Home
Barbara Smuts

Barbara Smuts, PhD holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a doctorate in behavioral biology from Stanford Medical School. A professor of psychology, she teaches courses in animal behavior at the University of Michigan. She has studied social behavior in several wild animals, including olive baboons and chimpanzees (East Africa) and bottlenose dolphins (coastal Western Australia). More recently, she has been studying social relationships among domestic dogs and is working on a book on this subject.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Living in a Multi-Dog Household
A Full House
Illustration by Lauri Luck

My multi-dog household includes three unrelated, rescued mutts with golden fur and bushy tails, each weighing around 50 pounds: one female (Bahati, 13), and two males (Tex, 7, and Bentley, 2). On a typical morning, Bentley and Tex play in the living room, biting at one another’s hind legs. Tex flops onto the rug, Bentley bites at Tex’s neck and Tex flails his legs in defense. Their play rouses Bahati, who has been napping. She trots into the living room and plunges between them.

Bahati stands tall, holding her ears as wolves do when courting: the inside of the earflaps face out to the side and the backs nearly touch over the top of her head. Ever eager to flirt, Bentley positions his ears the same way and cautiously places his chin over her neck. She leaps away, then starts to scamper with him; it almost looks like they’re dancing. When Tex moves toward them, Bahati rears up to wrap her front paws around his neck in a bear hug. Watching them with a silly grin, I can’t imagine a better way to start the day.

In addition to my delight in the dogs’ antics, I like having a multi-dog household (three or more dogs) for other reasons. I have three playmates instead of one, and three dogs to comfort me when I’m down. With three, I’m more likely to have a snuggly companion on the couch or bed, and I love being welcomed home by three madly wagging tails. With three dogs, I have more friends, more silliness, more beauty, more life.

Living in a multi-dog household is also better for my dogs. For one thing, I’m not solely responsible for their entertainment. They wear each other out when they play in a way that’s impossible for me to replicate. They’re never alone, and I feel less guilty about the parts of my life that don’t include them. Although they still adopt the “I’ll die if you don’t take me with you” look when I leave the house, their so-called suffering is belied by the toys I see scattered around when I return.

Despite the many benefits of multidog homes, however, there are also costs, and they’re not all financial. Wiping 12 muddy paws or trimming 54 toenails is exponentially more tiresome than dealing with four paws or 18 nails. Walking three leashed dogs can be complicated, especially when our leashes get tangled with those attached to several dogs from another household. If we don’t want to unclip the dogs, the only way out is to perform what my friends call “the leash dance,” in which each person holds his or her leashes high overhead while twirling until the two sets disentangle — a most interesting way to meet one’s neighbors! And, of course, training three or more dogs is harder than training one or even two, especially when it involves behaviors they tend to do in unison, like barking at the UPS man or rushing to the door when the bell rings. For many people, such training requires more time and patience than they have.

Domestic Disharmony
Dogs don’t always get along, of course. I’m lucky in that generally, hostilities in my house are largely limited to growling in defense of the best spot on the bed. Sometimes the tactic works, but often, the other dog jumps up on the bed anyway, blithely ignoring the warning. Moments later, I usually find them resting together, sides touching.

Although a lot of “aggression” between familiar dogs is ritualized and harmless (see “Fighting without Biting,” May 2011), it sometimes escalates, especially when a new dog is involved. While researchers have not systematically observed multiple pet dogs living together, a few studies have examined data from canine behaviorists who had been consulted for help with intrahousehold aggression. Unfortunately, these studies do not involve a comparison group of households whose dogs do get along, which makes many of their findings hard to interpret. Nevertheless, they tend to agree on a few patterns: aggression is often instigated by a newly matured dog or by a new household member against an older dog, and is more frequent within same-sex pairs, particularly when both dogs are female (more on this in a future article).

Aside from avoiding the most common triggers — the presence of food or toys; proximity to the owner; high-arousal situations, such as greetings or preparations to leave; and being together in a confined space, such as a narrow hallway — other treatment recommendations include medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and following a “nothing in life is free” program.

Canine behaviorists also sometimes encourage people to consistently favor one dog over the others (e.g., the older or higher-ranking dog) by giving him or her resources and attention first. In her DVD, Dog-Dog Aggression, Patricia McConnell argues against this because, in her experience, it doesn’t work. She suggests other methods of decreasing intra-household aggression, including training dogs to be in close proximity to one another while waiting in turn for a resource. The DVD includes a wonderful example involving McConnell’s own dogs. She asks three Border Collies and a Great Pyrenees to line up, then kneels in front of them holding a pan in which meat has been roasted. By name, she calls one dog forward to lick the pan, then asks that dog to stop licking and back up when it is the next dog’s turn. Her dogs’ body language indicates how much self-control they must exert to succeed in this situation, but succeed they do. The lesson? When dogs learn that they get what they want by politely waiting their turn, they are less likely to bully each other (or you!) as a way to gain resources.

