Reading dogs 10: Play fighting

Play fighting often looks a lot like real fighting. In both playing and in fighting, dogs chase, snarl, and bite. They jump up on each other, vocalize, show their teeth and try to pin each other to the ground. All the while, the dogs build important, healthy social bonds.

Biting

Play biting is dogs’ most frequent kind of play. It begins in early life and is the primary way that a puppy learns “bite inhibition.” Ian Dunbar says:

Dogfights offer a wonderful illustration of the effectiveness of solid bite inhibition. When dogs fight, it usually sounds like they are tying to kill each other, and it appears they forcibly bite each other over and over. However, when the dust settles and the dogs are examined, 99 percent of the time there are no puncture wounds whatsoever. Even though the fight was a frenzied flurry of activity and both dogs were extremely worked up, no harm was done because both dogs had exquisitely fine-tuned bite inhibition, acquired during puppyhood. Puppies teach each other bite inhibition when play-fighting, their number one favorite activity.1)Ian Dunbar says that teaching bite inhibition is the most important aspect of a puppy’s education. He writes about this extensively on his website, Dog Star Daily, and it is a focal point of his books and videos, including After You Get Your Puppy, which you can download here for free.

The “play face”

In the photo at the top of this article and the first three photos below, the dogs show a comical “play face.” Their features and expressions are highly exaggerated. They give ridiculous grins, showing many teeth; their eyes are generally wide open and may show the whites, similar to “whale eye,” but the facial features are relaxed–no wrinkled muzzles, brows or foreheads–and their bodies are also very loose. In the last photo below, on the right, the wolves’ features are calm, there is no tension in their bodies, even their feet and toes are relaxed in the snow.

play biting
gopal1035 / Foter / CC BY-NC
play biting
egnilk66 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
play biting
CaptPiper / Foter / CC BY-NC
play biting
sociotard / Foter / CC BY

Play fights may include frequent play bows, chasing, voluntarily lying down and rolling over. Dogs will often self-handicap so that it’s fun for puppies to play with adults and for small dogs to play with large ones. Dogs who don’t know each other well or haven’t played together before will also self-handicap when they begin to play.

High wrestling

Many play fights begin with or include “high wrestling.” The two dogs stand up on their hind legs and bat at each other with their paws, like the border collies in the first photo below, on the left, or embrace, like the terriers in the middle photo. Sometimes they may bite each other’s necks during the embraces. Most of the time their bodies mirror each other, though either dog may be attempting to jostle the other to lie down on the ground, as appears to be the case with the golden retriever and the Belgian shepherd below, on the right. High wrestling takes a lot of energy and only lasts for brief periods.

high wrestling
carterse / Foter / CC BY-SA
high wrestling
Jessicatten / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
high wrestling
kerim / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

On the ground

As the game continues, dogs often end up lying on the ground, side by side or on top of each other. Play fights at this stage may slow down, becoming almost languid. Dogs who know each other may even drift off to sleep.

The first two photos on the left, below, show dogs playing on the floor or ground; the larger dog in each case is self-handicapping. In the second photo from the right, the dogs still appear energetic with goofy play faces. The dogs in the rightmost photo appear to have arrived at a calmer point in their play.

play fighting lying down
Out.of.Focus / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
play fighting lying down
Alt-Ctrl-Tom / Foter / CC BY-ND
play fighting lying down
Bruno_Caimi / Foter / CC BY
play fighting lying down
ashabot / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Tugging games

Tug-of-war can be part of a good play fight. At the beginning, one dog may grab a toy or other object, using it to entice the other dog to chase. At the end of the chase, the two dogs may switch to playing tug. Tug games often include a lot of fierce growling! The two border collies, below left, seem to be fairly equally matched as they tug a rope toy between them. In the middle photo, the Newfoundland is bigger and heavier than the collie and would probably self-handicap so that the tug game can be fun for both of them. In the photo on the right, a wire-haired dachshund and a much larger shepherd-cross enjoy tugging a knitted hat

tugging
sailorbill / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
tugging
OnceAndFutureLaura / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
tugging
aarontait / Foter / CC BY

Are they playing or fighting?

Dog trainers often warn that a play fight may turn into a real one if the dogs become over-aroused. But Barbara Smuts and Camille Ward studied videotapes of pair-wise play between adult dogs, adults and adolescents and puppy litter mates over a 10-year period and reported

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.”2)”Is Your Dog’s Rough Play Appropriate?” The Bark. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. citing V. Csányi. 2000. If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. New York: North Point Press.

The dogs whom Barbara Smuts and Camille Ward studied knew each other and were playing in pairs rather than in larger groups.

Interrupting play between dogs who do not know each other, or when one dog is significantly larger, smaller, older or younger than the other, is a way to monitor and ensure that both dogs are enjoying their playtime. Call your dog away briefly, reward her for coming to you and see whether she wants to return to play with the other dog. If she does, let her go. If she hesitates, cowers near you or seems reluctant to go away from you, it’s time to leave.

While playing one-on-one can be a lot of fun even when two dogs don’t know each other well, it’s a good idea to be more cautious about encouraging your dog to play with a group of other dogs.

Playing is essential for dogs

As I noted earlier, playing is about real life for dogs. Some aspects of play behaviour are hard-wired: puppies begin offering play bows at about three weeks of age and blind puppies play-bow as well as sighted puppies. Camille Ward and Barbara Smuts point out:

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.3)Ibid.

Next: Reading dogs 11: Mounting

References   [ + ]

1. Ian Dunbar says that teaching bite inhibition is the most important aspect of a puppy’s education. He writes about this extensively on his website, Dog Star Daily, and it is a focal point of his books and videos, including After You Get Your Puppy, which you can download here for free.
2. ”Is Your Dog’s Rough Play Appropriate?” The Bark. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. citing V. Csányi. 2000. If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. New York: North Point Press.
3. Ibid.