Watching a variety of different dogs play is one of the biggest benefits of my part-time job. Dogs really know how to party, and the joy they get from play can be contagious:
Mini-breaks and Time-outs
In this video you several breaks in the action, even in just under a minute of elapsed time. This is a good thing. I highlighted the big one in the video, and there was another right after I stop filming (naturally) where Caffeine was gagging (it happens during allergy season and no, it’s not the collar) and Buddha politely stopped and waited for her to reach up and mouth him to resume play. I really wish I hadn’t stopped filming!
This kind of cooperation is what we want to see. It doesn’t always look exactly like this of course, because all dogs are different and play differently. It’s possible to draw broad generalizations about breeds – retrievers tend to like to mouth wrestle and end up with their heads literally soaked, bully breeds tend to slam dance, some herding breeds like to play tag — however the "tagging" better be gentle — but as I’ve said before, these are broad generalizations and are not always true. Know your dog, and know your dog’s friends.
Symmetry and Handicapping
Patricia McConnell talks about self-handicapping frequently on her blog and in her talks. It’s an important part of play. In the video I highlight a point where Buddha offers to let Caffeine pounce on him for a bit. She rarely takes him up on this offer. She likes to play on the floor and even did that when we had a much larger dog that played much more roughly with her.
In the puppy playgroups at Kellar’s Canine Academy we have a "regular" named Lucy, a 8 month old or so Pit Bull mix, who is an absolute master at self-handicapping. She can switch from letting a tiny puppy half her size jump on her and nibble her face to slam-dancing with her best friend, a 70 pound Rottweiler puppy, in seconds.
Some dogs can adjust play styles. I’m fortunate that Buddha and Caffeine (with the few dogs she will play with) can and will do this. It’s not necessarily common and don’t expect your dog or the dogs you come across to do so. Some dogs take offense, even in the middle of a play session, to a bitten ear or a jumped-upon face. The question is, how do they react? A warning and/or disengaging from play is just fine. Retaliation is usually not.
In a safe environment dogs always have the option to end play by stopping and, if nexessary, leaving the area. This means (at least) two things must be true: the area is big enough for a dog to be able to leave the area of play and the participants are in control to take the hint when a dog wants a break.
So What’s Actually Acceptable?
This is an excellent video, worth watching a few times, about play and body language:
One of the more interesting parts of my apprenticeship was watching how different trainers handled playgroups in both puppy classes and with adult dogs. Some were very hands on and quick to enforce a break in the action. Other tending to go with the flow and tried to engineer things more by strategically picking playgroups.
I came away a bit of a laissez faire attitude, and the fact that I have had to deal with small groups and then ideal facilities (until very recently) have forced me to improvise. I want to see regular breaks in the action. I don’t like to see too many high-speed chases, dogs up on their hind legs, and dogs that seem overwhelmed or afraid need to be helped by pairing them up with appropriate playmates. But attempts to support one dog or another or to enforce specific rules of play are not my thing.
What has your experience with playgroups been?