The popularity of dog parks has led to a vast increase in play opportunities for dogs and their owners: some take their dogs to parks, some to play groups, some to “doggy day care” facilities. Others organize “play dates” so that a smaller number of familiar dogs can interact together. Because of its popularity, many owners feel their dog needs off-leash play in order to be happy and healthy. The question is: how does the dog feel about it?
Play serves a very important purpose for young dogs, particularly puppies. In addition to burning off energy in a safe way, interactive play teaches puppies how to behave around different types of dogs. It teaches them important rules about bite inhibition and appropriate play styles, and inoculates them against dog aggression as adults. Adolescents continue this education in the presence of older, well-socialized dogs who can teach them their limits without causing harm. Without such experience, adolescent dogs can carry overly rough, “bullying” play styles into adulthood, potentially resulting in fights with other dogs.
In general, socially mature dogs show minimal interest in play. There are always exceptions: some breeds (such as sporting breeds) may show a prolonged adolescence, with play behavior continuing past two or three years of age. In general, however, mature dogs – particularly females – neither need nor enjoy large amounts of off-leash play. As mentioned above, well-socialized adults can still play a valuable role among youngsters, splitting up rough play and discouraging inappropriate behavior (through eye contact and body language).
Consider this human analogy: while it’s common to see elementary and middle-school children playing tag and pushing each other around boisterously, one doesn’t generally see such behavior in adults. One may indeed see the occasional group of adult men at the park playing touch-football on a Saturday, while adult women are more likely to talk and visit than rough-house. One can say the same about our dogs: play is most common and most useful for puppies and adolescent dogs, less applicable to socially mature adults.
So how do we know if our dogs are enjoying themselves? Watch for these positive signs while dogs are playing:
Self-handicapping: “fighting” with attenuated force (biting, but softly; pinning, but lightly, quickly, etc.)
Role-reversals and activity shifts: first I chase, then you chase; first we wrestle, then we lie down; you’re on top, I’m on top, etc.
Activity punctuated with play signals:
With these behaviors in mind, what kinds of dogs don’t benefit from off-leash play?
Aggressive, fearful, reactive and elderly dogs would all be better served by other kinds of activities. Many well-intentioned people bring dogs of these kinds to parks to “socialize” them: it bears repeating that socialization only benefits dogs if it is enjoyable for them. Throwing a fearful or reactive dog in over her head will likely do more harm than good, so such dogs might benefit more from planned interactions with 1-2 calm, well-socialized dogs. Unfortunately, many people are unfamiliar with canine stress signals and may not know that their dog is frightened or overwhelmed: use the “good signs” above as a starting point when observing your dog at the park. If he or she doesn’t demonstrate any of them, it’s probably time to go home.
For most elderly dogs, play is neither natural nor enjoyable. Most prefer to spend time with their owners or “buddy” dogs rather than cavort with unruly youngsters. Their natural reaction – to “snark” at boisterous dogs who crowd them – often frightens other visitors who don’t know how to interpret the behavior. Of course, there are always exceptions: if your 12-year-old terrier enjoys the park and shows the play signals described above, there’s nothing wrong with taking him there.
The elephant in the room takes the form of a question: is play fun for your dog, or simply fun for you? There’s nothing wrong with going to a park or play session without your dog if your goal is to enjoy the atmosphere and socialize with other dog owners. If it truly is for your dog, make sure he’s having fun…and don’t be afraid to stop if he isn’t.
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