Teaching Polite Play
Summary: Most people who add a dog to their family are excited to see their dog play with canine friends. Not every dog is a paragon of social skills, however, so it is important for trainers to be able to show their clients how to recognize signs of impolite play. With a few simple and lighthearted examples, trainers and behavior consultants can show people who are new to sharing their lives with dogs how to get ahead of potential problems and enjoy a happy and playful experience.
Polite play is conversational
“Do you want to play with me?” “Why, yes!”
“Do you want me to chase you?” “Yes!”
“Do you want to chase me?” “Sure!”
“I need a break.” “Okay!”
“Ready now?” “No.” “Okay!”
“Do you want to wrestle?” “Yes!”
“Do you want to tug on this toy with me?” “Of course!”
Watch two dogs who play well together and you will see a conversation playing out between them. You will see natural breaks and check-in points where the dogs each ask if the other is still having fun and wants to continue playing. Watching two dogs play well and having fun together is a great joy, and something I never tire of watching.
Unfortunately, some dogs play in a nonconversational manner, ignoring communication from other dogs asking for breaks or indicating their preferred play style. When a dog asks for a break from play, some dogs will keep body slamming, chasing, or wrestling, ignoring their playmate’s requests. If this behaviour is reinforced by continued play, the poor communication skills can become a bad habit and can get your client’s dog into trouble if they meet a less tolerant dog. In addition, they can scare less confident or timid dogs. By paying close attention and being involved in play sessions, we can help dogs learn to be polite.
What are cut-off signals?
If you watch dogs in an off-leash dog park, you will often see interactions where one dog is jumping on another dog, perhaps humping them, and generally dictating the intensity and type of play regardless of the other dog’s interest. A dog will repeatedly ask for a break by running to their person, running to the gate, hiding under a bench, or by giving calming signals such as freezing, licking their lips, sniffing the ground, looking away, or rolling over.1
When a dog asks for a break from play using calming signals or other communication, we call this a “cut-off signal.” A well-educated, polite dog will see this cut-off signal and pause, giving the other dog an opportunity to re-engage, or will wait a few seconds then ask to play again. An invitation to play should be an ask, not a demand.
A common cut-off signal is seen when a dog stops playing or interacting, stands upright and turns their head away from the playmate, freezing for a second or two and possibly licking their lips. An ideal playmate will see these signals and respond by backing away or pausing the play. Another common cut-off signal is when a dog stops interacting with their playmate and attempts to engage with a nearby person. You might also see the dog bring a toy to the person. Their ideal playmate will see this switch in focus and will pause the play and either wander off to play with another friend or chose another activity.
If a dog doesn’t listen to cut off signals from other dogs, we can help them learn how to be better playmates and communicators, although they might always need close supervision to prevent a return to old habits.
When teaching clients to recognize cut-off signals and when dogs are ignoring or responding to them, it is useful to use videos of dogs playing. This can include videos they take of their own dogs, videos found online (YouTube and TikTok are great sources), and videos you might have in your library. Videos allow us to replay key moments as many times as we like while we discuss them with our clients. Another great option is to meet your client, without their dog, at a dog park to watch interactions in real time.
Dog body language can be confusing for dog owners, as many behaviours have multiple and conflicting meanings. Sometimes a dog rolls over to invite play or to invite wrestling, and sometimes they roll over asking for a break. Sometimes a dog will run away asking to be chased, and sometimes a dog will run away begging for peace and quiet. It is important to look at the whole picture of how the dogs are communicating.
Watch to see if there is a reversal of roles. Are they changing up who chases who? Or who is on top when wrestling? If one dog pauses or gives a cut-off signal, does the other dog also pause and give them space? Does it look like both dogs are enjoying themselves, or is one always on the losing end of the game?
If there is a difference in size, age, confidence, or athleticism, polite play will often include the more capable dog slowing down, lying down, or in other ways allowing the other dog to “win.” We call this “self-handicapping.” It is common to see self-handicapping when a young puppy plays with a larger adult dog. The adult will often allow the puppy to catch them, jump on them, chew on them, and otherwise “win” the play fight. Here is a great video showing a corgi mix self-handicapping to play with a smaller puppy:
Fooling around response
Some dogs give up when their cut-off signals aren’t respected and play extra hard, even though they don’t want to play or don’t feel safe playing. We call this a “fool around” response2,3. Many dog owners think their dog is having a great time, but their dog is playing because they don’t know how else to navigate the situation.
