Dogs often like to play with their mouths. If you've ever watched two dogs at play, you can't help but wonder if it's painful. The subsequent clashing of teeth can leave you pondering if the behaviour is normal or even fun, yet you see it often enough to know that it must have its rewards. We know that since dogs don't have the ability to speak to us that they explore the world with their mouths. Could it be that this is part of how they communicate with other dogs as well? Is this behavior cause for concern? Should you discourage your dog from engaging in play in this fashion? The dogs involved don't seem to find it offensive, but as the human part of the equation, it does leave you scratching your head in your quest for answers. As with most observed dog behaviors, there are many possible reasons for this interesting play style.
The Root of the Behavior
Each dog has its own unique play style. If you observe a group of dogs at play, you will notice that many of the games are similar, and all of the dogs seem to understand the "rules." One of the most common games that many dogs like to play is what is commonly referred to as "Bitey Face." Bitey Face seems to be grand fun for the dogs involved. The basic premise of the game is quite simple; each dog attempts to bite the other's face. It can be exceptionally frightening for owners to watch as it is often characterized by scary sounding noises and the baring of teeth. At first glance, what is really just an innocent playtime could be interpreted as aggression. Yet, owners need have no fear, this game is very controlled. When Bitey Face is played between two dogs of sound temperament, there is little to cause concern of intentional injury. Both dogs limit the strength and intensity of their bite. After all, it is a game to them with the sole intent being to continue their fun, not wound or harm their opponent.
Others have coined the phrase "jaw sparring" to refer to open mouth play. While this activity can escalate to a point where it could be harmful to the dogs involved; for the most part, it is simply the canine version of a harmless bout of wrestling. But make no mistake, jaw sparring is not a UFC "No Holds Barred" cage match. For many dogs, it is a teaching time where older dogs teach younger dogs to exercise proper control over their mouths. Since a dog naturally possesses the ability to inflict great harm on other living beings, it is of great importance for them to learn the amount of pressure that is appropriate for interacting with their canine and human friends and family. But where does this type of play find its origins? Many of the behaviors we see in the modern dog are deeply rooted in their ancestry. If you closely observe dogs at play, you will notice that many of the actions you see can be traced to the things they would do in their day to day lives in order to survive but on a much less intense scale.
Encouraging the Behavior
The ancient dog was responsible for sourcing its own food and bore a great responsibility to provide for its pack. Failing to procure food could mean they would not survive. Just as children engage in games based on vital life roles, so too do dogs display play behaviors from their daily lives and activities. Games based on stalking, hunting, and even, "killing" are particularly rewarding for our dogs. These behaviors are instinctive and being able to "play act" them with their canine friends brings great fulfillment. It is important for owners to discern between productive play and play that is verging on dangerous, which needs to be interrupted for the health and safety of all of the dogs involved. There are definite warning signs that conscientious owners can heed. The first thing an owner should look for are indications that both parties are enjoying their play time. How can you tell? Appropriate play should be equivocal. Simply said, your dog should spend as much time being "dominated" as it spends "dominating." If one dog seems to constantly have the other in submissive repose, your dog might be a bully, and it is likely time to rein in the game. Adult dogs should generally be in "tune" with puppy behavior and should modify their play accordingly. Dogs with proper temperaments will automatically reduce the intensity of their play styles to allow a puppy to have "victories" over its larger and more mature playmates.
Appropriate dog play is also often interspersed with "breaks." You might see two dogs go at it pretty hard for fifteen minutes only to wander off and pursue other things and resume play later. This is quite healthy and normal. If at any time you see a dog attempting to disengage from play, it is time to intervene and redirect the dogs. This is a preliminary warning signal that the play is going in a different direction, and you may not get another. Disengagement can quickly go from feigning disinterest and boredom to full-on aggression, so it is critical that play never be unsupervised, and action is swiftly taken when a dog appears to have had its fill. Signs that danger is imminent include raised hackles, hard staring, bared teeth, and low growling. If any of these signs are present, it is critical that all games be interrupted, and the dogs redirected. The fun portion of the mutual play time is now officially over.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Another important consideration is who is involved in play. Dogs that live in the same household will often play much harder than dogs who are virtual strangers. Canine family members have had a long time to study and learn from each other, and they intuitively know how much they can get away with during games. But with dogs who are unfamiliar with each other, play should be more reserved in nature. Biting games can be a lot of fun for our dogs and are generally quite harmless. The wise owner keeps a close eye on all dog to dog interactions to ensure that play time remains fun for all parties involved. Sadly, it only takes one negative experience to leave a lasting impression. It is far wiser to be proactive than to have to deal with behavior problems later.
Bitey Face and jaw sparring are but two of our beloved dogs' favorite pastimes. While these activities can seem quite scary to us, so long as the play is well-supervised and body language is closely observed, they can be a lot of fun for our beloved canine companions and rewarding too. Learning proper canine play styles can enrich your relationship with your dog and help you to better understand appropriate dog interactions.
By a Parson Russel Terrier lover Jason Homan
Published: 03/01/2018, edited: 01/30/2020