Is It All Just Play & Games?

When dogs play things can get rough and sound tough. With all that wrestling, chasing, biting at each other, growling and barking, how do you know if all just play? With some dogs it’s easy to know. They are quiet and rolling around on the floor, or joyfully chasing each other about. But with other dogs the play can be more intense, loud and boisterous. How do you know if your dog it truly enjoying the interactions with another dog? How do you know if you should intercede, or just let the dogs go and work it out?

The answer is M.A.R.S. Learning about M.A.R.S. allows you to observe your dog’s play with an educated eye and know when to let dog play, when to step in for a break, or when to end the interactions.  

What is M.A.R.S.? Meta-Signals, Activity Shifts, Role Reversal & Self Handicapping. These for components are a part f all healthy play between dogs.

Meta-Signals: These are gestures, actions and behavior patterns that form part of a wordless language, understood by all well socialized dogs, and which mean that they are simply pretending and playing and not serious. Meta signals say “what follows is play”. Look for play bows, bouncy motion, inefficient movements, play faces that offer goofy expressions like grinning.  

Activity Shifts: When dogs play they should not get stuck in one activity, such as chasing. The play should periodically change and be punctuated with meta-signals to communicate that what follows is just play. Dogs may go from a game of chasing, to rolling about on the ground, as an example.

Role Reversal: In good play the rolls often, but not always revers. One dog may chase, and then become the one being chased. In wresting one might be on top, and in the next moment the one on the bottom. There is not always perfect role reversal when dogs play. Some dogs may prefer to be on the bottom when wresting, or to be the one being chased.

Self-Handicapping: When dogs play in a healthy manner they reduce the level of force as to not injure their play mates. Behaviors such as biting, body slamming are inhibited so as to allow the play to continue and not cause harm.

These four components of good play ensure that the participants are having fun and actually engaged in mutual play.

The presence of biting, wresting, growling or chasing is not a problematic. As long as M.A.R.S. is present it’s all play.

Are you still not comfortable with all that ruckus? Still not sure if it’s all just play and your dog is really enjoying him/herself? Then let’s talk about Consent Testing. A consent test will tell you if your dog gives permission to style of play and wants to happily engage.

To do a Consent Test, calmly remove your dog from the play interactions. What just a few moments and then release him/her to rejoin the activities, if they want to. Does your dog go back to play? Great, they are enjoying themselves and want to play more. Do they wander off to sniff and fidget about? They may need a break before interacting again, or may just be saying “NO”, I don’t want to play with that dog. Do they wander off to play with another dog? Great, they are telling you that they choose a new play partner. They might not have been comfortable with the last dog. Do they hide behind you or another obstacle in the area, or try to retreat? Time to leave. Your dog is not having fun and you should honor your dog’s lack of comfort and end the session.

During play, timid, shy, or small dogs, and puppies in particular, need to be protected from bigger and/or more exuberant dogs. Pick your dog’s play partners carefully. Play should be fun and a mutually engaging activity for all involved.

Some dogs may need help to improve their play skills. If your dog needs help learning appropriate play skills contact us for assistance.

Dog owners should become familiar with these components of good play, and how to do consent testing when in doubt. If you are not comfortable with the interactions your dog is having with another dog do not hesitate to calmly step in and separate the dogs. If you are at a dog park and do not feel comfortable with how another dog may be playing, be prepared to leave. You are your dog’s advocate. It is up to you to set up good play and enrichment opportunities.

Happy Training!

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