We see dogs run, chase, wag, bow, and dance around each other. Not all types of play are the same and each serve different purposes. There are different kinds of play to include object, predatory, and social.
Object play is when there is an object (such as a stick, leaves, or something provided by the human) involved with the play and is a form of investigatory behavior. Dogs can be involved with this type of play individually or with another canine. Individual object play would be like chasing a leaf. This type of play allows for relaxation for the canine and also serves as recreational.
Predatory play allows for a rehearsal of hunting to help build skills. This includes things like orienting and targeting another dog with an intent stare, stalking, chasing fast enough to keep up to the other dog, but not actually catch, inhibited bite to the hock, neck or front leg, and pinning. This can also include toss and shaking with a toy which is the dog practicing the killing of prey.
Social play mostly includes practice of the “fight or flight” that would occur in real-life. In other words, dogs change roles from prey to predator during this type of play. This type of play has been seen in the whelping box as early as the second or third week of a dog’s life practicing jaw wrestling (or otherwise known as mock fighting).
Changing Your Perspective
During the game of play, dogs are giving each other what we call metasignals. These postures are very important because they communicate either play or a threat/warning which can trigger a fight. The metasignals are what the animals rely on (and humans can too) to see the true motivation within the play.
This is why early social play is so important, but unfortunately is often neglected. It isn’t something that we typically think about because, at the time of puppyhood, there are no problems. Many behavioral problems that often times show in adolescence could have been avoided all together with early socialization. There are two reasons I see a lack of puppy socialization. First, generally puppies are taken from the litter around 8 weeks and because of this they are missing the peak of opportune time for learning communication skills. The second reason is concerns with vaccinations. There have been countless statistics from universities and veterinarians that point to the fact that dogs are at a higher risk of being euthanized due to behavioral problems stemming from lack of socialization than dying from the parvo virus.
If the human strategically works with a wellness program and purposely goes about socialization, I believe that it will transform the puppy’s life as s/he grows into maturity.
For puppies especially, it is important to find a play mate that is healthy, and in the same size and play style. Play style differs by breed. Boxers play much differently than Australian Shepherds.
Be proactive. Look for a friend, neighbor, etc. and conduct play sessions at your home. If you are questioning how things are going, you can always call a knowledgeable trainer that has background in reading dog body language.