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Feb 112013
My Staffies!

Wanna Play? Poke, poke, poke! Stevie Ray being prodded into play fighting with her pup Joey.

So cool to watch him as he pokes her pretty hard with his nose, attempting to goad her into a game. Down he goes immediately to his back, tail wagging an scratching it as he wiggles about exposing his neck and chest to Stevie Ray. He is so gentle with her, giving her absolute control. He even knows he needs to be gentle and is far more so than with his sister. He gets tough on occasion with her, but there is no doubt who is still in charge. Stevie Ray has enforced this relationship aggressively with both her kids since the day they were born.

Jimmi, his sister (litter mate), I do have to stay on top of because she is very excitable and still goes over the top with excitement when play fighting. Joey has much more self-control, even with me as we play, always so controlled and gentle as he nibbles and bites. Jimmi is controlled as well,  but her excitement gets the best of her in other areas, as she must eventually run off some of her steam.  With Joey and Stevie Ray, she can get more aggressive in her excitement and both her actions and her vocalizations will escalate quickly, provoking an equal response form both her mom and brother.

Despite Joey’s dominance that he displays both in the home and when out and about, he is always submitting in play so everyone always has fun.  He likes to be chewed while putting his paws on your head, pretending to push you away, but never really pushing and always exposing both his neck and face for bites. It is not really about who is boss, although it can easily go that way without supervision, but all my dogs know there is one boss and when he is loud, it is time to stop! I really love chewing on Joey when he submits and he loves it when I chew on his neck and face. He never gets too excited with me, but that is something we have worked on and something I work on with all my dogs from the time they enter my home. This means day 1 for Jimmi and Joey and really, that is how Momma Ray treated them as well.

But usually Joey is just wanting someone to play with and everyone, even Dylan when she is healthy and strong enough, is open for a try. He will mount his sister and is tough with her, but also submits as well. But with Mamma Ray he never attempts to mount, the farthest he goes is to put his nose in the air over hers. Mounting is not a sexual act in this case, it simply part of the excited all out games they play, sometimes on the bottom, sometimes on the top.Certainly his play with Dylan is not at a ll like the others, as Dylan is not about to submit to him, or give him any opportunity to take charge.

So if there is such a difference with how they play with each dog and the nature of their play is very specific to who they are playing with, this must mean they are in constant communication and know something about who they are playing with. In fact, when dogs play they are in constant communication with each other. Their mouths and facial expressions, posture, tail movement and vocalizations all play a role in that communication. Dogs are experts at this since it is their primary form. Action is everything.  They don’t rationalize and postulate what might be or what might have happened. They watch and act based on what they see and what does happen. Living in the moment.

It is an incredibly constant form of communication. Continuous in nature and constantly changing what is conveyed by each and every motion and expression. Personally I don’t need to see them at play to keep an eye on them and supervise their play.  The tone of their voice varies with all other behavior, jousting with their teeth face to face, tail held up and wagging in a playful manner. A playful manner can turn suddenly if one hurts the other unintentionally so it is important to maintain supervision if I don’t want them deciding the outcome.  But this communication also impacts how they might play with others. Misinterpretation of expressions and behavior, or not speaking the same language can lead to misinterpretation. Hurt feelings, anxiety and fear become obvious to them.

Unfortunately most people do not see what is happening and how they are communicating and cannot accurately interpret the difference between fun play and bullying or rude behavior, which often occurs.  This is often missed even in the simple greeting of two dogs, however a greeting is never straight forward.  There is always a lot being said between the dogs, especially those that have not met before. Posture, facial expressions, eye contact, tail movement and proximity all communicate something about the dog being greeted.

Play is usually a fun game for both participants, although it is possible for an accident to happen and one of the participants to get hurt and react. Bullying and avoiding a bully shows no sign of fun, only duress for one of the participants. Play is one sided where one dog enjoys them-self while the other is under duress and deals with stress and anxiety; fight or flight, or maybe submission or frozen, but certainly not play and not fun for the one under duress. This is also obvious in the behavior and looks and sounds nothing like a fun game of play between two willing participants.

Knowing your dog and how it plays is important as a canine guardian. Being able to help them communicate and be good in play is necessary. Being taken from the litter at an early age, often living solo in a home, or being introduced into foreign families can lack the necessary experience to communicate and speak a playful game. Introduction to positive play is an important step for most dogs. On the other hand it is also important for us as owners to know how they play so we can protect them. We protect them from accidents, but even more importantly from bullying and negative experience caused by other dogs who are not capable of speaking the same language and respecting the dog they are playing with.

I love watching my dogs at play and I know they all love playing with each other and respect each other. But I take my responsibility as their guardian seriously and insist on positive experiences only, both amongst each other and as they interact with other dogs. Only then is it truly play.






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