FunNature & AnimalThe 7 criteria to identify healthy play between dogs

The 7 criteria to identify healthy play between dogs

The fact that our dog interacts with another individual of his species and has fun, we know that it will be beneficial for him and for us, since he will come home satisfied, tired and will be calm for a good part of the day.

However, despite the fact that we love watching our dog play with his friends, very few of us recognize when the game between our dog and another companion of his species is beneficial.

This makes it quite common for what seemed like harmonious play between dogs to end in conflict, even a fight. This, unfortunately, frequently occurs in dog recreation areas. Ignorance and lack of observation of our canine companions is the main reason for these consequences.

How to recognize when a game is healthy?

To recognize the different types of play that occur in dogs, as well as the keys to identify that everything is going well, it is important to pay attention to the biology of the species.

Dogs are social and gregarious animals, therefore the game behaviors that occur between them are produced with the main objective of feeling integrated and communicating effectively.

Additionally, dogs use their behavioral repertoire when playing. For example, the different phases of innate hunting behavior, such as stalking, chasing, and preying, appear in play as one runs after another, or agrees to simulate a “hunt.” Defense behaviors also appear in the form of games and, especially in young dogs, it helps them have fun while putting their physical abilities to the test.

Common mistakes when interpreting the game of our pets

It is very common to see two dogs playing fight, flight and chase, or what is the same, “cops and crooks” or even mount and climb on top of each other with relative intensity.

This latest version of play is often misunderstood by people as a sign of dominance, and yet it occurs a lot in puppies and young dogs in a healthy and normal way. Another game that we can observe in dogs that trust each other or that are very friendly is the dispute over an object such as a stick or a rope, for example.

And now that we know that the game between dogs includes chases, melee and disputes of objects that each one pulls from one end, let’s learn what we should look for to identify that the game between dogs, of whatever type, takes place in a healthy and lawful way.

Learn to distinguish the game of your dog

For this we will quote the scientist Gordon Burghardt, author of the book: “The origin of the game in animals”. For Burghardt, play is a spontaneous and voluntary behavior that appears in a relaxed environment, that is, free of stress, following a repetitive structure and apparently without an adaptive purpose.

From this definition we break down the seven criteria that a game between dogs should have to be considered beneficial and fair:

  1. It does not imply survival. This means that if your dog runs in front of another dog, it is not because he is trying to run away.
  2. It occurs spontaneously and voluntarily, in a relaxed and threat-free environment. If your dog is worried about something, he won’t play.
  3. It has a certain character of joke. This implies that it may have a fighting aspect, but it is not, the dogs have previously agreed that everything that happens is a “lie”.
  4. In healthy play there are repeated sequences, such as chasing a partner, stopping and chasing again. This implies that the dogs give each other space and are not overwhelming for the partner.
  5. Healthy gaming does not generate stress or addictions.
  6. When the game is balanced, there is a change of roles. For example, in a fighting game the dogs alternate positions and appear both above and below without abusing the partner.
  7. In the lawful game there is adaptation to the partner. This means that the larger dogs self-sabotage so that the little one can also have fun and feel that he wins. This is known as self-handicapping .

These are the seven principles that proper game dynamics between dogs must follow. Once we know them, it’s time for the practical part.

Observing how the game goes and therefore the communication between your dog and his canine companion, I will allow you to understand how comfortable your dog is within the activity.

Take him away for a few minutes if you perceive that he is abusing his strength and does not suit the other dog, or call him to give him an exit and space if the other dog runs ahead with insecurity and fear. Remember that the game must always be fun for all participants, otherwise it is not a game.


Horváth, Z., et al. 2008. Affiliative and disciplinary behavior of human handlers during play with their dog affects cortisol concentrations in opposite directions. Hormones and behavior, 54(1), 107-114.

Sommerville, R., et al. 2017. Why do dogs play? Function and welfare implications of play in the domestic dog. Applied animal behaviour science, 197, 1-8.

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