Decoding Dog Play
To make the best matches, determine how social a dog is with other dogs
by Leigh Siegfried, C.P.D.T.-K.A.
Understanding dog-to-dog interaction is vital for shelters and rescues as well as dog owners and potential adopters. By determining dog sociability while dogs are in their care, shelters and rescues can create opportunities for pairing dogs in shared housing or play groups—practices that can decrease the animals’ stress if done well. Developing an understanding of how dog-social or dog-tolerant a dog is can help create the best lifestyle matches for adopters eager to take their pups to dog-friendly places.
When dogs meet each other, their behavior can range from loose and wiggly to stiff and still. So how do we begin to decode dog interaction? We first need a basic understanding of what friendly body language looks like.
Dogs who intend to be social (or at least tolerant) will display distance-decreasing body language and invite social contact. They will:
- Make eye contact, and alternate between eye contact and turning their head or looking away;
- Approach by slightly arching around each other;
- Tend to sniff the mouth, circle and sniff the hind end (the “doggie handshake”), and then break contact or initiate play;
- Stand near each other, scenting and sniffing, with very little physical contact;
- Have temporary moments of being stiff or still, and then disengage by turning their head, sniffing the ground, walking away, or shaking their bodies;
- Tend to have loose, wagging tails.
Dogs who have a questionable social intention display distance-increasing body language or posturing signals. They will:
- Have intense and fixated eye contact from a distance;
- Show a beeline or “shot-out-of-a-cannon” approach;
- Have prolonged sniffing with no breaks in contact from the other dog;
- When close enough to sniff, possibly lean over the other dog’s shoulders or neck, or bypass sniffing altogether;
- Display any combination of the following: tail high, body stiff, ears perked forward, body weight shifted forward, and/or hackles up upon approach.
How to Proceed with Dog-to-Dog Introductions
Having dogs meet and greet one another carries both risks and rewards. While no system to introduce dogs is foolproof, it’s beneficial to have a sense of how dogs react to each other; it helps you to place animals responsibly.
We also need to keep in mind that behavior changes over time as dogs grow, mature, or settle into the home environment. So how a dog behaves after a handful of meet and greets is not an “all-access pass” for guaranteed dog sociability (or lack thereof) for the life of the dog.
So how do you get started introducing dogs?
Step 1: Low-risk assessments: Use a decoy dog.
A good and often underutilized option is the use of a fake, stuffed decoy dog. This can be used for initial introductions, and to determine if you can continue to the next step: meeting a live dog. The decoy-dog approach is practical with dogs who may be dog-selective to semisolitary, and it can help screen for true dog aggression.
Decoy dogs range in size from small to large, with some sitting, lying down, or standing. I recommend a large, standing dog toy. (Melissa & Doug-brand dog toys are fairly realistic in features and size; they’re available on Amazon and are a good addition to your wish list.)
How to proceed:
- Set up your decoy dog at a distance of 20-plus feet. The decoy dog’s tail end should be facing the approaching leashed dog.
- Approach with the leashed dog, and allow him to investigate the decoy while keeping the leash loose.
- Observe the interaction, and lead the leashed dog away from the decoy.
- Circle around, and approach the decoy face to face or from different angles.
Responses when meeting a decoy can range from a dog who’s stiff or tense and quickly turns to investigate, and displays social behavior (including circling,sniffing, and lowered and loose body language), to a dog who may not want to approach, and pulls away. You may also see a dog who displays arousal and fixation, including staring or hard eye contact, crouching, or even explosive reactive barking or lunging. Removing the leashed dog and reintroducing the decoy dog at different angles can give the dog multiple opportunities to sniff and investigate. If you see a consistently stressed or aggressive response with a decoy dog, proceed with caution when greeting a live dog through a fence.
(For photos and video clips of leashed dogs approaching decoy dogs, go to flickr.com.)
Step 2: Meet and greet a live dog through a fence.
This is designed to minimize injuries by keeping dogs separated via a secure fence, while allowing for an approach, meet and greet, and observation on loose leashes. (If your experience with the dog has been positive, and you feel this is unnecessary, proceed to an on-leash meet and greet.)
How to proceed:
- Start by having a known, social dog behind a fenced area on a loose leash.
- Have your visiting dog approach the fence line, taking a slightly curved path, rather than a beeline that could be interpreted as rude or too forward.
- Allow the dogs to sniff and interact freely with loose leashes.
- Lead the dogs away from each other, and re-approach for further assessment.
To proceed with off-leash interaction, look for dogs who may pretty quickly shift from investigative behaviors to interactive behaviors. It’s typical for dogs to investigate and sniff, display stiff bodies initially and then “soften up,” shake off, look away, or sniff the ground. There may be a minimal exchange of growls, whining, or barking that typically fizzles out if a dog tends to be avoidant/dog-tolerant-to-social. Dogs who transition from stiff to soft body language repeatedly are often social and tolerant, while those who fixate continue to bark repeatedly, or get more agitated by the interaction; they may have poor greeting skills or may not have a friendly intention.
