe” dog play? Although we recommend carefully monitoring play between dogs who are significantly different in size or age, or who do not know each other well, our studies have shown that dogs are very good at figuring out which dogs they want to play with and how to play well with their friends. Presumably, dogs are better than humans at speaking and understanding dog language. Perhaps it is time to humble ourselves and listen to them.

Safi, a female German Shepherd, and Osa, a male Golden Retriever mix, were best friends for many years. When they played, they snarled a lot, lips curled and teeth exposed. The snarls looked fierce, but they often preceded silly behaviors, like flopping on the ground. Also, when something in the environment suddenly interrupted their play, the dogs’ faces would instantly shift into neutral, alert expressions while they focused on whatever had stolen their attention. Then, as though on cue, Safi and Osa would put their scary faces back on, almost as if they were Halloween masks, and turn toward one another. Their expressions were so exaggerated and obviously fake that they always made us laugh. Some dogs can even be trained to show a snarl on command in a context that is otherwise perfectly friendly. These observations show that dogs can exhibit nasty faces voluntarily, just as we do when we are only pretending to be mean.

Growling, like snarling, is a seemingly aggressive behavior that means something different during play than it does in other contexts. We have often videotaped play between another female Shepherd, Zelda, and a male mixed-breed, Bentley. When watching these tapes, we noticed that, following brief pauses in play, Zelda often stared at Bentley and growled fiercely. Whenever she did this, Bentley leaped toward her and the chase was on. Bentley moved toward rather than away from Zelda because he knew her growl was not real.

This phenomenon was also noted by other researchers, who recorded growls from dogs in three different contexts, including play4. Play growls have different acoustical properties than growls given as threats, and when researchers played the growls back, dogs distinguished between play growls and growls given in agonistic (i.e., conflicting) contexts. If dogs can distinguish between types of growls in the absence of contextual cues (such as another playing dog), surely they know when a play partner’s growl is just pretend.

 

Endnotes
1 M . Bekoff. 1995. Play signals as punctuation: the structure of social play in canids. Behaviour 132(5–6):419–429.

2 E . B. Bauer. 2007. Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour 73:489–499; C . Ward, E . B. Bauer, B. B. S muts. 2008. Partner preferences and asymmetries in social play among domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, littermates. Animal Behaviour 76:1187–1199.

3 V. Csányi. 2000. If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. New York: North Point Press.

4 T . Faragó, P . Pongrácz, F. R ange, Z. Virányi, A. M iklósi. 2010. ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour 79:917–925

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Does Your Dog Need a BFF?

As we walk along the wooded trail, Sage, a one-year-old male German Shepherd, uses a neck bite to push Sam, a four-month-old Labradoodle, to the ground. Sam jumps toward Sage, who once again flings the pup to the ground. Sam lies on his back wildly kicking his legs in the air while Sage bites down on Sam’s neck and growls. Sam finally wriggles free, only to be pinned again a few seconds later. Sam and Sage repeat this pattern of interaction over and over for about ten minutes, until we realize that if they keep it up, we will finish the two-mile loop around midnight. We need a quick solution, so we let Sage carry a tennis ball — his favorite thing in the world. Eureka! It seems to work, except for one glitch. Sam keeps running after Sage and leaping on him as if to say, “Leave that ball alone and come play with me!”

Sam and Sage are friends — best friends, in fact. Although it might strike some as anthropomorphic to describe their relationship in these terms, scientists have been documenting friendships in wild animals for over 30 years. First described in nonhuman primates, friendships have now been reported in a wide variety of mammals, ranging from giraffes to bottlenose dolphins. Friends are defined as individuals who, by choice, spend a lot of time near each other and frequently engage in friendly behaviors. Behaviors vary by species: Baboon friends groom a lot, bonobo friends have recreational sex, female dolphin friends “hold fins” as they swim together, and dog friends tend to play.

Over the past decade, we and our colleagues have been collecting video data of dogs interacting with each other. We have filmed hundreds of hours of adult dogs, juveniles and puppies at dog parks, on walks and in backyards and living rooms, including our own. We code these tapes frame by frame in order to scientifically address questions about play and other social behaviors in dogs (findings to be discussed in future articles). Along the way, we have documented, on tape and in notes, a number of striking canine friendships.

