Play is important in the development of both humans and dogs! Many behaviorists believe that play offers pups a safe way to explore social and emotional interactions and develop skills they will use for the rest of their life. Plus, who doesn’t love to watch two dogs play bow, with smiling mouths wide open and tongues lolling?
Sometimes play is easier said than done. Dogs who are not thoroughly socialized as young puppies or who live in single-dog homes may overreact to play invitations from other dogs. It can be hard to determine the fine line between very excited play (which is essentially a mock fight) and an imminent threat (a real fight).
Experience is the best way to learn the difference between play and fighting – let the dog park be your classroom. Dogs of all ages, breeds, and personality types come together freely, and most of the time, they resolve their own differences without the need for any human intervention. The key things to look for in good play mates are play signals (like play bows, hip tosses, and self-handicapping for the benefit of smaller, younger, or less confident playmates) and displacement signals, such as licking, sniffing, yawning, or sneezing, which should end or pause the play session. Owners are often surprised at the amount of noise and posturing a healthy play session can produce; we tend to discourage both in daily life, but they are important aspects in some play groups.
Unhealthy play looks very rough, and usually involves the more submissive dog cowering, tucking tail, averting gaze, whimpering or crying out, and can lead to fear aggression towards the rough playmate. If your dog plays at a very high level of excitement, having a strong recall (dog reliably and immediately comes when called) can prevent play from getting out of hand in social situations. Always make sure to praise your dog profusely if they leave the excitement of a game to listen to you instead.