Play 101

June 24, 2024

Pups at Play 



I think I speak for the average dog parent when I say that there are few things in life quite like the joy of watching our dogs play.  But what is play? How do we define it? There are many definitions for play; the simplest definition from Oxford is “an activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation.” However, science suggests that it is more than an activity, it is a state of mind – a kind of non-reality not unlike dreaming.1  While Play can be tricky to define, it can be easy to recognize.  Let’s take a closer look at what play looks like for dogs and puppies. 

Environment plays a key role in play.  Before play can happen, one needs to feel safe.  Play often involves the rehearsal and role play of more serious behaviors.  For example, dogs will chase (hunt) and be chased in turn.  The latter puts them in a vulnerable position, so trust and security are paramount to being able to relax and have fun.  Dogs and puppies usually need to discover new environments at their own pace before deciding it’s safe to play. Luckily, the presence of other dogs playing often signals that the environment is indeed safe.  At Paws4Training we offer a safe environment for your puppy to play and thrive! 

Fun Fact: Dogs foremost form of communication is body language.  Because they’re so adept at reading even the most subtle shifts in body language, they frequently prefer to pair up and play 1 on 1.  It can be hard to read those subtle cues as more dogs get involved. 

Ok, let’s play! There are some key behaviors and body language that can tell you your dog is having fun. 

Loose, bouncy movement bodies are curved and relaxed, movement is bouncy, exaggerated, and inefficient.  Dogs may mimic predation or aggression responses but there is no tension or threat. Play bites are usually wide-mouthed and should be gentle. 

Role reversals and self-handicap- healthy play involves role reversals and self-handicapping, or at least the opportunity for it to happen.  This might look like two puppies wrestling and taking turns being on top (victor) and bottom (letting their friend be the victor)- role reversal- or a big dog lying down to play with a small dog on the smaller dog’s level – self-handicap. The level to which these behaviors happen varies from each individual dog and circumstance, but they are great indicators that happy play is happening. 

Cutoff signals and displacement behaviorsthese signals are used to help diffuse high-arousal situations.  They are a dog’s way of saying, “I need a break” or “that’s a bit much for me” or maybe as a check in, “I’m still having fun, are you?” These signals include shake offs, sneezing, play bows, turning away, sitting or lying down, yawning, nose licking or tongue flicks, sniffing, and other behaviors used out of context to diffuse building excitement.  Puppies learn these signals from their mother and litter and playmates, much like a young child learning language for the first time. Different dogs display different cutoff signals, so for most puppies the more opportunities they have to learn from diverse playmates, the more complete and well-rounded their understanding of these signals will be. 



Acquired Bite Inhibition (ABI) ABI is the learned knowledge of how hard is appropriate to play bite. A puppy’s first and best teachers of ABI are their mother and littermates. They continue to learn through play, especially with other puppies, until their adult teeth come in around 18-20 weeks of age at which time their ABI is set for life.  A soft ABI is crucial to happy play later in life, so it’s recommended to give puppies plenty of opportunities to play and socialize.  Paws4Training is here to help you with that! 

What isn’t play? 

Now that we’ve covered what play looks like, let’s touch on what isn’t play. It’s important to know what to look out for and what you can do to de-escalate, or better yet prevent these situations.  

Tight, tense bodies with quick and efficient movements.  There is a seriousness to the threat – basically the opposite of the loose and bouncy movements of play. Hunkering, freezing, moving away, growling or snapping are all ways a dog might ask for space. 

One-sided.  If one dog is tenacious in their attempts to play, but the recipient is showing discomfort – moving away, whale-eyed, cornered, stiff, tight-mouthed, or other signs mentioned above, it is NOT play. The “playful” dog is ignoring the other dog’s cues.  Use recall to call the tenacious dog away or remove one or both dogs from the environment. 

Resource guarding.  Some puppies develop resource guarding tendencies – for example they growl and/or snap at anyone who tries to take their toy. To help prevent this, train drop it and practice doing trades with other fun items away from other dogs and distractions. It’s also wise to remove toys/resources from group environments until puppy understands that sharing is fun! 

Dogs are one of a handful of species that continue to play into adulthood, along with many primates including humans, corvids and parrots, dolphins, otters, bumblebees, and others. Play has been scientifically shown to release endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and other feel-good chemicals, it’s no wonder that dogs play as much as they do.  The release of these chemicals also impacts learning – the better we feel, the more easily we learn! Paws4Training offers the perfect union of play and learning for you and your pup.  Come check us out, your puppy will thank