What is Your Dog’s Play Persona?
Picture dogs in a dog park or similar “play” setting. The dog owners are there, some are even paying attention (wink). But, do they know what they are watching? With this question in mind, we recently attended a seminar where we learned about an iPhone app called Dog Park Assistant by renowned dog behavior expert, Sue Sternberg. The Dog Park Assistant app helps owners understand their dog’s “play personality” and shows them how to keep their dog safe by understanding signals that often go unnoticed. The app has prompted interesting discussion among trainers and owners alike.
Let’s see if you are realistic about your dog’s play persona. Then, let’s test your ability to read dog body language.
Most dog owners…
…have a sense for what their dogs are “saying” with their body language (but not a strong understanding.)
…watch dogs play rough and say, “it’s fine – just let them work it out.” (But, something inside them says, “should I?”)
…mean well, but don’t always do well by their dogs.
Experienced, well-studied dog trainers can help non-expert dog owners understand their dog’s body language better and teach them when/how to keep their dog out of trouble. What’s trouble, you ask? For the purposes of keeping it simple, let’s say trouble is your dog becoming distressed or your dog causing another dog to become distressed. In the best case scenario, a distressed dog is scared for a moment and then gets comfortable by moving away or when someone else intervenes. In the worst case scenario, a dog is injured or a young pup has their social outlook damaged for life. Not cool.
We often post GUESS THE BEHAVIOR CHALLENGES on our Facebook page and they lead to fascinating discussions about what’s happening between the dogs. Let’s look at a recent post and…
Test Your Skills at Reading Body Language
What do you see here that makes you comfortable? Anything make you uncomfortable? Take a moment to review the photo carefully, then look at our answers below.
If you said these dogs are playing – you are right – for the moment. You can see a wag on the left dog and both dogs are in a classic play bow position with butts up and front ends down.
But, is there cause for concern? Yes, some. The dog on the left looks a little bit uneasy. She is leaning back, her ears are pinned back (showing fear), her eyes are wide, and her lips are tensely pulled forward.
The dog on the right is assertive, with his paw on top, a forward lunge, and his muzzle right in her face. You can never tell everything in one snapshot – but, you can learn a lot and train your eyes to see key signals. Would you be surprised if the dog on the left ended up on the receiving end of a bullying session? We wouldn’t.
One sign of good play is if both dogs are willing participants. That’s something we would want to see here to be truly comfortable – both dogs continuing to come back for more. Other great signs would be lots of goofy play bows continuing throughout the interaction, with both dogs giving each other plenty of space as the wrestling and chasing carries on. Sometimes you will see interactions start as play and then tip over into something less fun, more serious. When the movements stop becoming goofy and bouncy – pay closer attention and interrupt as needed.
Learning to read dog body language takes time, but boy is it fascinating. You get better with education and practice. In CATCH classes, we study a lot of photos, videos, and live interactions to build skills. Having the Dog Park Assistant in your pocket won’t hurt either – check it out!