If you close your eyes and listen to the video below, you may think you are listening to the devil.
That sound has become a part of daily life since I have Welcomed Dog Days of Summer, because Day-ay and Ragazzo, my houseguests, do this every day. Mother and son bickering? Not exactly. This is actually the way that dogs play. While it may seem to the outsider that the little dog is being attacked by the evil, possessed big dog, Day-ay and Ragazzo are actually developing life skills when they play in the video above.
As it is with humans, dog play promotes good physical and mental health. If you watch carefully, you’ll see pauses, stares, air-nips and “breathers” in their activity, each of which helps cue the other into when it gets too rough or too aggressive, or when it is time to resume.
Ragazzo is almost twice Day-ay’s size, and yet he knows just how to play with her without breaking skin. They roughhouse and face-bite daily, and grotesque, growling is part of the game. Notice how Day-ay lets Ragazzo know when to back off and when to re-engage. If she truly didn’t want to play, she would not make an open-mouth lunge for him—a sign that she is game to have another go.
Dog play also shows, according to Alexandra Horowitz, that dogs have an awareness of their own size. They will moderate their play style and mouth force according to the size of their play partners.
Here is a second video of their dogfight. Can you can recognize cues that play is play? At second 9, when you think Day-ay has signaled “that’s enough,” she emerges from the comforter to re-engage Ragazzo in fun-bites.
At second 13, Day-ay emerges from the comforter again and gives a little lick—a body cue that it is time for a breather again. A second lick comes seconds later, almost as if it signaling an end to “time out.”
Day-ay eventually lets Ragazzo go in for the “kill” on her neck, and then it seems as if Ragazzo wins this round. But the next round may be hers, as dogs play fairly, says Horowitz. It is hard to know whether Day-ay remembers that Ragazzo is her son (dogs’ memories are a mystery), but it seems, from watching these videos, that she trusts giving him dominance over her in play. She even exposes her belly, the most vulnerable spot. Ragazzo is getting his practice being the alpha dog.