The relationship between Sage and Sam illustrates several important features of dog friendships. To begin with, canine friendships, by definition, are mutually preferred and jointly constituted. Sam was a puppy when he first met Sage on that walk five years ago. Since then, Sage and Sam have been exposed to many dogs, and a few of them have become friends of one or the other, but their relationship remains very special — and it was special right from the start. Not many dogs can take Sage’s rough play style, and to some outsiders it might seem like Sage is bullying Sam, but Sam relishes it and is fully complicit in their lopsided play pattern.

We have noticed that close canine friends often play roughly and develop idiosyncratic games. For example, Safi and Osa (female German Shepherd and male mixed-breed who were best friends for five years) often chased each other through the woods until they ended up on opposite sides of some huge log. Then, facing each other, they would bark back and forth as loudly as possible, interspersing the barks with nasty, lipcurling snarls. After 20-30 seconds, one would leap over the log toward the other and the chase was on again.

To a naïve observer, the play of good friends might look or sound like mortal combat. In reality, their wild games reflect how comfortable they are letting go with each other.

The Sage/Sam and Safi/Osa relationships clearly have important benefits for the dogs and also for us. The friends don’t live together, but they often visit each other’s homes. This can offer a great alternative to a kennel or leaving a dog home alone all day. While together, they tire each other out and stimulate each other’s bodies and minds. At the end of the day, living with a dog who has some of his social, physical and mental needs met is easier and much more fun.

These benefits can be real for any two dogs who enjoy each other’s company, but dog friendships offer something above and beyond the play factor. For one thing, friends seem especially likely to come to each other’s aid when in trouble. For example, we were at a park when another dog approached us. The dog, a medium-sized mix, charged toward Sage and barked in his face. Sage turned and walked away, so the newcomer turned his attention toward Sam — first barking and then growling at him. These were not play growls. In an instant, Sage ran over and placed himself directly in front of Sam and faced the newcomer. Sage barked and walked toward him. The other dog moved back, and then took off in response to a call from a distance. Although it all happened very quickly, it was clear that Sage had supported his friend. Over the years there have been several similar incidents in which the bolder dog, Sage, supported the less assertive Sam during conflicts with other dogs.

Or take Bahati, a dingo-like female who is friends with Tex, a light-brown male sporting a black mask. Tex’s human friend, Tyson, was trying to help Tex overcome his fear of deep water. Standing on a dock with Tex in his arms, Tyson slowly lowered him into the water while Bahati watched from shore. Although the water was shallow enough for Tex to stand in, he panicked, paws flailing wildly. Before Tyson had a chance to do anything, Bahati sped up the dock and leaped into the water beside Tex. A strong swimmer, she immediately headed toward the shore, and a reassured Tex swam alongside her.

Although neither Sage’s defense of his friend nor Tex’s panic were life threatening situations, consider a video that hundreds of thousands of people have watched on Youtube. Cars and trucks were speeding along a freeway in Santiago, Chile, while a routine surveillance camera automatically filmed the scene. A stray dog was hit by a truck and lay injured on the road. Seconds later, another stray braved the speeding cars to cross several lanes to reach the other dog. Then this rescuer dragged the wounded dog backward, using forepaws, until they safely reached the edge of the road. Clearly, dogs enter the world primed to care about and for others, whether canine or human.

Friends can provide much-needed stability when change threatens a dog’s equilibrium. After Sage’s two canine housemates died within two weeks, he lost interest in going for walks, eating and training. It was clear that he was in mourning. People, when grieving, get solace by talking about their loss and spending time with close friends and family, but what’s a dog to do? Sage couldn’t exactly pick up the phone and share his feelings with Sam, but with our help he could visit his buddy. Sage began to spend several hours at Sam’s house a couple of times a week, and after each visit he seemed transformed. He would return home with his big, open-mouth smile, which always made us smile too; he would eat that evening and he seemed happier. As the visits continued, Sage slowly came back to life and, thanks to Sam, before long he was his old self again.

