By Carol Besler-Snell on 04/27/2016
What I Learned Today from Pictures at Doggie Daycare
In addition to being fun to take and fun to share, pictures teach us a lot at Just Dogs PlayCare which is a doggie daycare. They can give us a good clue into dog behavior, how dogs are communicating and whether they are proper playmates.
Dogs’ primary means of communication is body language. A lot of people are surprised by that, assuming dogs just bark (or growl or whine) to say what they want or need. But there’s much more to their fascinating form of communication. How they move—or don’t move—can tell us whether the dogs are relaxed or tense, in a play mood or a grumpy mood. Knowing that information can help us as we work on mixing them together in appropriate play groups for doggie daycare.
It’s always interesting to look back to snapshots of dogs in action, because we may see elements of body language that we didn’t notice at the time. Following is a slide-by-slide analysis of some really good play between labs attending our dog daycare. The common denominator in this play is Luna, a 1-year-old female lab mix. First she tries to get Stella, a 6-year-old female yellow lab, to play. When Stella tires out, Luna moves on to Calvin, a 9-year-old male black lab.
When Luna first came to Just Dogs for doggie daycare, her play style was wild and out of control. She had no “off” button and did not listen to any commands from humans while she was in play mode. Since Luna comes to dog daycare at Just Dogs Play Care, a doggy daycare a few times a week, we’ve spent a lot of time making sure to pair her up with the right dogs—ones who can teach her appropriate dog behaviors like play but also how to just hang out and sniff things and get pets from humans. As you can see from the photos that follow, Stella and Calvin are great playmates for Luna at doggy daycare.
In this playgroup, Luna first approaches Stella. Stella is the kind of lab who would mostly just love to lay outside and be lazy. In fact, that’s just what she was doing when Luna approached her.
In this first photo, Luna approaches Stella while she is laying down. That causes a status issue, where one dog is at a higher level than the other. So what does Stella do to even out their status?
Stella decides to stand up! (she is 6, after all, and Luna is only 1…. she must teach this young pup some manners!) Stella says, “Bring it on!”
Sensing that Stella is not a wild and crazy player like herself, Luna approaches tentatively. She paws at Stella, and Stella responds by tucking her head and being goofy. All of these movements are slow and deliberate. You can tell that Stella is on alert, however, by the position of her tail. She’s not sure about Luna but is pretty sure she’s harmless.
Not knowing how strong she can come on, Luna gives Stella a play bow. She’s telling Stella that she is not a threat and just wants to play.
In this photo, the dogs are doing side-by-side play, with mouths and paws minimally involved. Facing each other directly can be threatening, so moving to the side makes them both feel calmer…and more inclined to play.
Both dogs are feeling fairly relaxed here. But you can tell by Luna’s downturned ears that she is a little surprised that Stella is on the move and getting a little bolder.
The play is getting rougher here. When a dog puts her head or neck over another dog, it’s a sign of dominance. When a dog mouths the other dog’s neck, it’s escalating even higher on the scale of dominance.
Here the “mouth wrestling” gets more intense. Both dogs are moving around, lifting their front feet off the ground. They don’t get on their hind legs into “boxing” stance, but they are both prepared to.
Mouth wrestling and play growling are both normal and expected when dogs are playing. However, if one dog nips at the other too hard or their growl gets scary sounding, it can quickly change from play to anger/aggression, so human supervision is important.
Here Stella shakes it out. That’s a normal way dogs try to de-stress themselves. For the last few shots, another lab, Hank, has been getting close to Stella and Luna as they play. His presence may make Stella a little nervous. Or she may just be shaking it off because the play has pooped her out!
Yes, Stella is pooped! She indicates to Luna that she is done playing by lying down (one of the many “calming signals” dogs give). But Luna keeps trying.
I like this photo because both dogs were willing to interrupt their play to look at the human talking to them at doggie daycare. Interruptions in play are good, whether the dog is the one initiating the break or a human intervenes.
Luna keeps trying to get Stella going again….
And she almost does it! But Stella is worn out and considers just staying where she is and playing from there.
But, again, there’s that pesky issue of height relating to status, so Stella gets up.
And Stella tries to hump Luna’s head, so we separate them. Humping is a frequent part of play, as well, but it should be discouraged because it is a very dominant thing for one dog to do to another. From Stella’s limp body, we can see that she’s not very serious about this dominance attempt. It doesn’t take much to push her off Luna.
So what next? Stella wants to nap, so what’s a 1-year-old lab to do? Find another playmate, of course!
Enter Calvin! You can see from his stance that he is ready for some action. His weight is shifted to his back feet, his tail is high, and he’s ready to pounce. Notice that Luna has tried to make herself smaller here, bowing down to the senior lab.
Some mouth wrestling ensues….
And then side-by-side play. (Look out, no humping!)
Here Luna is taking a break in play to lick her lips. This is also a sign that a dog is trying to calm something down. Luna wants to play, but she doesn’t want to tick anyone off!
The play starts up again calmly with some mild mouth wrestling. If you’re watching their bodies, you can see neither dog is putting a lot of physical effort into this.
But then the action picks up! Mouth wrestling, play growls, and even some boxing!
Then the intensity goes down again….just mild mouth wrestling. (Stella and Hank are in the background doing their own thing. Stella looks pretty proud of herself.)
Choir rehearsal? Or more mouth wrestling?
Luna again tries to pick up the action and goes over top of Calvin to play bite his ear.
Big pounce into boxing position. Calvin’s not going there….
Calvin shakes it off.
They both run around a little.
And then they mug for the camera. Two happy labs, tired out by learning and playing. Three happy labs if you count Stella. But I think she went off in the corner to take a nap….Another successful day at doggie daycare.