In any event, when intra-household aggression is a serious problem, consult a certified canine behaviorist with a background in this type of situation. In addition, it can be very helpful to learn as much as possible about canine communication to better understand dogs’ interactions. For example, being tuned in to postures and facial expressions that often precede aggression — such as a dog standing very still with his muzzle tightly closed — can allow us to intervene before an attack is launched. (For more on dog-dog communication, see resources at below.)

Pleasures of the Pack
Based on my own experience, I hypothesize that relationships between a household’s humans and dogs, as well as relationships among the humans, influence how dogs get along. People who model peaceful, generous and courteous behavior create a household culture that dogs, who are highly attuned to social etiquette, recognize. Puppies growing up in such households are especially likely to adopt that culture.

More often than not, multiple dogs do get along. In addition to the benefits mentioned previously, having several dogs is just plain more fun. One of my favorite activities involves walking my dogs off-leash in wild areas far from roads. Each dog understands that when I say, for example, “Bahati, lead!” I will follow the dog who has been singled out, so long as he or she doesn’t move toward anything dangerous. All my dogs love being the leader, yet will relinquish that role when it’s the next dog’s turn — or mine. It’s fascinating to see where each dog chooses to go; their noses lead us to places I might never find. Also, I can relax because I’m not making all the decisions; it’s fun to be a follower for a change. Finally, letting the dogs be in charge helps balance power in the human-dog relationship. None of my dogs has mutinied, which I think effectively demonstrates that we don’t always have to be “the decider” to have well-behaved dogs.

Based on what scientists know about people, dogs and their mutual histories, these outings in some ways mimic the original relationship between human hunter-gatherers and canines. Hunters traveled with multiple dogs, some of whom tracked and chased game while others protected women and children when they were out foraging. Since dogs can smell and hear better than we can, as well as see better in the dark, it made sense for our ancestors to sometimes defer to canine judgments about where to go (or not go). Most of the time, neither we nor our dogs can live this way, but we get a taste of the wild by going on long outings and allowing our dogs to lead.

Hanging out with multiple dogs after everyone has exercised and eaten is my favorite way to spend the evening. During these times, I notice subtle behaviors that warm my heart. For instance, when Bahati approaches Tex while he is lying down, Tex sometimes extends a paw to pet her on the head or neck instead of performing the usual nose-to nose greeting. I also love it when, after resting for a while, they simultaneously feel compelled to zip around the house and up and down the stairs as fast as they can go. Just as suddenly, they return to their senses, stop running and go back to lazing around, smiling and panting. Who can remain in a bad mood after watching such an explosion of joy?

Another plus to living with multiple dogs is the opportunity to observe relationship dynamics. Groups of dogs are systems, which means that if any part changes, everything else changes as well. Through such observations, I’ve learned that dogs take their relationships with one another seriously. Bahati and Tex are old friends whose interest in playing together gradually decreased over the years. But after young Bentley arrived, they not only played with him, but also spent more time playing with one another. Bentley’s youthful, evercheerful disposition improved everyone’s life, including mine.

Several years ago, I lived with three female dogs; at one point, they were joined by Osa, a middle-aged male who needed a temporary home. Safi, the undisputed lead dog in my group, had known Osa well five years earlier, and they began playing almost immediately.

However, Safi was by then older and weaker than Osa, and she objected to some of his rough play moves. After clearly communicating this several times, she lost patience and moved to discipline him. Instead of submitting, Osa grabbed Safi’s neck and briefly forced her to the ground. Less than a minute later, Safi approached Osa to reconcile (more about this behavior follows), but he ignored her. From that moment on, Safi gave Osa the cold shoulder, refusing to interact with him in any way. The other two females, who had merely witnessed the event, also ceased engaging with Osa, even though both had played with him before. To my amazement, all three females ostracized Osa during the rest of his stay, a full seven weeks. I was reminded of situations in human families in which people refuse to speak to one another for years.

I urge people who live with several dogs to pay attention to their interactions. One thing to look for is reconciliation behavior. Research shows that shortly after a two-way conflict within their group, dogs and wolves tend to approach the former opponent to do something nice, like touch muzzles or invite play. Dogs and wolves are especially likely to reconcile when they place a high value on a relationship, and “making up” can be a window into their feelings. For example, Tex sometimes gets grumpy when playing with Bahati or Bentley, but within a few seconds, he nearly always offers a muzzle lick. The same study documenting reconciliation in dogs also showed that if the combative parties fail to reconcile shortly afterward, a third dog, uninvolved in the event, is likely to approach the “victim” of the squabble in a friendly manner, perhaps to offer comfort.