The fact that Sam, not we, could draw Sage out of his black hole indicates that dogs can give each other something we cannot. In particular, we can never chase and tackle the way another dog can, and we don’t speak their language. This raises an important question: If our dogs have canine best friends, does this detract from our relationships with them? In our experience, the answer is a definite “no.” Although our dogs routinely play and hang out with their canine friends, they still seek us out and adore our company as much as ever. We spend one-on-one quality time with each of our dogs, whether we’re having fun in agility, teaching new tricks, or playing hide-and-seek. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Dogs can have dog friends and still be close to us. Access to dog friends makes dogs happier, and happier dogs make for better human companions.

Can our dogs’ social needs be met through dog parks or dog daycare? For some dogs — the confident extroverts — perhaps, but others are more shy, and, as they age, many dogs lose interest in the company of exuberant youngsters. There also exist dogs who don’t get along well with other dogs but who can be friends with a special someone.

Human children and wild animals get to choose their best friends; sadly, most dogs do not. We may try to choose for them, but dogs’ preferences for other dogs are highly idiosyncratic and often difficult to predict. Instead, we can attempt to expose our dogs to many other dogs when they are young, and if we pay careful attention, we will notice which ones they like best. When such preferences are mutual, opportunities for prolonged canine friendships arise, and we should make the most of them. Who knows— we might make some new friends along the way, too.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Does Your Dog Need a BFF?

As we walk along the wooded trail, Sage, a one-year-old male German Shepherd, uses a neck bite to push Sam, a four-month-old Labradoodle, to the ground. Sam jumps toward Sage, who once again flings the pup to the ground. Sam lies on his back wildly kicking his legs in the air while Sage bites down on Sam’s neck and growls. Sam finally wriggles free, only to be pinned again a few seconds later. Sam and Sage repeat this pattern of interaction over and over for about ten minutes, until we realize that if they keep it up, we will finish the two-mile loop around midnight. We need a quick solution, so we let Sage carry a tennis ball — his favorite thing in the world. Eureka! It seems to work, except for one glitch. Sam keeps running after Sage and leaping on him as if to say, “Leave that ball alone and come play with me!”

Sam and Sage are friends — best friends, in fact. Although it might strike some as anthropomorphic to describe their relationship in these terms, scientists have been documenting friendships in wild animals for over 30 years. First described in nonhuman primates, friendships have now been reported in a wide variety of mammals, ranging from giraffes to bottlenose dolphins. Friends are defined as individuals who, by choice, spend a lot of time near each other and frequently engage in friendly behaviors. Behaviors vary by species: Baboon friends groom a lot, bonobo friends have recreational sex, female dolphin friends “hold fins” as they swim together, and dog friends tend to play.

Over the past decade, we and our colleagues have been collecting video data of dogs interacting with each other. We have filmed hundreds of hours of adult dogs, juveniles and puppies at dog parks, on walks and in backyards and living rooms, including our own. We code these tapes frame by frame in order to scientifically address questions about play and other social behaviors in dogs (findings to be discussed in future articles). Along the way, we have documented, on tape and in notes, a number of striking canine friendships.

The relationship between Sage and Sam illustrates several important features of dog friendships. To begin with, canine friendships, by definition, are mutually preferred and jointly constituted. Sam was a puppy when he first met Sage on that walk five years ago. Since then, Sage and Sam have been exposed to many dogs, and a few of them have become friends of one or the other, but their relationship remains very special — and it was special right from the start. Not many dogs can take Sage’s rough play style, and to some outsiders it might seem like Sage is bullying Sam, but Sam relishes it and is fully complicit in their lopsided play pattern.

We have noticed that close canine friends often play roughly and develop idiosyncratic games. For example, Safi and Osa (female German Shepherd and male mixed-breed who were best friends for five years) often chased each other through the woods until they ended up on opposite sides of some huge log. Then, facing each other, they would bark back and forth as loudly as possible, interspersing the barks with nasty, lipcurling snarls. After 20-30 seconds, one would leap over the log toward the other and the chase was on again.

To a naïve observer, the play of good friends might look or sound like mortal combat. In reality, their wild games reflect how comfortable they are letting go with each other.

