Reading dogs 9: Playing and chasing

Playing is about real life. In play, puppies learn how to work their bodies and how to communicate with other dogs. Grown dogs often continue to play in adulthood, whether playing with other adults or with puppies. Playing together is one way that dogs get to know each other.

In her book, Canine Play Behavior, Mechtild Käufer writes that five things have to happen for dogs’ activity to be described as play.

  1. Play needs an atmosphere of familiarity and emotional security in a safe environment.
  2. Play has no other aim but itself.
  3. Play is voluntary and self-rewarding.
  4. Play is not the same as reality.
  5. Play is creative repetition.1)Käufer, Mechtild. Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise, 2013. 8. Print.

I will write about predatory behaviour in another blog. For now, when we watch dogs play, it is helpful to focus on how we know whether the dogs feel safe and appear to be having fun.

Chasing play

Chasing is an important part of dogs’ play. Chasing games are quite simple, usually involving any one or combination of escape and pursuit games; imaginary predator and prey games; and running games where the sole objective seems to be to run because it feels good.

In the video clip below, a boxer puppy tries to play with an African spurred tortoise. (I suggest turning off the sound when watching the videos, below.)


Notice that the tortoise and the dog appear to be playing different games. The tortoise chases the puppy. The puppy seems interested in taking turns—dogs often switch roles in chasing games—but the tortoise doesn’t respond to the puppy’s attempts to engage in different ways of playing with, chasing or being chased by the puppy. At the end of the video, the puppy runs away, likely because the game with the tortoise is not rewarding for him.

In the next video, a tiny Yorkshire terrier puppy and an Australian shepherd play together.


The Aussie has a ball. She seem to taunt the Yorkie, though the puppy couldn’t possibly pick it up in his mouth. The Aussie uses possession for the ball as the pretext for the chasing game. She runs, but whenever she gets too far ahead of the little puppy, she turns and runs back toward him, keeping him engaged and encouraging him to continue chasing her.

Self-handicapping is a common feature in dogs’ play. Larger, more powerful dogs may choose to limit aspects what they do so that they can play with smaller dogs without overwhelming them.


The above video is a great example of chasing play between a large goldendoodle and a smaller terrier. For the sake of the description, I will describe the larger dog as female and the smaller one as male. Here is the sequence of their play:

  • 0:00 The larger dog chases the smaller one around a table.
  • 0:18 She paws at him, signalling that the game could change. He stops briefly, then continues to move around the table.
  • 0:32 Another pause in the chase; the dogs resume the circuit.
  • 0:36 The big dog shifts direction slightly, angling the small one off-course. When he turns around, she gives a play bow.2)See Reading Dogs 6: Bowing and stretching He darts back on track.
  • 0:38 Another play bow from the female, then she turns, reversing course, to meet the male head-on and to chase him in the opposite direction.
  • 0:48 The goldendoodle has again angled the terrier off-course. He turns around, stands up on his hind legs and bats at her with his front paws, holding on, while she nudges at his belly with her nose.
  • 0:52 The dogs resume the chase circuit.
  • 0:54 The big dog again angles the small one off-course. The little dog turns around.
  • 0:55 An exuberant play bow from the large dog. She remains in that position. He comes forward, stands up high enough that his head is directly over hers as he bats at her ears. The big dog, wagging her tail merrily, leans back on her haunches.
  • 1:00 The big dog reaches one paw around the little dog’s body in an embrace. Both dogs’ tails wag happily. The two dogs bounce slightly away from and back toward each other a few times, then run around the table.
  • 1:08 The big dog bats a paw at the small dog’s hindquarters.
  • 1:10 The small dog turns, as before, standing up on his back legs and reaching out towards the other dog who gives a happy play bow.
  • 1:12 The little dog’s front paws appear to press on either side of the big dog’s head, next to her floppy ears.
  • 1:13 The big dog turns quickly, lifting and moving the small dog to the side. They have both been wagging their tails throughout.
  • 1:15 The little dog reaches up, bouncing to get to the big dog’s head again. The large dog gives another play bow. The small dog comes forward, as before, paws outstretched around her muzzle, and presses his head on top of hers.
  • 1:17 The big dog pulls back, disengaging. The little dog gives a partial play bow.
  • 1:18 She returns the play bow then lies down fully on her belly.
  • 1:19 He comes forward again, embracing her with his paws. She presses her nose forward, underneath him, so that her head is right under his belly.
  • 1:23 He launches himself over her head, landing on the carpet near her shoulder. She gets up and darts toward him.
  • 1:25 Another embrace, both dogs standing on their hind legs, now; she looms over him.
  • 1:26 He squirms out from under her and darts away, heading underneath a table on the right. She pursues, giving another play bow when she faces him.
  • 1:31 He bats one paw on the large dog’s nose, then runs around her.
  • 1:32 She chases him.
  • 1:34 She play bows and he stands up, as before. Their play movements are slower than they were at the beginning, but have been very energetic throughout.
  • 1:38 He begins another frontal embrace and, when she rises up to mirror it, he dashes underneath her.
  • 1:40 She arches her body over his; he darts out underneath her and moves over against the couch.
  • 1:43 She pins him against the couch when he rises up on his back legs. He shows his “play face”—a nice, big smile—he’s having fun! Then he runs away, again, with her chasing him.
  • 1:48 She has angled him off-course. He turns, as before. She stands up on all four feet.

For the rest of the video, the goldendoodle chases the terrier more vigorously than she did at the start of their play, trying to be on top of him, holding him underneath her and occasionally humping him. One of the humans calls the dogs, separating them briefly and bringing the play session to an end.

For dogs, chasing is part of running and running is one of life’s great delights. As Stanley Coren says,

To watch dogs run in play is to appreciate grace and joy. It is also a key to understanding something about their psychology: Running is to dogs what dancing is to people. It is their way to get into the rhythm of the universe.3)Coren, Stanley. How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication. New York: Free, 2000. 150. Print.

Next: Reading dogs 10: Play fighting

References   [ + ]

1. Käufer, Mechtild. Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise, 2013. 8. Print.
2. See Reading Dogs 6: Bowing and stretching
3. Coren, Stanley. How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication. New York: Free, 2000. 150. Print.