Why Does My Dog DO that? This week’s topic: Play Behaviors | Blogs

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Why Does My Dog DO that? This week’s topic: Play Behaviors
Blogs, People, Pets
Why Does My Dog DO that?  This week’s topic:  Play Behaviors

This morning when Dexter Puggle entered the school playground, he stood still with his back legs slightly apart and allowed his pals (about eight of them) to gather all around his body and sniff him all over.  His tail was up and wagging yet the hair along his back was beginning to stand up slightly.  Dexter, in my opinion, was practicing some excellent social behavior.  He was giving the dogs already on the scene a chance to sniff him and figure out who he was and what he was all about.  Though Dexter is a very busy, energetic dog, he was savvy enough to wait a few moments until introductions were completed before charging off into play.  His stance was neutral and nonthreatening, yet the piloerection (that’s the scientific name for a dog’s hair standing up along his back) indicated that he was a bit unsure and perhaps slightly nervous.

There are a host of play behaviors your dog uses or attempts to use to communicate with potential playmates.  Some are clear-cut and obvious; others are more subtle and can have more than one meaning, depending on the situation.  We humans would be wise to spend some time observing our dogs at play so we begin to understand this intricate and powerful set of communication skills.

PLAY BOW:  Paws extended in front, elbows near/on the ground, butt high in the air, tail wagging.  This is an invitation to play and may be accompanied by a bark or two.  The dog displaying a play bow is ready to romp.

PILOERECTION:  When a dog’s hair stands up along the neck and ridge of the spine, it can indicate that the dog is nervous or on edge.  Often, when dogs are making introductions for the first time, you will note the hair rising.  As the nervous dog gets more comfortable, the hair will settle back down.  If the dog has an unsuccessful or worrisome interaction, other body signals may further indicate that the dog’s stress level is continuing to rise.

STIFF BODY POSTURE:  When a dog stiffens his body, he is indicating that he is less open, socially.  Perhaps the dog he is meeting/greeting has caused some fear to develop.  I often see my male Lab stop short in front of an unknown dog and puff out his chest, pull his ears up and back, raise his chin and stiffen his body.  This usually happens when the other dog is male and my dog is trying to “show” how big and bossy he is.   

SOFTENED BODY POSTURE:  A shy dog, or one who lacks confidence socially, may tuck her tail, bow her head, avert her eyes and may even squat a bit and leak urine in the presence of another unknown dog.  My female Lab takes this even further and often flips onto her back and goes “belly up” to show just how nonthreatening she is, especially if the dog she is meeting has dominant energy.  All of these behaviors communicate to the other dog that Tonya means him no harm and will not challenge him.

PAW ON SHOULDER:  You may see your dog come up along the side of a new dog and attempt to place a paw on the dog’s shoulder.  This is a bit of a dominant gesture and may escalate into an act of humping behavior if the other dog does not communicate (usually by quickly turning away from or toward the other dog) that it’s NOT okay to be bossy.  A paw on the shoulder is a dog’s way of testing whether s/he can be the boss of the friendship....at least initially.

STANDING OVER:  I often see a larger pup attempting to stand over a smaller pup.  This sometimes happens when the smaller pup has wild energy.  When a dog stands over another dog, it often means they are trying to gain control of that dog or his behavior.  Sometimes the posture will stiffen if allowed to continue.  When puppies do this, I usually gently hold the dog on top and allow the one underneath to extricate him or herself.

LICKING:  When a dog attempts to lick another dog's face, it is often a submissive gesture.  My adult Labs experience this a lot when they come out during the school day to interact with my puppy students.  This is a pup's way of saying, "I really like you and you can totally be the boss of me."  Done to excess, this can sometimes aggravate the dog being licked, as it's a bit annoying.

