Dog Body Language and Social Interaction Breakdown Series: Rocky & Bella
[As per usual, Audio not necessary!]
It never ceases to amaze me how dogs have a seemingly uncanny knack for picking appropriate play partners. As it turns out, it’s not uncanny at all; dog’s are just really good at reading the body language of their conspecifics (and ours). These two goofballs had just met for the first time not even 5 minutes prior to me taking this video, and here they are playing like they’re old friends. This is no coincidence!
The video starts off with Rocky (Beige Cattle dog Mix, ~1 year) and Bella (Aussie X Bernese, ~1.5 years) on the ground together in the midst of a healthy bout of Mouth Sparring! Mouth sparring (or play biting) is a typical canine play behavior that often looks quite vicious, but is really quite harmless. It can be characterized as a large display of teeth with an open-wide mouth, and it’s usually accompanied by snorting, heavy panting, and sometimes other odd noises. You can tell this is one of those harmless moments by the rest of the body posture, as well. Both dogs are really quite floppy with their bodies, casually rolling from side to side until Rocky gets up and offers what I like to call a shorthand Play Bow (there are 2 versions of the Play bow- formal, or pre-play, and shorthand, or mid-play). Play Bows can be characterized as a friendly invitation to play, with fore-front down (elbows to the ground) and rear in the air. Of special importance is the positioning of the tail. A true Play Bow tail is held neutral or low; “Remember, I’m just playing”. If the tail is held higher than the spine, it’s likely a Prey Bow, which can still indicate play (context dependent, of course), but often with the intention of communicating readiness; “Ready for lift off in 3…2…1!”
Despite Rocky’s politely playful reminder of intent, Bella doesn’t necessarily return the gesture, and instead tries to scoot herself out from under him. Truth be told, I believe Rocky’s not quite Mounting posture was a little bit much for her. It’s certainly not unreasonable of Rocky to be displaying this posture, as mounting can sometimes be a redirected symptom of overstimulation. Judging by his continued play-biting of Bella’s neck, and lack of hip thrusting, his intent isn’t to actually mount her- he’s just an awkward teen. Go figure.
At this point, Bella gives a quick reminder to Rocky that biting behind the neck isn’t play for her- her body stiffens as she rolls onto her back (it could be argued here that this is a display of submission, but I honestly think she’s just trying to get her balance as she doesn’t remain in that position for long), and tucks her tail into her body. He responded really well here. At the same moment that Bella gives that ‘correction’ (I put this in quotations, because she’s honestly being really easy on him- in fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say she still looks like she’s Mouth Sparring), Rocky bows again (albeit on poor Bella), and gives a quick head turn, subsequently taking a step or two back from her. This head turn, which is a peaceful, calming signal, is his acknowledgement of her needing space. This communication in body language is so smooth that both dogs go right back into Mouth Sparring as though nothing even happened (although for another brief moment, Rocky is distracted by the high pitched wailing of a small child across the field).
After this exchange of mouth sparring and ankle biting, Bella flops back down on her side (it’s a lot of work to play, you know!). Rocky responds with a super polite self-handicap! Self Handicapping in play is where one of the dogs (sometimes the bigger dog, or the dog who is in a physically higher position) literally takes themselves down to the level of the other dog to cultivate an even playing field (so to speak). In this case, Rocky was standing, and as Bella rolls to her side, he spars his way down to her level to match ‘the vibe’ (that’s a technical term, right? hehe). From here, they continue to mouth spar and paw at each other, both with relaxed bodies. This display of lying on their sides takes a great deal of trust and comfort as it is a vulnerable position to be in. Thankfully, Auntie Touka is there to check in and make sure everyone is being appropriate.
The almost instantaneous friendship between Rocky and Bella is something I look forward to seeing at our park in the future. Nothing gives me more pleasure than two young dogs communicating beautifully in their own native language. A special thank you to Melissa and Laura, respective Dog Moms to Rocky and Bella! :)