Play styles will vary. The following information is a collection of thoughts and ideas gathered from various sources.
There are dogs who play nicely, are happy and well versed in dog body language and play. And then there are bullys, chasers, grouches, humpers, hunter-seekers, pick-on-me, misfits, pests, play police, pummelers, smooshers.<1>
Some dogs love to chase one another. Others love to wrestle and play bite. Some like to play gently using their paws like kittens. There are those who want to chase toys. Some want to play tug with a toy, and those who like to body-slam one another. Sometimes there are attempts to put their head or shoulder, or paws on shoulders or begin to mount and hump. This behavior isn't actually play but often occurs during the excitement of play.
Know your pet's style of play. Example, if your dog is gentle, it may not enjoy playing with a dog who body-slams. It's OK for your pet to experience various play styles. But not every style will suit them. Don’t make your dog “just deal with things they don't enjoy” be his/her advocate, step in as needed and distract to diffuse a situation. There are dogs who love being in a large crowd of dogs and people. And others who prefer a small group of two, three or four play pals.
Recognizing good (positive) play, can be difficult at times. Generally speaking, dogs who are playing change their "roles" quite often, and their play can appear jerky, with short freezes and pauses. Thus, one dog might be on top of another, and then, suddenly the second dog is on top. One dog might be chasing another dog, quickly turn and be chased. Often, play will be accompanied by "play bows," where one or both dogs will stretch out their forelegs, drop their front end and raise their hind end. Some dogs play very noisily, while others are quiet. Some breeds or breed types play very differently from one another (for instance, German Shepherds tend to play growl a lot; Boxers tend to want to jump on top of other dogs; Labs often run into other dogs, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not). Problems can arise if two dogs have incompatible play styles, and have trouble communicating with each other.<2>
A common mistake we humans make is thinking that a dog who growls or snaps is always the aggressor. Though that can be the case, it often isn’t! Imagine a complete stranger walking up to you and giving you a hug – would you laugh and tell him he’s wonderful? Of course not – you’d ask him to leave you alone, perhaps quite emphatically. We humans have greeting rituals, like quick eye contact, shaking hands, or just saying hello. We give each other space before initiating an intimate involvement. So too with dogs, who should approach each other politely and slowly, and then ask to play.<2>
Myth!! Dogs always try to dominate each other. If dogs know each other – even for a few minutes – they may attempt to figure out who’s stronger and smarter. However, body slamming (running into another dog) and mounting are actions of adolescent, or sometimes socially confused, and in some cases just plain rude dogs! These dogs are experimenting; they’re not actually trying to figure out who is boss.<2>
If the interaction is intended to improve your dogs socialization skills, encourage your dog to experience the moment by slowing walking around. Remain calm and relaxed (physically and mentally). Avoid petting or picking up your dog and holding it. Throw toys, say hello to other interested dogs. Teach by example, showing your dog how to socialize.
Be a dog's advocate. Make sure your dog (and other dogs) are having a good time and learning good behaviors. Step in and block overbearing and unwanted attention with your legs. Avoid making eye contact, simply block the behavior with your legs. Avoid excited and excessive talking, yelling, shouting.
Recognize stress signals and respond in an appropriately calm manner. Don't overreact. If you dog starts to show combination's of these at one time, he’s probably becoming overwhelmed and it's time to give him help by taking a break. Take him/her outside, away from the other dogs for a few minutes. Or assert your leadership role by drawing another dog off him, or simply reaching down and giving a single reassuring touch. Avoid feeling stressed yourself as this will only feed your dogs discomfort.
Some common stress signals are, unusual or excessive amounts of: drooling, lip licking, yawning, paw lifting/raising, shaking/shivering, hiding in corner or under furniture, half-moon eyes, tucked/lowered tail, raised hair along the back, etc.
Drooling, does the dog ordinarily drool? How much? If they typically do not drool and suddenly are, this is your clue that they are feeling a bit overwhelmed (always factor heat and running). Lip licking is another signal, a dog flicks his tongue in and out of his mouth (a few licks are normal). A lot of yawning is another sign. Half-moon eye is harder to recognize, when you see an unusual amount of whites around the outer edge of the eye.
Is the dog hiding under a chair or table? Has it gone to sit by the gate, or off in a corner alone? Is your dog repeatedly clawing and/or jumping on you in a panic-stricken sort of way, he may be asking for help. You need to assess the environment to see what is going on.
Dog fights: Do not reach in to break up fighting dogs. Instead, squirt the dogs in the face with your water bottle or distract the dogs by throwing a jacket on them.
Play styles: Rough, physical body contact: Pushing into one another space. Lots of body contacts and hip checks, all done with a fair amount of force.
Chase or be chased: A dog will instigate a chase by running and egging another dog on. These dogs like to run and enjoy the excitement of being chased.
Mouth wrestlers: Play involves lots of mouth contact. Generally one dog lies down with his hind-end in the air, while the other dog moves around his head. There are two roles, the one lying down and the other is agile, leaping. Often involves vocalizing.
Freeze tag: These dogs enjoy poking and prodding another dog before freezing and then suddenly bursting into play.
1. "Out and about with your dog", by Sue Sternberg
2. "Can my dog play with yours?" The Marin Humane Society, Animal Behavior & Training, Trish King, Autumn—2002.