The Sage/Sam and Safi/Osa relationships clearly have important benefits for the dogs and also for us. The friends don’t live together, but they often visit each other’s homes. This can offer a great alternative to a kennel or leaving a dog home alone all day. While together, they tire each other out and stimulate each other’s bodies and minds. At the end of the day, living with a dog who has some of his social, physical and mental needs met is easier and much more fun.

These benefits can be real for any two dogs who enjoy each other’s company, but dog friendships offer something above and beyond the play factor. For one thing, friends seem especially likely to come to each other’s aid when in trouble. For example, we were at a park when another dog approached us. The dog, a medium-sized mix, charged toward Sage and barked in his face. Sage turned and walked away, so the newcomer turned his attention toward Sam — first barking and then growling at him. These were not play growls. In an instant, Sage ran over and placed himself directly in front of Sam and faced the newcomer. Sage barked and walked toward him. The other dog moved back, and then took off in response to a call from a distance. Although it all happened very quickly, it was clear that Sage had supported his friend. Over the years there have been several similar incidents in which the bolder dog, Sage, supported the less assertive Sam during conflicts with other dogs.

Or take Bahati, a dingo-like female who is friends with Tex, a light-brown male sporting a black mask. Tex’s human friend, Tyson, was trying to help Tex overcome his fear of deep water. Standing on a dock with Tex in his arms, Tyson slowly lowered him into the water while Bahati watched from shore. Although the water was shallow enough for Tex to stand in, he panicked, paws flailing wildly. Before Tyson had a chance to do anything, Bahati sped up the dock and leaped into the water beside Tex. A strong swimmer, she immediately headed toward the shore, and a reassured Tex swam alongside her.

Although neither Sage’s defense of his friend nor Tex’s panic were life threatening situations, consider a video that hundreds of thousands of people have watched on Youtube. Cars and trucks were speeding along a freeway in Santiago, Chile, while a routine surveillance camera automatically filmed the scene. A stray dog was hit by a truck and lay injured on the road. Seconds later, another stray braved the speeding cars to cross several lanes to reach the other dog. Then this rescuer dragged the wounded dog backward, using forepaws, until they safely reached the edge of the road. Clearly, dogs enter the world primed to care about and for others, whether canine or human.

Friends can provide much-needed stability when change threatens a dog’s equilibrium. After Sage’s two canine housemates died within two weeks, he lost interest in going for walks, eating and training. It was clear that he was in mourning. People, when grieving, get solace by talking about their loss and spending time with close friends and family, but what’s a dog to do? Sage couldn’t exactly pick up the phone and share his feelings with Sam, but with our help he could visit his buddy. Sage began to spend several hours at Sam’s house a couple of times a week, and after each visit he seemed transformed. He would return home with his big, open-mouth smile, which always made us smile too; he would eat that evening and he seemed happier. As the visits continued, Sage slowly came back to life and, thanks to Sam, before long he was his old self again.

The fact that Sam, not we, could draw Sage out of his black hole indicates that dogs can give each other something we cannot. In particular, we can never chase and tackle the way another dog can, and we don’t speak their language. This raises an important question: If our dogs have canine best friends, does this detract from our relationships with them? In our experience, the answer is a definite “no.” Although our dogs routinely play and hang out with their canine friends, they still seek us out and adore our company as much as ever. We spend one-on-one quality time with each of our dogs, whether we’re having fun in agility, teaching new tricks, or playing hide-and-seek. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Dogs can have dog friends and still be close to us. Access to dog friends makes dogs happier, and happier dogs make for better human companions.

Can our dogs’ social needs be met through dog parks or dog daycare? For some dogs — the confident extroverts — perhaps, but others are more shy, and, as they age, many dogs lose interest in the company of exuberant youngsters. There also exist dogs who don’t get along well with other dogs but who can be friends with a special someone.

Human children and wild animals get to choose their best friends; sadly, most dogs do not. We may try to choose for them, but dogs’ preferences for other dogs are highly idiosyncratic and often difficult to predict. Instead, we can attempt to expose our dogs to many other dogs when they are young, and if we pay careful attention, we will notice which ones they like best. When such preferences are mutual, opportunities for prolonged canine friendships arise, and we should make the most of them. Who knows— we might make some new friends along the way, too.