When is it play?

Last week, our [Mostly] Wordless Wednesday post caused quite a bit of discussion both in the comments section and on Facebook.

The dog featured showed a variety of body language signals that left many people questioning his intent. Was Jackson playing? Or was something more serious going on?

To be fair, it can be difficult to know a dog’s intent from a still photograph. A video would have given us much more information. Did Jackson spring away, toy in mouth and tail wagging after the picture was snapped? Or did he freeze over the toy, stiff and unmoving?

Regardless, we can gather quite a bit of useful information from the picture. In the moment of time during which the picture was taken, Jackson was showing signs of both resource guarding and high arousal, which would indicate that anyone interacting with him would need to take care. We know that arousal can sometimes tip into aggression, and coupled with multiple signs of guarding, we would need to be doubly careful not to push him past his threshold.

Let’s look at the body language signals that Jackson was presenting one at a time:

1. Working from the back forward, Jackson’s tail is held stiffly over his back. If we were watching a video, the tail may or may not be wagging. A dog’s tail raises with increased confidence and arousal. A tail held this high (Jackson’s usual tail set was level with or slightly below the line of his back) tells us that the dog is very excited.

2. Contrary to popular belief, raised hackles do not always mean that a dog is in an aggressive state. Piloerection (where the hair on the dog’s back stands straight up) can also occur any time the dog is emotionally excited, including when a dog is fearful or anxious. However, Jackson’s raised hackles are another warning sign that he is highly aroused.

3. Much like his tail, Jackson’s ears are held as straight and erect as possible. They are rotated towards the camera, and show that he is very aware of the person standing there.

4. A furrowed, tense brow like this indicates that Jackson is concerned and is holding his muscles tight.

5. If there were any doubt about Jackson’s intentions, his eyes put these to rest. Not only are they hard and staring directly at the camera, but he is also exhibiting whale eye. Were his actions playful, we would expect Jackson’s eyes to be softer and should not see any whale eye. If your dog’s eyes ever look like this when he or she is “playing,” stop. No dog looks this hard during play, and this is a serious warning that you should seek professional help from a certified professional dog trainer immediately.

6. A lowered body posture in which the dog’s front end is crouched down while his rear remains in the air can be a playbow, but it can also be a sign of guarding. Dogs will lower themselves over valued resources. The difference? Look at how tense the dog’s muscles are, and at what the rest of his body is doing. Play bows should look quite loose and relaxed, with soft body language. A guarding dog will display opposite signs, with tense and hard signals.

7. Jackson’s toes are dug into the ground, ready to give him better traction for an upward spring (either at the camera or away) if necessary.

8. A playful dog will often have an open-mouthed smile known as a “play face.” Jackson’s mouth is closed tightly, and the commissure of his lips is pushed forwards.

Taken together, we can see that Jackson is concerned about guarding his toy and is no longer feeling playful. This doesn’t make him a bad dog (in fact, he was a quite friendly and affectionate dog the majority of the time), but it does make him a dog who needs to be handled carefully. Being a young dog, Jackson may be conflicted and could switch back and forth between highly aroused play and resource guarding quickly, which is exactly what was happening when this picture was snapped.

How would you respond to Jackson to neutralize this situation and reduce his guarding tendencies? Please share your training strategies in the comments section below!

6 responses to “When is it play?

  1. Great examination of the photograph! Yes, you can definitely tell he is very concerned. I would practice “trade”. I wouldn’t particularly practice at THAT moment, because obviously he values that toy very much. I would start with something super low level-maybe a toy he doesn’t like playing with much or even a spoon! I would put it in front of him and say, “trade” while dropping treats to his side and a bit behind him (making him turn away from the toy), and place more in front of him, pick up his toy and then give it back to him. I would practice increasing the value of the items until he freely gives up high value toys for yummy treats (they have to be extra yummy though!). This training I was thinking of is a general plan…if he growled at a distance the value of the item would definitely have to be decreased and if that didn’t work professional help is def. needed! I’m not a trainer I’m just thinking that might help…what do you think?

  2. I think too much depends on knowing the dog and what is normal here. Still photos are just too deceptive without at least having a series of them to look at through “the moment” as well as some shots of typical stance/relaxed look for a particular dog.

    My take on this was/is that he is at or nearing a play/not play threshold where I’d have to know the dog’s typical body stance and play style. I know some friends have been taken aback at how vocal and physical my terriers get playing. Some have really wanted to interrupt them but with exposure to it they too learn that change in vocalizations and/or stance that say play is done and now someone is upset.

  3. To answer the questions about what to do/how to work on his abilities and responses….
    I’d be practicing a lot of calling Jackson away from play (for some very yummy but calming treats and pets and a little brain break).
    I’d also be practicing lots of trading during calm and more excited periods (controlling the stimuli and thus excitement level).

    I would also be doing these things either with just Jackson and me or… when I involved another dog, it would be another dog (with a separate human) who I know understands the calling away from play and trading games so they won’t try to cajole Jackson to continue.

  4. Very interesting with the numbers! I only caught onto a few of them but got the same results in the end. I kind of made up a way to work with Rainy (greyhound) with guarding her raw yummy bones. There was absolutely NOTHING more yummy to trade up to. and I was way too chicken to stick my hands anywhere near those teeth.

    I would make sure I was wearing sturdy close toed shoes, walk up, place my foot on her bone like I belonged there and wait while calmly focusing on my breathing, not even looking down at her. Took a LONG solid 5 minutes until she decided she was uncomfortable enough to walk away. As soon as she started to get up I started an excited high pitched party for her and threw a few hot dog slices in the opposite direction. Then I would pick up the bone, examine it, tell her she was such a good puppy, and hand it back to her to begin chewing again.

    At first she wouldn’t touch the bone after it was given back to her. So we just kept practicing every other time she settled in for a chew and she slowly started accepting the bone back to munch on. I then paired her moving away with the word “Away” Slowly phased out standing on the bone and could then just say away and hand her a treat for moving. She always got the bone back. I’m not there to take anything from her, only to borrow it and examine.

    A few years later I have zero hesitations about reaching for anything that she has and she will gladly give anything up. I can give a verbal command “away” or just reach in and take. Not sure I would recommend a stranger reach in to take something from her, but *I* can do it with no worries.

  5. Sara – I wish you lived in my town. :)

  6. Huh, I’d just quit. Whatever body motion I was making to play with him, I’d stop, stand up and turn away from him, making my body loose and uninteresting.

    Say, “Opp, we’re done!” And walk away from him. Would either go do something else boring (to him) in the yard or go in the house and call him in. The toy could darn well stay there frankly. It’s not hurting anything. I’d go get it later if guarding it was becoming an issue.

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