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How to know what dog play looks like

These dogs know what dog play looks like
These dogs know what dog play looks like
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Watching dogs at play is the absolute best way to get more familiar and comfortable with what play looks like when dogs play like dogs. But you may need a play book –except for tag and tug of war-dog play does not always look like human play. And while the dogs know what play is when they’re doing it they also know that even they have to make an announcement that play is about to begin and to extend an invitation to play. Play signals include the formal sounding “play bow” so named because the dog lowers the front of his body with legs outstretched while the rump of the dog remains elevated, a raised paw can signal an invitation to play, as can abbreviated portions of that play bow—a head bob or a “play slap” with mostly just the front legs slapping the ground. Shorthand play signals are often employed throughout a play session as good tempered reminders that “it’s just a game.” And play has its own set of vocalizations too, huffing or dog laughing is particular type of breathing dogs employ while playing along with play growling. These signals and vocalizations can happen very quickly for the untrained human eye to follow but the dogs know what’s happening.

Play signals are only effective when they are seen. In order to be recognized and responded to attention can be requested in a number of different ways. Barking is huge attention getting behavior if vocalizations don’t do the trick next in line is usually tactile, a paw on a person or dog, a light bite, or a hump bump or two. All light and repetitive in a way so that even the attention getters are playful themselves. And what about mounting aka humping? That's the kind of behavior that can get a dog in trouble for all the wrong reasons. Depending on the context, mounting can be sexual behavior but--what we are often seeing is an extreme attention getter employed when other attention getters' such as barking, or pawing or hip bumping, etc. have not worked. For more on mounting as attention getting in play behavior take a look at my video and watch what happens.

Frania Shelley-Grielen is an animal behaviorist. For more information or to contact her visit