HUMPING:  When dogs engage in humping behavior, it’s not necessarily a sexually-motivated behavior.  Often, a dog will hump another dog when excited.  Dogs also hump  as an attempt to be bossy or dominant.  If they can get away with it (i.e. the dog being humped allows the behavior), this reinforces the behavior and the dog is more likely to practice it again.  Sometimes, the more submissive dog in a two-dog household will attempt to hump the more dominant dog when s/he is busy or engaged in play with another dog.  In this case, the more submissive dog is taking the opportunity to gain some confidence in the relationship when it’s relatively “safe” to do so.  My female Lab does this A LOT to my male Lab when he is distracted and/or excited about something (a person at the door, a new dog, etc.)  She does it because she can get away with it while Casco is busy.  And she’s usually in an excited state when she hops on.

LIP-LIFTING and SHOWING TEETH:  I often see this behavior in shy/nervous pups when they first start school with me or come to puppy play hour for the first time.  Usually, the pup is lacking in social confidence and is using the behavior to warn other dogs to back off.  It has been my experience that lifting of the lip and growling, if the pup is allowed to continue the interaction a bit, quickly diminish and disappear from the pup’s repertoire of social cues once s/he has seen that other dogs will observe the cues and give the pup a bit of space.  Often, the shy/nervous pup needs a slower approach and more space to gain confidence and learn to trust other pups.  Sadly, dogs who have not been given the opportunity to work through their issues and gain confidence and comfort around other dogs early in life are often the dogs who progress from lip-lifting and shows of teeth to actual biting.   Here at my puppy school, the incidents of dogs biting each other in aggressive acts have been extremely rare.

Here are a few tips for managing and facilitating your dog’s social interactions with other  dogs:

If you have a new puppy, it is imperative that you get your puppy to places where s/he can play with AGEMATES.  Puppies learn from each other and desperately need to practice social behavior together.  They learn to soften their bites and gentle-down their power by interacting with other puppies.  Puppies give each other tons of social cues and they learn to interpret these cues by spending time in each other’s presence.  

If you are socializing on-leash, do everything you can to keep your leashes loose rather than taut, and keep your own demeanor relaxed.  Taut leashes tend to make dogs feel like they can’t escape the social encounter if they need to.  Anxiousness, nervousness and edginess on the part of their owners is easily picked up on by dogs.  Stay calm and confident.

If your dog is nervous/shy, provide a bit of shelter for your dog by bending at the knees and allowing your dog to take his/her time in engaging, hiding behind or between your legs for security.  If your dog is exhibiting signs of stress, place yourself between him and the other dog to see if this helps a bit.  Ask the owner of the other dog to hold his/her dog back a bit and see how your dog responds.  If your shy dog continues to sniff the other dog or move toward the other dog, chances are that the interaction is okay and that your dog is still engaged and interested....but needs a slower, more careful pace.  Given time and encouragement, a shy pup will come out of his/her shell and learn to trust other dogs.

If your dog has had bad experiences with other dogs getting in his space, threatening or otherwise roughing him up, consider setting up some play dates with dogs that he has had good experiences with.  Meet for some play in a fenced-in area so the dogs can play off-leash.  It’s very important that dogs who have had negative or scary social experiences regain their confidence and joyfulness around other dogs as soon as possible.  

When I am supervising groups of dogs at play here at school or in my Sunday play hour, I always have a squirt bottle of water with me. Often, a quick squirt from the bottle can turn a tense, potentially dangerous situation into a non-event.  The squirt gets the dogs’ attention immediately and they often STOP what they’re doing and look at me.  I give a verbal warning to “go easy” or “settle down.”  Usually, the dogs will do a “shake off” by literally shaking their head and body.  This is like resetting the social clock.  It indicates that the tense situation is over and they are back in control and ready to start fresh.  

I spend ten hours per day, four days per week supervising dogs and puppies at play and have learned to respect the intricate and powerful set of social cues they use.  Communicating through body posture, eye contact and growls/barks is very important in a dog’s social world.  Very few actual dog fights occur in my presence.  I attribute that to my role as a firm and in-control pack leader as well as to the dogs becoming savvy social communicators through practice.  With lots of supervised play, they come to respect each other, know each other well and enjoy their time together.


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