We have all witnessed dogs having a great time playing. Play is important for the development of social skills, for the formation and maintenance of social bonds, to provide exercise and to teach hand-eye coordination. Play fighting and other play behaviors can provide practice for the real thing (Bekoff & Pierce, 2009).
To solicit play, dogs frequently offer a “play bow”. Play bows are more likely to occur when two dogs are facing one another than when facing away from each other. Dogs that are being ignored will try to get the attention of another dog by nipping, pawing, barking, nosing and bumping another dog (Bradshaw J., 2011). The “play-face”, an open mouth gesture, is also a signal to initiate play.
Gestures like the play bow signal that the inviting dog’s behavior is just meant in fun. The play bow preceding a quick approach and contact with another dog avoids the interaction leading to aggression and allows the other dog to agree to play with his or her own friendly gesture in response (Hare & Woods, 2013).
To keep things even, dogs will “self-handicap” and play at the level of their play partner, taking the partner’s abilities and behavior into account. Dogs who do not follow the rules of play, for example, by barging in on others, are shunned by the dogs who are playing politely (Horowitz, 2009).
Sometimes conflict can arise out of play between dogs. Guardians can reduce the chances of any conflict between dogs by having them play in a neutral area, and avoid interactions between dogs who are mismatched in behavior and who do not adapt to each other. Owners should intervene if one or more dogs’ level of arousal is too high or when one dog is overwhelmed by another dog or when one dog tries to prevent others from playing. In addition, food should not be in the play area (Kaufer, 2013).
Play should not be too long in duration nor overwhelming for any participant.