The Body Language of a Playful Dog

By Linda Cole

Most dog owners are familiar with the play bow dogs use to invite another dog or people to play with them. But that’s not the only signal a playful dog uses to communicate what they want. As important as it is to understand a dog’s body language to prevent problems before they start, it’s just as important to understand when your dog is playing and just wants to have some fun. A stare isn’t always meant to intimidate.

For those who may not know what a play bow is, it’s the body language dogs use to communicate to other dogs and us they aren’t a threat. Their intentions are friendly, and they are inviting us to play. The dog making the invitation puts his front legs out in front of him as if he’s getting ready to lie down, but his butt stays up in the air. His tail is held above him in a relaxed wave, and you can almost see a smile spreading across his face. Everything about his demeanor is puppy-like, happy and friendly.

Watching dogs play is an interesting expression of socialization. Playful canines love to engage in bumps, body checks, rushing at each other, growling, barking, staring and wrestling. It can appear at times like an all out battle is close at hand. This can happen if one dog has had enough play or feels a bit too intimidated by a more aggressive playing dog. Paying attention to each dog’s body language can help you determine if it’s all just play or if you need to step in and stop the game before it gets out of hand.

Besides a play bow, you might see one dog lying on the ground watching the other dog. He looks like he’s waiting for the blast of a starting gun. Another playful signal is standing still with the body low, and it looks like the dog is imitating a pointer staring at his prey. He’s waiting for the other dog to make a move, and as soon as he does, the running, growling, pawing the air and excited barking tells you how much fun they are having. The body language of both dogs is relaxed and playful. Their mouths are opened, and they may or may not have their tongues hanging out. Ears are perked up and their eyes are bright and wide open with their attention focused on each other. Each dog mounts playful attacks, leaps, jumps and retreats. Direct eye contact in this instance isn’t meant to be intimidating in an aggressive way.

If a dog doesn’t want to play after being invited, he will either walk away or ignore the invitation. Play can turn into a confrontation, however, if the playful canine doesn’t back off. An older dog who doesn’t want to play can become grumpy if the other one persists. A fearful or shy dog might feel intimidated, and a poorly socialized dog can miss signals or not fully understand what the other dog wants. Sometimes play becomes too rough and one dog decides he’s had enough. It’s no longer play if both dogs aren’t having fun.

There may be times when you need to step in to stop play. Red flags are raised hackles, snarling or lips raised with the teeth exposed, and growling that doesn’t sound playful. One dog is pinned on the ground with the other dog standing stiffly over him. Excessive mounting or laying the head on the other dog’s back or neck. Laid back ears and whale eyes, which is when you can see the whites of a dog’s eyes in a crescent moon shape. If you notice one of the dogs with his head turned away from the other one, but he’s watching him out of the corner of his eye, it’s a sign he’s feeling anxious. Whale eyes can indicate he’s becoming agitated, and it’s definitely time to stop their play, especially if you notice other red flags.

This is where it’s helpful to know who your dog is as an individual. Two of my dogs, Keikei and Dozer, play very rough with each other. Keikei often watches Dozer out of the corner of her eye just before she whirls towards him and they play attack each other. But I can’t let her play with the other dogs in the same way, because they don’t like her style of play, and they are likely to react in an aggressive way.

Dogs enjoy playing as much as children do, and it’s a good way for them to socialize. If you think one dog has had enough, before you stop play, hold both canines by their collars, then let the one you think wants to stop go. If he goes to the other dog, he’s having fun and wants to continue.

Top photo by Taro the Shiba Inu
Middle photo by Markus
Bottom photo by Cheryl Cox

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