Notice, also, the way dogs who live in the same household behave when they meet another dog. Many times, I have seen them close ranks when an unfamiliar dog exhibits the slightest unfriendly move toward one of their own. If that behavior escalates to a real threat or fight, a dog may intervene directly to defend a housemate. Such defense is particularly striking when a dog supports someone she doesn’t especially like when they’re at home.

Moments like this remind me that my motley crew of mutts really are packmates at heart. Because we’re humans, we focus on our dogs’ relationships with us. But the most amazing thing about dogs is their capacity to become integrated into both human and canine society. In the past, dogs usually lived in multi-dog, multi-human groups. Multi-dog households are, in a sense, their birthright. No matter how much we love our dogs, to be fulfilled, we need other people, and no matter how much dogs love us, they need other dogs to experience and express all of who they are.

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: Studies & Research
Dogs Use Non-Aggressive Fighting to Resolve Conflicts
Dogs have many ways to resolve conflicts

In an obedience class for adolescent dogs, Denny, a male Rottweiler, and Meadow, a female Doberman, investigate one another. Denny circles Meadow and tries to mount her from behind for the third time in a row. This proves too much for her. In an instant, Meadow’s lips retract as her body becomes tight, and before we know it, Denny is on the ground with Meadow standing over him, growling. Meadow continues to stand over Denny, whose ears curve back and eyes narrow. When Denny licks and paws at her open mouth, Meadow’s demeanor softens. She steps away and, facing him, folds into a deep play bow. They dance away from us like big, romping puppies as we release a collectively held breath.

I could tell by the alarm on some of the human participants’ faces that they had feared the interaction would end badly. However, Denny and Meadow were not strangers to one another. They had played together regularly in a previous puppy class, but this was the first time they had interacted in a way that raised questions about exactly what they were up to. Were they fighting? Should we have allowed their interaction to play out, or does anything that looks like aggression between dogs immediately call for intervention?

Because we live with multiple dogs, study dog behavior and work professionally with aggressive dogs, we think a lot about canine aggression. Some dog interactions clearly qualify as aggressive — for example, a dog with a history of initiating unprovoked attacks and inflicting damaging bites is clearly aggressive, and letting her interact with other dogs is dangerous. No one would disagree about this. However, what about cases where teeth are f lashing, spit is flying and the growling is deafening, but in the end, neither dog is the worse for wear? This is a gray area that is so very interesting precisely because it’s often not clear-cut. Are these instances of aggression?

The answer depends upon whom you ask. Even among behavioral scientists, the term “aggression” can have so many meanings that, in effect, it has lost its meaning. For example, behaviorists might use the word “aggressive” not only to describe a dog who has killed another dog but also to describe a dog who growls or snarls at a dog who is trying to take his bone. The motivations and emotions are clearly very different in these two examples. In the first case, the dog intended to do harm and did, but in the second case, the dog was likely just communicating his displeasure. Using the same word to describe two completely different scenarios can affect how we think about and respond to a wide variety of dog-dog interactions.

Perhaps a more useful term to describe growling at a potential bone thief or the interaction between Denny and Meadow is “agonistic behavior.” Ethologists, who often use this term when studying nonhuman animals, define agonistic behaviors as those that occur between individuals of a particular species in conf lict situations. Examples of agonistic behaviors in dogs include threats like muzzle-puckering and growling; submissive behaviors like crouching, lowering the head and tucking the tail; offensive behaviors like lunging and snapping; defensive behaviors like retracting the commissure (lips) while showing the teeth; and attacking behaviors like biting. With the exception of biting that results in punctures or tears, none of these behaviors necessarily indicates intent to do harm. They simply reveal emotion (e.g., anger or fear), communicate intention (e.g., to maintain control of a resource or to avoid an interaction) or function as a normal part of play fighting (e.g., growling, snapping or inhibited biting). To determine if an interaction meets the criteria for “agonistic behavior,” an observer must focus on an objective description of the communicative patterns displayed rather than automatically jumping to judgments associated with the use of the term “aggression.”

If signals such as bared teeth and growling are not typically preludes to fighting, why do they exist? Paradoxically, such behaviors are usually about how to avoid fighting. To understand this contention, we need to understand wolves — or, for that matter, our own evolutionary history. Wolves, like our human ancestors, live in family-based groups whose members cooperate to hunt, defend resources and rear young. At the same time, as we know all too well, family members quarrel.

