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.