April is Socialization Month here at TheTreat and part of socialization and some of the spaces on BINGO! include dogs playing together, so I wanted to give you some tips for what to look for while you're standing around!
One of the most important things to look for is to make sure both dogs are playing the same way. They might run around, they might wrestle, they might sniff, etc. Whatever they are doing, they should both be doing it at the same level of intensity.
A lot of dog owners ask about mouthing. While mouthing is more acceptable between dogs, the answer is "if the other dog is mouthing at the same intensity, then yes, it is ok". That is how they are playing together. A well socialized dog is a dog that adjusts his play to match the play of the other dog.
Whenever there is an imbalance, help your dog play the way the other dog is playing. For example, if your dog is mouthing and jumping on the other dog, while the other dog is doing no mouthing, help redirect your dog off of the other dog and separate your dog to calm him down. Then try and get him to be gentle when he goes back to play in a calmer state.
Remember to encourage your dog when he is matching play! For example, if he is around a dog with low confidence and he is being gentle, calm and approaching slowly then tell him he is doing a good job!
Tip: Talk to the other owners and ask them about how their dog usually plays. Their answer will be a good indicator to if you should separate the dogs.
I always point out during puppy socials when a dog lets another dog lay down, get some water, go to the bathroom, or sniff around. If the other dog is doing one of those activities, help your dog read that sign. You can redirect their attention with luring or having them engage in a different activity like fetch with you. Dogs should be able to stop playing when they want and need. Well socialized dogs can be calm in other dogs' presence, but it is something that you can help them with if they aren't naturally good at stopping.
Dogs are not good at managing their excitement (especially puppies!!), so sometimes we have to do it for them. If the play is escalating to a point where the play is not matched, separate your dog safely.
Redirect his attention away from the other dog to calm him down. Then pay attention to how he goes back to play. If he goes back at the same level as he left, then immediately separate him to calm him down more. If he goes back to play at a less intense level and matches the other dog's play again, then great, he can stay!
If your dog is fixating on another dog and won't leave her alone, then pull him away and redirect his attention to something else.
Oh, man, does wrestling tire a dog out! It is often another time dog owners ask "is this ok?". The answer ties together a lot of the things we have already talked about - matched play and separation, but I also pay attention to if a dog can get up on his own and how he goes back to play. If your dog is on his back and the other dog isn't letting him get up, then ask the other owner to take the dog off your dog. If they go back to play after getting up and it is not matched play, separate the dogs to calm them down.
Running vs. Chasing
If the dogs are running around a lot, take note of who is doing the chasing. They should take turns being the chaser. Again, that is a good sign of matched play.
Be on the lookout for running away versus chasing. Running away typically looks like a few fast runs with the head over the shoulder looking back and then a quick stop. If your dog is running away, take a break to build some confidence being in the presence of the other dogs and to calm the other dog down.
Socialization is often summed up as dogs playing together. In reality, that is one piece of a complex and ever-evolving way that your dog takes in and interacts with the world. As with all socialization efforts, quality is more important than quantity. Aim to give your dog a positive experience instead of fulfilling your own expectations of how he or she should play. It is easier to build off of positive experiences instead of put them in a situation they can't get out of peacefully.
As you can see, dog on dog play requires you to read dog signs in a new way. I recommend Family Paws as an excellent resource for understanding how dogs communicate.