Games Dogs Play

Pilot and Sasha playing a rousing game of bitey-face

When children get together in groups they often play the same standard, well-known games with each other.  All children know how to play tag and hide-and-seek, for example, and it’s clear to the participants what the general rules are for each game.  When dogs are together in groups, they also have their own standard games that they play together, also with clear-cut rules.  And just like children, some prefer certain games over others.   Listed below are the most common games that dogs play with each other.

Bitey-Face:  Many dogs enjoy this rough game, named because they literally grab onto each others faces and necks and bite.  Some will growl and/or show their teeth during this play, and many of my human students get concerned when they see Little Princess snarling and grabbing another dog’s cheek fur – or panic when it happens to Little Princess herself!  No matter how vicious this play sounds or how much the dogs are displaying “Ugly Face” (eyes narrowed and lips drawn back in a snarl), most of the time this interaction between socialized, friendly dogs is quite harmless. 

To determine what’s really going on between the dogs, one has to tune out the sounds and focus on the body language.  Are the mouths open with floppy tongues?  Are the ears relaxed?  Are the body movements of the dogs relaxed and floppy?  Are they going down into play-bows (bent front legs) and turning their heads and bodies sideways to the other dogs as they play?  Are they trading off who’s on top and who’s on the bottom in their doggie piles?  Are they taking brief breaks (even a couple of seconds) inbetween “attacks” on each other?  All these are very good signs, and evidence that the interaction going on between the two whirling dervishes is pure play. 

If either of the dogs looks tense, is moving stiffly or staring, or of course appears to be trying to get away from the other dog, it may be a good idea to cheerfully intervene and distract them into another activity.  Not all dogs like to be mauled by other dogs (though many LOVE it).  Also with rough play, sometimes if it goes on too long the two can get over-stimulated or aggravated with each other.  It is a good idea to monitor this type of play closely, and if the two dogs aren’t giving themselves breaks regularly, impose brief rest periods on them. 

Dogs who know each other well are far more likely to engage in rougher play than two canine strangers.  Though puppies are not known for having well-honed social skills and may be rude, well-socialized adult dogs normally know not to rush up to just any other adult dog and pounce upon his head without a bit of an introduction.   That introduction may be very brief and subtle, such as a quick turn of the heads and bodies, but it’s there.

If you are not sure if a dog is enjoying getting his ears chewed, you can give him the Bully Test.  Have the owner of the other dog gently restrain him from approaching your dog for a moment.  If your dog is into it, he’ll run right back to the other dog for more.  If he needed a break, he is likely to shake himself off and walk in the other direction.  In that case, redirect the other dog into another play activity or to another play partner.

Chase-Chase:  Some dogs like to chase, some like to be chased, and others don’t care who is in pursuit of whom as long as there is running involved.  But this game can get a little tricky.   To most dogs, another dog running fast is an invitation for a chase.  But that running dog may just like to zoom around, or may start out enjoying her chase game until she looks back and sees a gang of furry thugs on her tail.  The frightened dog is likely to run faster, which makes the chasing dogs also pick up the speed.  Again, look at the body language of the dog to see if she is enjoying herself.  A tense jaw, wide eyes, and tucked tail are a call for help. 

It’s also quite dicey to allow larger dogs to chase a small dog.  Even if the small dog has played with those dogs in the past with no problem, many dogs can drift into a predatory state of mind when pursuing a small, running animal – especially when running in a pack.  This is why it’s very important to keep small dogs in areas constructed for the littler guys when in a dog park, and not allow them to run willy-nilly with the big guys. 

Tug:  If you’ve ever seen a big dog playing tug-of-war with a little dog and allowing the tyke to pull back, you’ll see evidence that this game has nothing to do with “dominance.”  It’s not about who wins, it’s simply about the act of tugging itself.  Many dogs just love to grab onto something and pull.   My rottweiler mix used to lie on the on her side with one end of a tug toy in her mouth while my border collie dragged her all over the house by pulling on the other end.  Meanwhile both would be growling so loudly that the TV was drowned out. 

The danger of tug is that the two dogs can end up with their faces very close to each other.  Polite dogs let each other know they are not a threat to each other by avoiding direct eye contact and, if face-to-face, it’s only for a very brief period before they turn away.  In tug they may be forced into an inadvertent “stare each other down” position.  So you do want to watch dogs playing tug to ensure that they don’t begin to misunderstand each others’ messages while in play.  Even with a long tug toy, a lot of dogs will just choose to grasp it in the same place and end up nose to nose.

Keep-Away:  This is my favorite doggie game to watch, and also one of my border collie’s favorites to play.  She will grab a toy, perhaps initially intent upon chewing on it or bringing it to a human for a throw, and then she will notice that another dog wants it.  Her tail starts to wag and she holds it out as if she’s going to offer it to the other dog, but her face will be slightly turned away.  For all intents and purposes, she looks as though she’s minding her own business and ignoring the other dog, except that her eyes keep cutting over in his direction.  Though her mouth is closed to hold the toy, it is still relaxed.  When the other dog goes to grab the toy, she springs into action and whips it away.  Sometimes she’ll run a few steps in the other direction, but if he doesn’t chase her, she’ll come back and do her doggie version of sticking it in the other dog’s face again.  Often if the other dog does grab the other end of the toy, it turns into a game of tug.

Her body is loose and floppy and her face relaxed, as in all games.  That’s the best way to determine that the dog is playing keep-away, and not just trying to keep the object for himself.  Normally if he’s not playing the game and simply wants the object, he will try to take it somewhere away from the rest of the dogs and get tense if they follow, or freeze in a stiff and still position.  That’s probably a good time to trade off for a different toy and redirect him into another activity.

When determining what dogs to allow to play together, I pay more attention to play-style than I do size.  For example, a Jack Russell terrier may play a very rough and noisy game of bitey-face, and be better paired with a good-natured, tolerant golden than a Maltese who would prefer to play chase-chase. 

No matter what games your dog likes to play, there is no better entertainment for the dog lover than dog play as a spectator sport.  Let the games begin!