We negotiate and move beyond such conflicts with phrases like, “Don’t do that,” “Hey, that’s mine!” “Leave me alone!” or “I’m sorry.” Wolves (and many other social animals) convey similar meanings with a varied repertoire of gestures, postures, facial expressions and sounds, including those mentioned earlier as examples of agonistic behavior. Precisely because they employ such signals, wolves can resolve conflicts without hurting each other. This is an important consideration, because serious wounds in any adult can reduce a pack’s viability as a cooperative unit. Fortunately, dogs, as descendants of wolves, have retained many of these behaviors as well as the motivation — most of the time — to avoid dangerous fights. (A recent study* reported that none of 127 agonistic interactions observed at a dog park resulted in injury.)

The interaction between Denny and Meadow described in the opening paragraph is a good example of this process. Meadow conveyed the equivalent of “Stop trying to mount me!” when she stood over Denny, growling. Through his submissive expressions and gestures, Denny indicated that he accepted her discipline. Meadow responded to Denny’s submission by stepping away, and her play bow showed that she had no hard feelings. Denny’s willingness to play with Meadow indicated that he, too, wanted to remain friends. While we often rush to intervene in such interactions, one can almost hear the dogs saying, “No big deal!”

Our last example involves Tex, a 50-pound mixed-breed we rescued from an unhappy life when he was about six months old. He is now five and has never bitten another dog. However, Tex is a bit of a grouch. For example, when he first met Zelda, a young adult female German Shepherd, he rushed at her repeatedly, opening and closing his mouth and vocalizing, “rah-rah-rah.” At first, Zelda showed mild submission and avoidance. Then, as Tex continued with his displays, she stood quietly when he charged, going about her business as soon as he moved away. When they met again the next day, Tex growled at Zelda a few times, but soon they began to play, and from that moment on, they played for hours whenever they were together. Although they clearly like each other, now and then Tex erupts vocally at Zelda, who ignores him. She is like the person who has a friend with a bit of a temper, learns not to feed it and loves him anyway.

The point of this story is not that everyone should allow their dogs to interact with grumps like Tex. Zelda’s guardian was a friend who was familiar with Tex and knew that he was harmless, despite his tendency to show agonistic behavior toward an unfamiliar dog. (Why Tex and other dogs employ this gambit is a topic for another time.) Although we might prefer that dogs always greet one another with laidback ears and loosely wagging tails, we wonder how many dogs like Tex are out there, doomed to a life without canine company simply because they don’t conform to our ideas about how dogs should behave? Similarly, how many compatible pairs like Jimmy and Meadow are separated because we don’t understand their relationship? If we can learn to discern nuances in agonistic behavior, perhaps more dogs will get a chance to enjoy friendships with other dogs. (See “Does Your Dog Need a BFF?” Bark/June 2010.)

So, the next time you witness an agonistic interaction between two dogs known to have good bite inhibition, instead of intervening at the first sign of a curled lip or growl (especially when the dogs have a generally amicable relationship), wait a moment and watch.

If the interaction ends quickly with no injuries to either party, chances are you have witnessed a useful episode of communication. Sometimes, we need to trust that the dogs really do know best.

Many incidents of seemingly aggressive behavior between dogs are simply examples of appropriate communication. Dogs (including youngsters) often recognize this even when we don’t. For example, we were at an agility trial with Acorn, an adult female Doberman. We met Acorn’s breeder as well as the breeder’s adolescent female Doberman, Sparkle. Acorn was standing at my side when they approached. Sparkle walked directly toward Acorn and stood facing her less than a foot away. Acorn flashed her teeth, and the young female took a few steps backward. The breeder said, “Aren’t you going to correct Acorn?” “For what?” we asked. “For aggression; she just showed her teeth at my dog,” the breeder asserted. What she mistook for aggression, we understood as skillful communication between two dogs.

Another vivid example of agonistic behavior involves two young Dobermans. Meadow was a year old when we brought home six-weekold Jimmy. During the last year and a half, we have watched the relationship between these two develop. They are crazy about one another — they play together every day, sometimes for many hours, and when they run, they often move in parallel so that the sides of their bodies are touching. Most of the time, Meadow and Jimmy appear to be doggy soul mates, but there is another side to their relationship that is less clear-cut. To deal with conflict situations, Meadow and Jimmy often escalate their communication to the point that it appears as if they are shouting at one another. When this happens, they can be so noisy that it’s hard to carry on a conversation even in the next room!

Both dogs rear up on their hind legs, boxing like kangaroos. Their mouths are open, their teeth are exposed and it looks ugly. However, these quarrels are over as quickly as they start, and both dogs are fine. In fact, they will typically play afterwards; following an episode that lasted a little longer than usual, they ended up spooning on a dog bed designed for one. Jimmy and Meadow remind us of a particular type of stable married couple described by relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman. These couples argued often, without holding back. Yet when they weren’t fighting, they tended to have more fun with each other than the stable couples who rarely quarreled.

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.