Is Nonstop Play Okay?

Constant play between dogs can be intense and annoying. Learn how to tell whether it’s really play, and how to encourage your dogs to interact in low-key ways.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
August 19, 2014
Episode #145

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This week, a listener question. Elizabeth writes that she and her family have a 1-year-old Coonhound, and her mother has a terrier mix who’s now about 10 months old. Whenever the families get together, the dogs play – constantly. It seems to Elizabeth that there’s a dominance contest going on. The humans spend a lot of time pulling the dogs apart and would like to see a quieter atmosphere prevail.

Is Constant Play a Dominance Contest?

To start with, let’s get dominance out of the way. Ethologists – scientists who study animal behavior in natural settings – use the word as a label for control over resources and other animals’ attention and movements. It’s shorthand for a complex array of interactions that can vary from situation to situation and it doesn’t tell us anything about the animals’ inner experience.

Whatever dominance is, it’s never a synonym for aggression or bullying. Bullying is inappropriate among dogs just as it is among people. Aggressive behavior is appropriate in some contexts – for instance, it’s normal for Dogalini to give Zippy a brief, hard look to warn him away from her bone – but frequent, repeated aggressive interactions between dogs reflect a problem.

If your dogs’ constant play seems too intense to you, or if it’s disruptive and annoying, you can teach the dogs to spend time together in more low-key ways.

Are the Dogs Really Playing?

So, more important than whether the dogs’ play has anything to do with dominance is whether it really is play.