Karen B. London
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One of the most common questions asked of dog behaviorists is how to determine whether a group of dogs who are rolling around or chasing each other are playing appropriately. Without knowledge of dog behavior, it can be hard for many people to tell when play is getting out of hand until it’s too late and it’s obvious because somebody got hurt or traumatized. I recently wrote a column for my local paper called Play Should Be Fun, Not Tense  that explains some of the basic ways to evaluate what is going on before it ever gets to that point. There is always a bit of subjectivity to assessing play in any species, including our own, because fun itself is subjective. However, there are some basic guidelines worth considering whenever you have to decide whether to let the dogs carry on, or whether they need to be separated to prevent real trouble from developing.
In appropriate play, the number one rule is that everyone is a willing participant. If one dog is suffering based on what’s going on, it’s not appropriate, and that’s true even if what the other dogs are doing would be fine with most dogs. If everyone isn’t having a good time, it’s not okay to let it continue. Play should always be fun.
Generally, dogs who are playing are holding back a bit at least some of the time. They are bouncy and carefree in their motions, and there are frequent pauses in the action. Most play involves running, leaping, chasing, brief pounces and batting at one another. Dogs’ mouths are usually open and any vocalizations tend to be fairly consistent in pitch rather than suddenly deepening or turning into shrieks.
In play that could lead to trouble, dogs seem to be more serious and lack that light-hearted quality so essential in play. Dogs who tongue flick, drool excessively, cower, whine, pant when it’s not hot enough to warrant it, tremble, attempt to escape or to hide, whimper or shiver are showing signs of tension or anxiety that could indicate trouble. When dogs are uncomfortable, they are more likely to act in a way that is aggressive or that could prompt another dog to behave aggressively. One of the biggest warning signs in play is of one or more dogs suddenly go stiff. Going stiff with tension throughout the body often occurs before dogs bite or fight, so it’s a bad sign. Pausing in play with a relaxed body is a good sign and is very different than going stiff or still, which is a bad sign.
It can be very hard to evaluate play, but if you stop the play and all the dogs want to head back to it, that’s a promising sign that the play is okay. I always recommend interrupting the play if you are in any doubt. You can always let them continue in a minute, but if you let things go and a dog gets hurt, frightened or overwhelmed, you can’t take that back.