Dog Body Language and Social Interaction Breakdown: Indy & Mylo Play Behavior
Warning: You might want to mute the video, unless you love auditory stimulation!
It’s been a hot minute since my last breakdown, and I’m going to do things a little differently this time. These breakdowns are meant to show the nuances and complexities of dog body language, but they’re also meant to be resources for anyone interested in bolstering their observation skills. Therefore, instead of unpacking the entirety of the video with an overwhelming amount of information, I want to focus our attention on 3 signals displayed in the video. Before we do that though, some context!
Indy (black dog) and Mylo (chocolate lab) are very good friends. Indy is a very intensive wrestler if she chooses to engage with other dogs. Generally speaking, I would classify her as “Dog Tolerant” on the scale of dog sociability. You can read more about this here: Understanding the Scale of Dog Selectivity – American Kennel Club (akc.org). Mylo, who I would classify as “Dog Friendly” is a very good sport in handling Indy’s intensive style. Usual bouts with these two require me to step in on Mylo’s behalf, although in Indy’s defense, Mylo still tends to go back for more. In this video, the girls have already been out for quite some time doing other things prior to engaging in one on one play- namely, playing with toys and eating dirt despite their human companion’s best efforts. There are 3 reasons (in no particular order) that I really enjoyed watching these two play here, and I would argue that they are very important signals to watch for in future dog play sessions between any dogs. First off- Body Mirroring.
Body mirroring is when our dogs, quite literally, mimic and synchronize each other’s body movements. It takes a great deal of trust, confidence and comfort in the other dog’s presence to be able to do this, which is why it's one of the hallmarks of healthy play. Mylo has been known to use this “body flop” tactic on Indy when she’s being too intense, so to see Indy return the favor is a great indication that the two girls are on the same page. This is actually the first time I’ve seen Indy perform this behavior in sync with Mylo, and I’m very glad to have recorded it (see Figure 1).
Next is role reversal; generally speaking, when I’m advising my clients on what healthy play entails, I suggest looking for this behavior. Role reversal is quite literally the give and take of play- “sometimes I chase you, sometimes you chase me”. Ideally, this is something of a 50/50 ratio, but this perfect mixture is dependent on individual play styles, learned behavior, endurance and confidence in the play mate. In this video, Mylo is happy to give Indy The Business (see Figure 2), and a few seconds later, the roles reverse where Indy gives Mylo The Business (see Figure 3).
In a typical interaction between these two, Indy tends to go straight in with this tactic on Mylo, whether or not Mylo is ready to return the favor. This is where I apply The Bully Test- interrupting the canine barrage by withholding the suspected Bully (distracted with treats, put on leash, etc.), and seeing what the other dog does. If they come back in for more, it’s all Gucci and consensual; if they walk away and shake off, it probably was too much for them. For Indy, I can typically interrupt her with a Recall, but she’s also been conditioned to stop when I touch the handle on her harness, just in case our listening ears can’t cut it. For the record, when our dog’s listening ears can’t cut it, it’s usually due to levels of high arousal (from excitement to stress), not because they are ignoring us on purpose. In fact, also for the record, our dog’s comprehend us and can use their listening ears better when they’re making eye contact with us
Lastly, I want to discuss the use of Play Bows. These are some of my favorite dog body language signals because they are cues for consent! The play bow acts as a formal invitation to engage in some form of play. Typically speaking, body formation is forepaws slapped to the ground with rear up, and tail carriage neutral-ish to the spine. When the tail is above the spine, this can indicate a state of higher arousal, and can easily slip into a Prey Bow (think less “would you like to play?” and more “ready or not, here I come!”). The play bow can also be adapted to a sort of shorthand (shortpaw?) cue that can be utilized during play as well, which is actually what we see here in the video. When Indy decides that it’s her turn to give The Business, she comes vigorously, but also provides 3 quick slaps to the side to show Mylo that her intentions are still playful in nature (see Figure 4). In fact, when roles reverse again towards the end of the video, Mylo can be seen giving her shorthand version of the play bow before the video comes to an end.
While these are not the only signals to be watching for in healthy play, they are pretty important, especially when they’re seen together in the same session. Again, as always, it is important to consider the individuals at play, the context they're in, and the whole body when trying to interpret what these signals mean. It’s also handy to know your dog’s individual play style, and absolutely know when to interrupt any behavior that doesn't seem consensual. All in all, albeit intense, this was one of my favorite Indy/ Mylo spectacles to date. Remember folks, those who play together, stay together!
Works Cited & Resources
Aloff, B. (2018). Canine body language : a photographic guide : interpreting the native language of the domestic dog. Wenatchee, Wa: Dogwise.
Kaufer, M. (2011). CANINE PLAY BEHAVIOR : the science of dogs at play. S.L.: Dogwise Publishing.
Siniscalchi, M., d’Ingeo, S., Minunno, M. and Quaranta, A. (2018). Communication in Dogs. Animals, [online] 8(8), p.131. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ani8080131.