Often dogs who “fool around” are conflicted about interacting with other dogs. They may be interested in the other dog and want to engage, but the high energy or rough play can be over-arousing and can cause anxiety. When dogs are conflicted about playing but don’t know how to opt out, or if their requests for calmer play are ignored, the unwanted advances can lead to dog-dog conflict.
If you think a dog might be in this “fool around” situation, conduct a “consent test” to ensure both dogs are eager to play. Interrupt the play and leash or hold back both dogs. Wait a few seconds, then release just the dog you suspect was “fooling around” to see if they initiate play or if they wander around sniffing or visiting people instead. If the dog doesn’t actively try to re-engage in play, they would likely rather not play at that time. You can of course reverse the roles to ensure the other dog is eager to engage as well.
Why do some dogs ignore cut-off signals?
Dogs who ignore cut-off signals might not have been properly socialized, or sometimes through learning history or genetics, they are predisposed to rough non-consensual play. Any of these dogs can inadvertently start dog fights, and it is important that we help them learn to be more appropriate. Kim Brophey has written a book I recommend to clients, explaining how a dog’s learning history, environment, genetics, and self (individuality) affect who they are and the behaviours we see.4
Some dogs play with other dogs as though the other dog is a toy, rather than someone they are conversing with. These dogs can learn how to be better playmates, but they may take a lot of time and patience. Choose their playmates carefully, avoiding shy dogs who are likely to be scared by them, as well as dogs who might take offense to their lack of communication skills and start to fight.
A well-matched playmate is invaluable. When seeking a playmate, look for a dog with a similar size, energy level, and play style. Two dogs who both love to play chase may be a dangerous match if one is 80 pounds and the other is only 8 pounds. Two dogs who are similar in size and who both love to wrestle might be new best friends. When testing new playmates, watch to ensure that the dogs respond to cut-off signals from each other and are reversing roles. For example, if the dogs are wrestling, be sure that each dog is having a turn on top, and if chasing, be sure that they regularly switch who is chasing and who is being chased. Conduct frequent consent tests to ensure that both dogs are eager to reengage.
Here is a video of two border collies playing chase. One dog gives cut off-signals at 13 seconds and again at 24 seconds. Her friend sees her signal and stops, waiting for her to initiate more chase. This is lovely play between two friends.
Here is another video showing a dog who is not respecting cut-off signals. Note how many times the fawn dog tries to ask for a pause and the black and white ignores his requests, continuing their wrestling game. The dog giving cut-off signals is looking to the people for assistance. Normally, they would step in and help, but in this instance, they were taking a video to show the dog owners. The third dog is politely trying to engage in play in a conversational style, although no one is taking them up on their offer.
With dogs who struggle with hypersocial behaviour or reactivity, it is beneficial to train them to remain calm and polite near other dogs without interacting. It is important that dogs be taught to walk past or near other dogs without playing or even interacting with each other. Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed pattern games are an excellent resource to help these dogs,5 and Leslie has also published a book specifically for puppies that can be included in group puppy classes to help prevent behaviour challenges.6
What type of play is best?
Each dog gets to determine what type of play is fun for them, and that might be wrestling, chase games, bitey-mouthy games, tug with a toy, or something totally different. Some dogs are very loud when they play, and others are completely silent. If any of the dogs in the play session guard toys or are likely to become possessive, put all toys away before allowing play.
Most dogs will play best with other dogs who enjoy the same play style. Often, this will mean dogs of a similar breed or breed type. For instance, herding dogs often love chase games, whereas in my experience, mastiff types often love wrestling. All dogs are individuals, so pay close attention to the play style your dog enjoys and try to allow them opportunities to play with well-matched playmates.
It is important to recognize that not all dogs enjoy playing with other dogs, and some dogs enjoy playing when young, but age out of the activity, often around 12-24 months as they reach social maturity.7 Many dogs enjoy long sniffy walks with their friends rather than playing, and some dogs simply prefer the company of humans over other dogs. If your dog fits into one of the latter categories, just like play styles, choose canine friends who also enjoy long sniffy walks or choose walking areas that allow for more solo time.
Set Your Dog Up for Success
When allowing play time, periodically interrupt play and ask the dogs to focus on you. Consider teaching them the relaxation protocol.8 Once the dogs are calm, and able to respond to known cues such as sit or down, allow them to play again. This is not the time to teach new cues; be sure you are only asking for behaviours that you have already proofed around distractions.
