Beware the play time parasites

Symbiotic play is about give and take. It’s about revving up and revving down. And too many dog owners don’t know how to look for the signs that their dog is distressed and needs them to step in-between to ratchet down the level of play or give their dog a break.

Symbiotic play is about give and take. It’s about revving up and revving down. And too many dog owners don’t know how to look for the signs that their dog is distressed and needs them to step in-between to ratchet down the level of play or give their dog a break.

Bulling, especially at schools, has received a lot of attention in recent times as we try to eliminate poor behavior and protect children from getting hurt.

But do we know how to recognise the signs when our dog is getting bullied? Often we don’t because dog play may appear to be fair and equitable, when it isn’t. Dogs naturally run around when playing with each other and just because there isn’t fur flying or we can’t hear growling does it mean that everyone is having a good time.

Consider this scenario. It’s a sunny afternoon and a couple of owners have brought their dogs down to the off-leash park. A young Kelpie and Labrador retriever are playing together, or so it seems at first glance. The Kelpie doing what it does best, tries to round up the Lab as if it were still a working dog on a sheep farm. At first the Lab give a great play bow – the universal invitation to play in dog language – crouched down on his front legs, backside in the air with the tail wagging slowly from side-to-side.

As the Kelpie makes its running approach, aimed like an arrow at the Lab, the Lab runs away in that goofy run from side-to-side that dogs do when they are pretending to be chased. The Lab then decides it’s time to turn the tables on the Kelpie, turning around to give chase. But the Kelpie will have none of it, perhaps even giving the Lab little nips to keep it in check as its fore bearers on the farm would have done with their wooly charges.

What happens next is critical as not all play is equal. If the Lab keeps running away without being given any reprieve over and over, it is being bullied. I have seen this happen over and over again in dog parks all around Sydney. The owners stand sipping their coffees, looking at their mobile screens or talking to each other about the weekend’s footy result.What I call symbiotic play is about give and take. It’s about revving up and revving down. And too many dog owners don’t know how to look for the signs that their dog is distressed and needs them to step in-between to ratchet down the level of play or give their dog a break.

So what does symbiotic play look like? It’s about mostly equal parts chasing and running away. It’s about dogs giving each other a ‘time out’, even if it’s just for a few seconds, if one dog shows signs of being harassed. Then letting the chased party resume the play, not the other way around.

The problem is that when in that highly excitable stage, some animals forget their manners and just don’t read the signs in their playmates. Or they have not learnt to moderate their play. Puppy schools that let dogs free play with no moderation by the trainer is one of the causes of this, as well as owners who let their dogs play with others without any supervision or management.

This leads to what I call parasitic play. All chase from one or more parties with no give, no time outs allowed for the one being chased or sniffed or followed or whatever. I’ve seen dogs back up between their human’s legs for protection, the dog trying to make frequent eye contact, with the human simply stepping away to avoid spilling a drop of their precious coffee – ignoring the obvious signs that their dog is requiring assistance.

As the thinking party in the companion animal relationship, the human owner can make a significant difference. Simply even separating the dogs for a few seconds, rewarding the calm with a food treat and seeing if your dog then goes back for another round of chase-my-tail will make for a happier, confident and less fearful dog (one who may later lash out with a growl or a bite in self defense if this level of fear is allowed to escalate). Nobody likes being bullied and neither do dogs.

So what are the signs your dog is experiencing distress? There are some quite obvious signs you can look out for:

  • The dog is constantly running away with no opportunity to become the chaser
  • The dog runs under a chair, under your legs, under a tree and backs up against it in an attempt to find a physical shelter from their playmate who has turned aggressor
  • Making eye contact with you within this context of other signs, signaling for help
  • Typical fear or stress-related body postures such as tail tucked between the legs, lip locking, ears flat or back and eyes wide open.
  • If the dog does get a chance for a time out it may start sniffing the ground which is one of the ways they diffuse stress.

If your dog is being bullied, speak up calmly to other owners and ask them to help you help your dog – making them aware at the same time what good manners at play time look like.

Similarly, watch for your dog being the bully by observing how the other dogs are interacting and if necessary, break up the play until the other dog shows signs of wanting to resume the chase, or not. This is a good opportunity to ask your pup for a sit and give them a treat to distract from the play.

If necessary – whether the victim or the bully – remove your dog from the environment as keeping it there longer is not going to be beneficial for anyone involved. Walk away if you have to.

I wish I had somebody to speak up for me when I was being bullied at primary school for wearing glasses. So I’m sure your dog will appreciate you for it.

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