Watching dogs play can be really fun... and a little unnerving. Sometimes it is really difficult to tell if the dogs are matched well in their play styles or if they are even playing at all! Part of it is knowing your own dog, certainly, but there is a whole lot more.
Let's unpack some really easy things to look out for along with strategies for when you are still not quite sure.
It is worth noting that dogs have different play styles. Some dogs like the rough and tumble style where there is a lot wrestling and pinning complete with a fair amount of vocalization. Others have a more chill play style where much of their play consists of rolling on the floor and softly mouthing. AND there is everything in between. All play styles are acceptable as long as it is comfortable for all the dogs involved.
We can use MARS (Meta-signals, Activity Shifts, Role Reversal, Self-handicapping) to help guide us in determining if the dogs are playing.
Meta-signals are the way a dog indicates to other dogs that what follows is play. It makes their intentions clear. Meta-signals include things like play bows, spins, bouncy, loose, relaxed, and inefficient movements, and happy facial expressions. You should see meta-signals throughout a play session.
Activity shifts indicate the changes in the types of activities that the dogs are engaging in. You might see them chasing one another, then switch to a game of tug or they may start wrestling. In short, dogs should not get stuck in a singular behavior. As play activities change, you should see the meta-signals we discussed.
Role reversal can be a little fuzzy in that healthy play is not always marked by perfect role reversal. Some dogs just tend to prefer to be chased or be the chaser OR be on top/bottom when wrestling. Here is where knowing your dog and watching for the meta-signals are helpful tools. In general, it is a good sign of healthy play if you see some turn-taking in being chased and chaser, being on top and bottom when wrestling, etc.
Self-handicapping, or self-limiting, is when dogs alter their play to level the playing field. This is key when the dogs playing are mismatched in size and/or strength. You should not see a large dog playing with a young or small dog with the same intensity they might play with a dog that is the same size as them.
Still not sure?
One way to determine if both dogs are having a good time, especially in cases where clear MARS is not present is by consent testing.
Consent testing works by separating the dogs, releasing the dog you are concerned about, and letting them determine if they want to re-engage in play, find another play partner (if available), or rest. If the dog does re-engage with the original dog, you can conclude that they are enjoying play.
BUT... how do we separate two playing dogs? It really depends on the training level of the dogs involved! For dogs with more experience, you can recall them or use your attention noise to refocus their attention on you and temporarily stop play. If they do not have this type of training experience, you can lure them out of play or gently get a hold of their collar and guide them away. I highly urge you to skill up your dog's recall and response to an attention noise in highly distracting environments.
Some additional tips to be aware of:
Play should be monitored, especially with dogs that do not know each other well
Puppies, small, or timid dogs deserve close attention
Stiff or still body posture and prolonged eye contact are cause for concern; end the session
Take frequent breaks in play, especially as play intensity escalates
Move around as dogs are playing. This discourages them from getting stuck and encourages activity shifts.
If play gets rough and one of the dogs yelps, a period of disengagement (separation) should naturally follow. If not, help make it happen!
Some dogs get along well, but are not well matched in play styles. Don't force it.
In the end, it is your job to advocate for your dog. Focus on MARS, but if you are not sure you can do consent testing and let the dogs indicate if they are enjoying the play. Please don't worry about offending the other dog's owner. It is much better to be sure that what you see is actually play that is being enjoyed by both dogs than a fight to start!
I know seeing some actual examples can really help cement this knowledge. Watch this video; I highly recommend it! Check out examples of consent testing here. It will really clarify how to make it work for you and your dog!
For more information on dog-dog interactions, Jane Sigsworth is a great resource. You can find her here!