Pauly the Pit Bull and housemate Rowdy the Rottweiler seem to get along well for the most part, but sometimes they look like their play might turn into fighting. For instance, yesterday, the boys were playing with a tug toy in the backyard, when all of a sudden Pauly jumped on top of Rowdy, and then they exploded into craziness.
One second Pauly was on top of Rowdy, and the next Rowdy was on top of Pauly. They started chasing each other, pinning each other down, and even growling, snarling, and biting (even though their mouths never really closed on each other when they bit). When they ran, it was really bouncy, and periodically they would pause to put their forearms on the ground and stick their backsides up. And sometimes when they get like this, (the pups’ parents say with a bit of a blush), Rowdy mounts Pauly and humps him.
Pauly and Rowdy’s parents are concerned that something is wrong and that one or both of the boys is going to get hurt.
So the question is: Are Pauly and Rowdy playing or fighting? And WHAT’s with the humping?!?
What is the dog's body language? (List what the dog looks and sounds like.) Growling, baring teeth, running with a bouncy gait, putting forearms on the ground and sticking their backsides up, wearing what looks like big grins on their faces, switching roles (Pauly chases Rowdy, and then they switch; Rowdy jumps on Pauly and then they switch...), and keeping their mouths open when they bite. And... Rowdy sometimes humps Pauly.
What's going on? (Describe the context.) They’re out in the backyard playing with a tug toy before the roughhousing starts.
Now we put the information together.
By visiting Play Behavior in All About Dogs, we learn that one reason dogs play is to practice important behaviors in their lives: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and courting. This means that when they play, they do things such as pretending to fight, chasing each other around, and, yes, even humping.
And these guys are doing all of these things.
But, if you looked at a snapshot of two dogs playing, without any other context, you likely couldn’t tell if they were playing or fighting. So we have to dig deeper for more clues.
1. Self-handicapping— Are the boys pulling their punches or fake biting? Yes! They keep their mouths open when they “bite,” and they are faking body slamming like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a WWE ring.
2. Role reversals— Are they switching up? Yes! One chases and then he gets chased. One is on top, and then he’s on the bottom. One “bites,” and then he gets “bitten.”
3. Meta-signals— Play bow? Yes! Play-face? Yes! Running with a bouncy gait? Yes!
What's the answer?
We don’t even need to go to Step Three for this one. These dogs are clearly playing and having a good time. But it’s great that Rowdy and Paulie’s parents wanted to make sure everyone was safe.
If when you watch your dogs wrestling with other dogs, you don’t see self-handicapping, role reversals, or meta-signals, it’s a good idea to bring in a qualified dog trainer to make sure they’re still playing safely.