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6 Surprisingly Normal Behaviours Dogs Display During Play

Your dog’s quirks and traits make them who they are (and are probably on the list of things you love about them most). 

In particular, interactive play – that’s play between your dog and a human using interactive toys – can bring out the weird and wonderful in dogs of all shapes and sizes. 

So if you’ve ever been playing tug (or another interactive game) with your dog and wondered ‘is this behaviour normal’, don’t fret - we’re here to help. 

“Every dog is unique and will have been shaped by breed, genetics, littermate play and life experiences, resulting in their own wonderful style of play,” said our in-house Play Expert, Chelsea. 

“Barking, growling, tail wagging, toy shaking… It can all be normal – but there are some instances where we should take action. It’s all about working out what’s normal for your dog, and what that means for the way you play.”

Here are six of the most common interactive play behaviours that leave owners scratching their heads – with insight from Chelsea to help you work out what’s normal, and when you should be concerned. 

‘My dog likes to shake the toy during play’

High-drive dogs who get really stuck into play may toss their heads around and shake their toy when playing tug. This is sometimes known as ‘ragging’.

“Ragging can happen with all breeds but it’s particularly common in terriers that were originally bred to rat,” says Chelsea. 

“If your dog likes to win the tuggy and shake it around, it's nothing to worry about. It’s simply your dog’s way of satisfying an instinctual urge. As a general rule, we always advise taking it in turns to ‘win’ the tuggy when you play – and remember to re-engage play (never leave your dog with a tuggy unsupervised)”

Chelsea’s verdict: NORMAL 

‘My dog loves to chase a toy during play’

For dogs that are visually driven and like movement, there’s nothing more enjoyable than being able to run and chase after a toy. Sighthounds (including greyhounds, salukis and whippets) and herding breeds (including collies, kelpies and other sheepdogs) are particularly well-known for liking to chase or herd and control movement. 

“Some dogs don’t just want an outlet for their urge to chase, they need it (and if they don’t get it, the urge can manifest in unwanted behaviour, such as shadow chasing),” says Chelsea. 

“We created our collection of Chaser tugs for this exact reason. With extra long handles and a choice of enticing bite areas, our Chasers give owners a way to positively channel their dog’s urge to chase into fun, rewarding play that can boost training, too.”

Chelsea’s verdict: NORMAL 

‘My dog likes to parade around with their toy’

Does your dog ever do a ‘victory lap’ with their interactive toy? It’s called parading – and for some dogs, getting to hold the soft, fluffy bite area of a tug toy in their mouth and run around is the highlight of playing tug. 

“For certain dogs, sometimes even those that are very soft mouthed and tug gently, winning the toy and offering a small lap of victory before re-engaging in play is naturally enriching and rewarding’” Chelsea says. 

“If your dog likes to parade, roll with it – but don’t always let your dog win the tuggy. Sometimes it can be your turn for a victory lap!” 

Chelsea’s verdict: NORMAL 

 ‘My dog barks or growls during play’

Some dogs are more vocal than others. Breeds including huskies, kelpies and beagles are often especially vocal – but it isn’t limited by breed. Interactive play, especially with a high value tuggy like a Wondabaa Bungee or PowerBall tug, can result in vocalisation. Even dogs that are generally quiet can bark excitedly when ready to play or growl when tugging.

“We’ve been conditioned to see any kind of barking or growling as a ‘bad’ thing, but that’s not always the case,” says Chelsea. 

“It’s all about observing your dog and learning what’s normal for them. Growling paired with bouncy body movements, head shaking and tail wagging or a loose, relaxed tail is usually nothing to worry about – it’s just your dog’s way of telling you they are having fun.”

Chelsea’s verdict: NORMAL - if accompanied by relaxed, happy behaviour

‘My dog gets really excited during play’

If a dog is excited and confident during play, it’s usually a good sign. But for some dogs, interactive play is so exciting that they wind up over-aroused – which can make it harder to use play as part of training. 

“How exuberant a dog’s play style is often relates back to littermate play,” says Chelsea.

“Often puppies in big litters and those kept together for longer than 8 weeks experience more ‘rough and tumble’, which can make them more outgoing and confident in play when playing with us humans too.

“However, if a dog’s excitement seems out of control or they find it hard to calm down after interactive play, it’s worth thinking about using a less stimulating tuggy, such as one made with durable synthetic fur (rather then sheepskin or rabbit skin which can send arousal through the roof!). I share more detailed advice for tackling overarousal in this video.”

Chelsea’s verdict: NORMAL – but watch for signs of overarousal

‘My dog doesn’t seem excited when we play’

On the opposite end of the spectrum to overarousal are the dogs that don’t appear motivated or enthusiastic during play. This can make play feel like hard work, rather than fun quality time. 

“As with all behaviour, genetics plays a huge role. Domestic dogs have been selectively bred for different traits, resulting in similar play patterns in certain breeds,” says Chelsea.

“I firmly believe all dogs can enjoy the benefits of play – often it’s about finding the interactive toy that sparks their desire to play. This might mean using a food-based tug toy, a tuggy made with real, responsibly-sourced sheepskin or even one that mimics the feathers of a bird. There’s a tug toy for every dog!”

Chelsea’s verdict: NORMAL - experiment with different motivational tug toys

‘My dog’s hair stands up on its back during play’

If the hair on your dog’s back stands up, also known as ‘raised hackles’, when you play tug, you might feel concerned. However, this isn’t always a threatening posture.

“Raised hackles along the ridge of the back doesn’t just occur when a dog is feeling nervous or aggressive,” Chelsea says. 

“It often occurs after a surge of adrenaline – which can happen if a dog is super stimulated by interactive play. Again, look at the bigger picture and read your dog’s body language – if your dog is otherwise happy, relaxed and engaged, raised hackles shouldn’t be a concern.”

Chelsea’s verdict: NORMAL - if accompanied by relaxed, happy behaviour

The bottom line

Dogs are as unique as humans, with behaviours, quirks and instincts to match. Observing what ‘normal’ play looks like for our own dogs is essential. It’s also important to understand what our dogs find enjoyable, motivating and reinforcing so that we can use play and tug in particular as the ultimate reward during training. 

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