How frequently you interrupt play depends on a few criteria, including the confidence of the dogs, how well they know each other, and the intensity of the play. If either of the dogs has an unknown or conflicted social history, it is best to interrupt more often. With puppies just learning to play, we often interrupt as often as once every minute.
This practice has the added benefit of teaching dogs that even if we stop play, the fun isn’t over. Once they relax a little bit, they get to play again! For dogs who love other dogs, rehearsing these pauses is a great way to teach them to come when called, even when they are playing with their friends.
How to Interrupt Play
The best way to interrupt play varies by dog. For dogs with a strong recall, you can call them to you and give them a treat or other reinforcement. However, many dogs struggle with being called away, so when first training this skill, it is often best to go to the dog, happily wave a treat in front of their nose, hold their harness or collar if necessary, and lure them away.
To interrupt play:
- Ask both handlers to move to their dogs and wave a treat immediately in front of their noses.
- Instruct them to use their other hand to hold their dog’s harness or collar.
- Lure the dogs away from each other, using the harness or collar to assist if necessary and give the dog the treat.
- Ask each dog to respond to a known cue such as sit, down, or hand touch. Pick a cue that is well known to each dog.
- Once both dogs can focus on their handlers and respond to cues, release the dogs and cue them to “go play.”
Remind clients that is important to avoid any aversive methods like yelling or intimidating the dogs into stopping play. Our goal is for the dogs to have positive emotional responses to our interruptions.
When a Dog Is Ignoring Cut-Off Signals
If your dog is ignoring cut-off signals, whether they’re a part of your household, a class that involves a playgroup, or you’re working with them at a shelter, it is best if we interrupt the play. Watch closely and interrupt them each time they ignore a cut-off signal. Restrain your dog or cue a sit or down and allow the other dog to re-engage if or when they feel up to it. If this is too frustrating it might be best to move away from the distraction of other dogs playing, or at least move to a distance where they feel less frustrated. There are also lots of pattern games that could be useful to work on that will help teach dogs to not get overwhelmed or frustrated around other dogs. It is NOT the other dog’s job to train your dog. The only time I recommend allowing dogs to work it out on their own is if the polite dog is larger and confident AND if your dog responds very quickly to the larger dog’s communication. When we allow dogs to work it out on their own, we risk scaring or creating issues in the other dog. We want to be very sure that ignoring cut-off signals is not reinforced by play, or your dog will be more likely to continue this play style.
In this video, the young tri-coloured adolescent (Piper) is trying to initiate play and the border collie (Vilya) gives cut-off signals, indicating that she doesn’t want to play. At 2 seconds, Piper ignores Vilya’s cut-off signal so the owner calls Piper to her for a treat. Both dogs come for a cookie. Between 17 and 24 seconds Piper is more respectful of Vilya’s communication and receives praise from her handler. For the rest of the video, Piper accepts that Vilya does not want to play and interacts with her in a respectful manner. Good puppy!
All dogs are individuals, with their own preferred way of interacting with and communicating with other dogs. It is up to us to watch our dogs to learn about their preferences and to interrupt them if they are not being polite to another dog.
Some dogs naturally understand how to read cut-off signals, and others need help learning how to be polite conversationalists. If you have a dog who enjoys playing with other dogs, it is important to ensure that play is consensual. By continually ensuring they practice polite interactions and by not giving them the opportunity to practice inappropriate interactions, our dogs will learn to be better playmates and have opportunities to make more friends.
- Rugaas, T. (2006), On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing
- McLennan, T. (2018) Canine Aggression: Rehabilitating an Aggressive Dog with Kindness and Compassion. Dorchester, UK: Hubble & Hattie
- Shelbourne, T. (2012) The Truth About Wolves and Dogs: Dispelling the Myths of Dog Training. Dorchester, UK: Hubble & Hattie
- Brophey, K. (2018) Meet Your Dog: The Game-changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior. San Francisco: Chronicle Books
- McDevitt L. (2019) Control Unleashed : Reactive to Relaxed. South Hadley MA: Clean Run Productions LLC
- McDevitt, L. (2015) Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program. Pet Book Publishing Company
- Harvey N.D. (2021) How old Is my dog? Identification of rational age groupings in pet dogs based upon normative age-linked processes. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 27;8:643085.
- Positive Dog (n.d.) The Relaxation Protocol. Last accessed 2/6/2023
Christina specializes in aggression and reactivity using positive reinforcement. She is a co-founder of Legion Of Dogs, a resource for multidog living. Contact Christina at www.positive.dog or www.legionofdogs.com