Dogs naturally derive significant, intrinsic pleasure from play and tend to form deep and lasting attachments as the result of social exchanges that entice and sustain playful interaction. Essentially, play is incompatible with social aversion and mistrust, which means that creating the affectionate and trusting bond that we try so hard to achieve with our dogs is easy ~ we just need to play with them.

The idea that playing tug-o-war games and other potentially 'competitive' type play activities can cause any dog to become aggressive and dominant is extremely misleading and destructive, and the prohibitions against what are perceived as competitive play activities that are so frequently bandied in dog books and by many dog trainers are tailor-made to promote problems. In fact these dire warnings often have the effect of self-fulfilling prophecies, and by not engaging in tug games and rough and tumble type play activities, the very problems that owners seek to avoid are actually brought into being.

It goes without saying that rough and tumble type play between dogs should be carefully monitored to ensure that the play remains fair and to prevent injury from knocks into furniture, etc, however, play between dogs, particularly young dogs, is usually fast and energetic with lots of growling, tooth snapping, jaw clashing, kicking and scrambling.

The photo above right shows a well-mannered, year old, male Labrador enticing a 7 week old male Labrador puppy to play. The two dogs have only just met, and although the older dog is no threat to the puppy, the puppy approaches the invitation to play with caution.
The photo left shows the older dog succeeding in getting the pup to play.

By keeping the play fair, he gains the puppy's trust, and after only half an hour of rolling about together, the pair had formed a close bond. Playtime over, and the older dog was happy to share his bed with the youngster.
Many owners hoping to calm an excitable puppy are told to ignore it, or to reduce excessive mouthing or biting to give it 'time-out', but the loss of this opportunity for playful exchange at this tender age is not only a tremendous shame, it is also confusing and socially isolating for the puppy. Puppies learn to inhibit their bite through the very action and consequence of biting their littermates too hard (i.e. the bitten littermate squeals, and if the biting puppy persists, the littermate bites back), which means that practices such as ignoring persistent mouthing and 'time-out' rarely teach a puppy not to bite, or how to limit its jaw pressure. 'Time-out', if not used appropriately and responsibly, can actually cause psychological damage to some puppies. Squealing like a hurt puppy when a puppy's teeth make even the slightest contact with hands and clothes, is a much more effective way to teach bite inhibition towards humans.
Puppies and older dogs alike appear to be attuned to play as a way to enjoy and become familiar with people and other dogs. The failure to engage in social play essentially denies a dog access to the very sort of interaction needed to become fully integrated into its social group. I often observe dogs responding favourably to the wishes and commands of the children of the household, whilst ignoring the adults who took them to puppy-training classes, taught them basic obedience, and who walk and feed them. The reason is simple ~ dogs form close bonds with playful people.

The truth is that rough and tumble type play actually appears to enhance a dog’s ability to cope proactively with conflict situations and sudden changes that might otherwise result in more serious, reactive contests or behavioural extremes. In order to sustain play, players need to respect one another's limits and play fairly. Through the active process of play-fighting, dogs learn that to give advantage, as well as take it, ensures that the play not only continues, but that it continues to be playful.
For the average dog, the benefits of play for negotiating social harmony and mutual enjoyment far outweigh any risks incurred by the activity, however, occasionally, the normal partition that prevents play fighting and roughhousing from escalating into earnest aggression may break down in certain dogs, particularly certain fighting and guarding breeds. This is because such dogs may be preemptively biased to respond to increased competitive arousal and excitement by shifting from a play mode into an attack mode. Whilst these dogs need very careful handling, they still require suitable forms of structured, playful exchange in order to develop trusting bonds with their owners.
With most dogs, letting them ‘win’ at tug games encourages them to continue playing because it’s the social interaction that they want, not the tug toy. If the other player is always ‘winning’ (i.e. taking), most dogs will either lose interest in playing, or become more competitive.

From the dog’s point of view, players that always take aren’t more dominant or 'pack leaders', they’re just difficult to get on with. Faced with this apparent lack of a willingness to play fairly, some dogs will give up trying to interact with people altogether because whatever they try fails, whilst others, feeling frustrated, will try harder to get the attention and interaction that they crave. An essential quality of effective leadership is the power and freedom to instigate and sustain play, which requires a balance of give and take.

Who would you rather follow ~ a taker or a giver?
Copyright Lizi Angel 2007-2020