Play Behavior Truths

 In Friends of Toto Blog

One of the great benefits of being in the pet industry is that I get to hear from a variety of animal behaviorists.  It truly is fascinating to hear the various points of view and interpretations of people across the globe.  It also highlights how much we still need to learn about animal behaviors and what they mean.

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to listen to a presentation by Dr. Karen London (PhD).  Since then, a bunch of her material has been popping up online.  She posted an article (link is at the end of this post) the other day that I thought our customers would benefit from.

Discerning “play” vs. something that looks like play can be a challenge.  It’s something that we are continuously watching for at the daycare.  While we tend to err on the side of caution, when dogs are in another setting (e.g. dog parks!), it can get tricky.  I thought I would highlight some of the items from Dr. London’s list and add my own personal commentary:

1.  Dog Park Is Not For Every Dog (and neither is dog daycare).  Beyond my staff’s physical safety and the dog’s physical safety, I see my priority as making sure the dogs are comfortable and benefiting from some kind of stimulation.  I will often describe dogs as I do people:  Some people are dog people (e.g. they much prefer the company of their dogs rather than other people) and some people are people people (e.g. they prefer the company of other people).  Dogs are the same I think.  Some dogs will very much enjoy the company of other dogs, others . . . not so much.  We have three personal dogs and two are in the former company and the other just enjoys spending time with dad up front.  There’s no judgement in either dynamic . . . just a reality that we should be sensitive to.

2.  Play should be balanced.  Always be on the look out for the dog that is always being chased (and is never the chaser).  In my experience, when play is one sided, it has the potential to devolve into a bully situation.  Good play is balanced:  Sometimes I’m running in front and sometimes I’m chasing you.  If your dog is constantly doing the chasing, it might be a good idea to re-direct their attention elsewhere for a bit.  If your dog is constantly being chased, make sure they’re not getting bullied.  It couldn’t hurt to just give everyone a breather every so often with human intervention.

3.  Growling does NOT equal aggression.  As I noted earlier, one of our personal dogs doesn’t really enjoy playing with other dogs.  She communicates this to other dogs by growling if they come too close.  She’s not being aggressive — she’s communicating what she’s comfortable with.  Ideally, the person or dog receiving the message interprets it correctly and leaves the dog alone.  If they persist, the situation will escalate.  She might snap or do a low level bite (e.g. not break skin, but teeth will make an impact).  All of that aggression though can be avoided if we listen to the growl.  For that reason, it’s particularly important that we not train the growl out of the dog.  Doing so means we lose that warning signal.

Again, I’d recommend everyone read through the whole article.  Dr. London seems to really know her stuff!


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