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Dog Play Fighting: Rough and Tumble Language

Over a decade of dedicated research by animal behaviorists, including the work of Dr. Barbara Smuts and Dr. Camille Ward, has shed light on a fascinating aspect of canine behavior: what might appear as “rough” or “aggressive” play is often simply a form of play fighting. This article delves into the world of dog play, exploring the subtle differences between play and aggression, the signals dogs use to communicate their playful intentions, and the crucial role play fighting plays in their social development.

Beyond the Growls and Bites: Understanding Play Fighting

The scientific term “play fighting” reflects the resemblance it has to real fights, despite being a form of social play. Play can indeed appear rough, with dogs chasing, tackling, or using neck bites to bring each other down. They might also engage in hip checks, slams, mounts, rear-ups, bites, and barks, alongside growls, snarls, and bared teeth. Even seemingly submissive postures like chin-overs (placing their chin on their partner’s neck) are part of the play repertoire.

However, crucial differences distinguish play from real fights. During play, bites are inhibited, meaning they lack full force. Dogs might even give their “opponent” an advantage, like rolling on their backs or letting themselves be caught, behaviors never seen in true fights.

Dog Play Fighting: Play Bows and More

Beyond toned-down bites and self-handicapping, dogs use clear signals to demarcate play. These include “play bows,” where the front half of their body dips while the rear stays up, and exaggerated bounciness.

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson coined the term “meta-communication” for these play signals, signifying communication about communication. Similar to how humans utilize humor cues like a smile or specific tone to convey they’re joking, dogs use play bows to both invite play and clarify their playful intentions during it.

Research by Marc Bekoff revealed that dogs often play bow just before or after an intense play behavior, like a bite with a head shake. This suggests their awareness of potentially misconstrued actions and their efforts to reassure their partner with a playful reminder.

Unveiling the Pretense: Meta-communication in Play

This “meta-communication” allows creatures like dogs and humans to enter a playful world governed by different rules. It enables them to “pretend,” meaning performing actions that seem like one thing but hold a different meaning. For those unfamiliar with this ability in animals, witnessing play that includes aggressive behaviors like growling can be unsettling. However, context is key in distinguishing play aggression from real aggression.

Dog Play Fighting Intervention: Potential Benefits and Drawbacks

Despite the distinct nature of play fighting, humans often feel compelled to intervene. While two dogs initially playing might appear clear, their intensifying growls or arousal can lead bystanders to question the playfulness. After all, humans instinctively tend to avoid snarling or teeth-baring dogs, assuming the same for their canine companions. When humans interrupt seemingly aggressive play, they believe they are “playing it safe.” Yet, this assumption might be misguided.

Our research suggests that play fighting serves as a crucial tool for many dogs to build new social bonds and establish lasting friendships. While enjoyable, play also provides a valuable platform for communication between dogs, making it a form of language. So, by regularly stopping what we perceive as “inappropriate” play, are we hindering our dogs’ social development by disrupting their crucial conversations? Most importantly, how can we discern the difference between play and aggression?

This article paves the way for further discussion in the next section, exploring how to differentiate between play fighting and real aggression, allowing us to better understand and support our canine companions in their playful interactions.

When in Doubt, Seek Expert Help: Ensuring Safe Play for Your Dog

While this article sheds light on the complexities of dog play fighting, deciphering genuine aggression from playful behavior can still be challenging. Remember, every dog is an individual, and their play styles can vary significantly. If you are unsure about how your dog interacts with other dogs, or if you are concerned about the possibility of them exhibiting aggressive behavior, seeking professional guidance from a certified animal behaviorist or qualified trainer can be incredibly beneficial. They can help you understand your dog’s communication signals, provide training strategies to promote positive interactions, and ensure the safety and well-being of both your dog and others

TAILored Pet Services LLC’s certified dog trainer professionals can help you understand your dog’s unique play style, navigate challenging situations with other dogs, and ensure safe and healthy social interactions for your furry friend. Don’t hesitate to contact TAILored Pet Services LLC today to learn more about their dog training services and how they can help you and your dog navigate the world of play!

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