You may not be able to speak woof, but you could learn to read what your dog’s body signals are telling you. And knowing this may just help you build a stronger and more trusting bond with your pooch. Expert dog trainer and behaviourist Philippa Short is here to guide you through the world of dog body language. Let’s kick things off with understanding canine body language during play with other dogs.
Being able to read your dog and their body language (as well as other dogs) helps you understand if they are consenting to play. You can then tell if you need to help them get out of trouble in the early stages of playtime.
All breeds of dog have different ideas about how they’re going to play, based on the roles they were bred for. For example, herding and pastoral breeds have chase behaviours and bring nipping into play. While this doesn’t start as aggression, it could build into aggression from the other dog if they don’t use that same play language.
Always remember that all canines vary when it comes to play and body language. Teach your pup from an early age how to interact with a mix of breeds and sizes of dogs.
You might be surprised at just how many things affect how your dog sees another dog. It could be anything from:
It’s why socialisation is really important for your puppy, learning how to read and understand all the differences out there. But socialisation doesn’t mean free play with no rules and lots of dogs. Socialisation can be more natural, like:
Your canine learns to be calm and hang out with you, but can then appropriately greet another dog if they come over and decide to play.
As we hinted earlier, a dog’s breed plays a big part in how they play and interact with other pups. To help make things easier, here’s a rundown of the main canine groups and what you might see in their body language during play.
Gun dogs often want to have something in their mouth, so they’ll try and involve a toy in their play game with others. These pups are super social and really enjoy their play sessions with other pooches.
Herding dog breeds regularly get into chase behaviours with other dogs. They may nip the back legs or bottoms of other dogs, or be slightly grabby around the neck. This is how they would control stock if they were doing their herding job, and so can be brought into play.
Bulldogs love to tug and will often use their body weight during playtime. Unless they have had some emotional training, they may body bump and thug other dogs.
Hounds like their chase games, and can either be aloof or playful, so stay alert! Playtime for this breed often means grabbing at the other dog’s neck and bringing them down.
Labradors and Golden Retrievers are the party pups and can be a tad over-enthusiastic in their play. Teaching them gentle cues can really help them to adjust their energy levels.
Poodles use their paws a lot in play and can be quite bouncy. They’re very light on their feet and can often outmanoeuvre many other dogs during get-togethers.
The feisty Terrier can get over-excited quite quickly during playtime, with toys often shaken and disembowelled. They can become snappy, but this is down to getting overstimulated rather than being aggressive.
The working and utility dog groups have a large mix of breeds, so picking out common body language signals isn’t as clear cut.
Similar to humans, dogs have individual personalities that make them party-goers (extroverts) or wallflowers (introverts). And it’s ok for your dog to be whoever they are.
If your dog is the more enthusiastic party type, you’ll want to help them slow down their behaviour. It’s so they can work the room (or should we say park?) better with other canine personality types.
Introduce words like gently, steady, and slowly, with lots of rewards for measured behaviour. You might find your dog does this automatically because they can tell when they need to tone down their play.
So, how exactly do you know when your dog is playing appropriately with others? Well, good play is equal between both dogs.
Let’s take a game of chase as an example:
The same is true for more rough and tumble play. If one dog is on top more than the other, then play might not be equal and consensual.
If you’re ever in doubt if play is equal, you can do a consent test:
Some dogs don’t mind being the more passive pooch during rough and tumble play – but you’ll always want to check this with a consent test. If your dog seems to be on top more often:
The key thing here is to regularly check in during active play. The dynamic between your dog and the other could change at any moment, and it takes seconds to do a consent test. When done well, it isn’t a form of punishment for your pooch. It allows smooth and easy relationships with other dogs.
As we’ve learned from positive reinforcement training, anything that’s practised becomes a habit. So you don’t want your puppy or adult dog practising unwanted behaviours in play. What an 11 week old puppy gets away with during play, might cause a fight when they’re 11 months old and much bigger.
A few ways you can help your dog learn good play manners include:
Your dog may be a party-goer and could be making a wallflower pup feel uncomfortable or threatened. While your enthusiastic canine may have impeccable manners, they should be reading the other dog’s discomfort. If they can’t do this, you need to be ready to call them back to you straight away. This could help stop another unhappy or unsocialised dog from snapping or fighting with your pup.
So now you know about play manners, what about body language when your dog meets another for the first time? Leashed dogs can feel more defensive because they cannot flee if needed. This is why it’s not always a good idea for canines to meet on a lead. But sometimes your environment means on lead greeting could happen, for example in town centres or at the vets.
To help keep on-lead greetings safe for both leashed pups, you can do a lead consent test:
There’s a few key points to keep in mind here:
It’s really important to not let your off lead dog run up to an on-lead dog. The other dog could be:
You don’t know why they’re leashed, so don’t risk it. The other owner will tell you that it’s safe for your dog to say hello (for example, their dog may be on lead due to bad recall). Make sure your dog has a good recall when off lead, otherwise use a long line and keep practising the cue.
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