(For photos and video clips of dogs greeting through a fence and off leash, go to flickr.com.)
Step 3: On-leash meet and greet with two dogs.
This is your next option to help pair dogs for shared housing or play groups, or to help determine if a dog would be a good addition to a multiple-dog household.
How to proceed:
- Approach from a distance of 20 feet or more on loose leashes.
- Handlers should note the dogs’ body language upon approach. If all looks well, allow a meet and greet.
- Look for social greetings and invitations, such as sniffing, circling, breaking contact, or body lowering and play bows.
If you’re in an enclosed area and all goes well, drop the leashes for one or both dogs, or take the dogs off leash to allow further interaction or play.
What About Dogs Who Bark and Lunge?
Some dogs may be social or tolerant off-leash, but may bark and lunge when on a leash. An on-leash introduction with a decoy dog, or a meet and greet through the fence with another dog, may give you more information about this dog’s intention with other animals. Typically, dogs who are frustrated or fearful on leash, but truly tolerant or social with dogs, will greet a decoy dog by doing some variation of the doggie handshake, and they may need ongoing training to improve their on-leash behavior.
Housing Dogs and Play Groups
Short, off-leash play sessions are often a good way to determine if dogs can be housed together.
From my experience managing groups of dogs playing in a day care and off leash in a shelter setting, the best-run groups were on the smaller side, with dogs who are well-matched in size and play style, and who would take voluntary breaks to defuse play. Voluntary breaks include walking away, ground sniffing, shaking off, and playing for short periods of time before lying down.
- Pups younger than 5 months are great candidates for paired play, and this naturally fits their developmental learning. They should be paired with littermates, similarly aged/sized dogs, and a few stable adult dogs to help the pups learn boundaries. The goal of off-leash puppy interaction is to teach the puppy how to be socially savvy by letting him learn what does and doesn’t fly with more savvy dogs.
- Adolescent dogs 6 months to 2-plus years: Most dog day care and off-leash dog parks tend to have dogs younger than 2 years old. These dogs can range from adolescent to adult dogs who enjoy or tolerate the company of other dogs. As dogs mature, they can either remain social and friendly, or become less tolerant or more dog-selective. When forming a play group, try to select dogs who have a similar play style and tolerance of other dogs.
- Dogs 2-plus years: These are adult dogs who are mature or are approaching sexual maturity. Dogs aged 2, 3, or 4-plus years are in their prime, and may be at their peak of physical strength. Just as people tend to maintain a smaller circle of friends as they age, mature dogs tend to be tolerant-to-choosy and may be less playful. When you’re dealing with older dogs, selecting participants for play groups can be more difficult. Individual introductions can shed some light on which dogs will be a good fit for social interaction.
(For videos of dogs greeting and working up to off-leash interaction, go to flickr.com.)
Check out this video to see a good example of dogs playing, enjoying each other, and taking breaks from one another.
Off-Leash Play Myths:
All dogs need social interaction with other dogs.
False. Not all dogs are made for dog day care, dog parks, or off-leash play with strange dogs. Some dogs only do well with very well-matched dogs in a low-stress setting, while others just prefer the company of people.
All off-leash interaction is “playful.”
False. Handlers must continually evaluate off-leash dog interaction to determine if dogs are truly having “fun” or are merely tolerating the interaction.
The idea that all dogs want or need social interaction with other dogs to be healthy and enriched is a myth. While it’s a positive for many dogs, poorly matched playmates can also create very stressed dogs who learn to be defensive/aggressive or rehearse bullying behavior, or just walk around shut down and disengaged (that’s not fun for the dog, either). While some dogs love playing with other dogs, for others, spending quality one-on-one time with staff or volunteers is more helpful.
Life Beyond Dog Play
There’s a whole world out there beyond dog-to-dog play groups, too! Encourage adopters to train their dogs. Teach them about enrichment and interactive toys, and have them do more activities that their dogs love—like exploring parks and trails together.
Helping the dogs in our care cope with and alleviate their stress during their stay at the shelter is the name of the game. Pairing dogs for shared housing or play can be a wonderful outlet for social animals. Above all, consider dog-to-dog introductions so that you have a better sense of who’s in your facility, and their dog-to-dog sociability. You’ll be helping new adopters pick their best match based on their lifestyle and expectations.
Leigh Siegfried is a certified professional dog trainer and the owner of Opportunity Barks Behavior & Training, a dog training and behavior consulting company serving the Philadelphia area. For more information, visit opbarks.com.
Read the rest of this issue from Animal Sheltering magazine