Disclaimer: This is the individual opinion of the author and is based on personal observations and experiences not scientific studies. Dog play is a very delicate subject, especially amongst dog trainers and it would probably take me years to fully break down every aspect of dog play, hence why I'll be writing about Dog Play in Parts 1, 2, 3 and so on . Please feel free to comment on this post with questions, comments or your own personal opinion of the subject material.
When it comes to dog play styles, not all dogs play the same. There are certain combinations of dog play styles that work better than others and there are certainly common body movements that most dogs use to communicate play but there is no standardized play style that all dogs must adhere to. I also feel that it's certainly up to the dog handler to understand the way their dog plays and make informed decisions on who to let their dog play with. There's also "play rules" that are pretty much the same in all play styles which include: no biting too hard, if someone says "ouch" it's time to take a break, no excessive humping and any dog can walk away at any time.
So what styles are there when it comes to dog play? Well, there are many different styles of dog play and some dogs are "NEUTRAL" dogs who can adapt their play style to any other dogs play style as needed. These "NEUTRAL" dogs are great for dogs who are new at playing, recovering from a traumatic experience and sometimes with puppies who are still learning how to safely play with adult dogs.
I will be dividing play styles first by the most common and generic play styles. Then I will break down the subcategories as well as what play styles work well together and what styles don't.
Let's start with the play style I'm the most familiar with, "THE WRESTLERS". These are the dogs who LOVE to wrestle and mouth play. These are the dogs who play mostly with an open mouth and lots of posturing. Pitties are notorious wrestlers and typically are more vocal than the other types of dog players. Their play can sometimes be misconstrued as fighting when witnessed by someone who is not used to this type of play. "WRESTLERS" can be pitties, bulldogs, labs and even small breeds like chihuahuas.
There's also "THE RUNNERS". These are the dogs who just LOVE to play chase. They either want to be the chasee or the chaser but heaven forbid they should ever make contact with another dog. These dogs tend to like their own space and don't want anyone catching them mid run. Border collies, labs, sighthounds and most small breeds are "RUNNERS".
Then there's "THE LONERS". These are dogs who'll hang out with groups of dogs but not engage in play with any of the other dogs. These dogs may even lip curl should another dog try to get too playful with them. These dogs do generally enjoy the company of other dogs but don't need to make physical contact of any sort either because they get winded easily, because they have stiff joints/muscles or simply because they would rather observe other dogs play than join in. These dogs are typically large mastiffs, some shepherds, toy breeds and some brachycephalic dog breeds (i.e. pugs, boston terriers, bulldogs).
There also somewhat of subgroups of the most common play styles. For example, "THE BOXERS" are a sub group of "THE WRESTLERS". "THE BOXERS" tend to do less mouth play than "THE WRESTLERS". They also tend to swat at one another with their front legs and paws while standing upwards on their hind legs. They may still wrestle, posture and chase but they don't engage in much of the mouthing whether it be because they have shorter snouts or just because they're more "refined" than the common "WRESTLER". Rottweilers, boxers and many of the hunting breeds tend to be "BOXERS".
Another subgroup would be "THE BALL DOGS" who just want to play ball or frisbee in the presence of other dogs. This subgroup would generally fall under the "RUNNERS" category because you'll sometimes have a dog who just loves to have others chase him while he chases his ball. Some "BALL DOGS" can also fall under the "LONER" category too since some "BALL DOGS" don't like to be interrupted or may get irritated if another dog tries to distract them from the task at hand. Golden Retrievers, Cattle Dogs and Labs tend to fall into the "BALL DOG" category.
Now let's talk about good and bad pairing of play styles. Obviously, "BALL DOGS" and "RUNNERS" are typically a good match because they're related. Same goes for the "BOXERS" and "WRESTLERS".
"RUNNERS" and "LOANERS" can sometimes be a good match especially when a "RUNNER" is able to playfully irritate "LOANERS" into a short lived game of chase without pushing the wrong buttons. "BALL DOGS" can also be a good match for "LOANERS" especially the "BALL DOGS" who aren't very fond of being interrupted. Both get to enjoy the company of other dogs while still keeping to themselves.
"BOXERS" and "RUNNERS" tend to play together well because neither really enjoy face to face contact and both can appreciate a good run. You have to be a little bit more cautious with "WRESTLERS" and "RUNNERS". "WRESTLERS" sometimes have pretty intense prey drives and could get lost in the chase when the "RUNNER" gets tired of running. "WRESTLERS" and "BALL DOGS" are typically hit or miss. Sometimes "BALL DOGS" enjoy a break from their ball and engage in a little chase or wrestle but if the "BALL DOG" isn't a fan of close contact or the "WRESTLER" isn't respectful of the "BALL DOGS" limits you could have a tussle on your hands.
And forget about pairing a "LOANER" with a "WRESTLER". Typically, "WRESTLERS" like to push buttons and may not respect the "LOANERS" space. "BOXERS" and "LOANERS" can sometimes work for the reason that "BOXERS" and "RUNNERS" can sometimes play; they don't like face to face contact. "BOXERS" may, also like the "BALL DOGS", be able to entice the "LOANERS" into a short game of rough house with their swatting and big play bows.
Some dogs have multiple play styles. For example, my foster dog Latte is a "RUNNER", "BOXER" and "WRESTLER". She switches through the play styles depending on who's she's playing with and in what mood she's in. My adopted dog Money is a "RUNNER" and a "WRESTLER". She tends to get carried away with playing chase though so she only plays chase with dogs who can out run her 99% of the time.
"NEUTRAL" dogs are a bit of a phenomenon in my opinion. They're the dogs who are so well versed in dog play that they can instantaneously switch play styles as needed depending on the mood of the play session and the other player. My former foster dog Buddy, who has been adopted by a wonderful family with 2 other dogs, was the first "NEUTRAL" dog I had the pleasure of solely training. He assisted me in my private training's as well as big workshops that focused on introducting your dog to other dogs safely. My current foster dog, Theo, is also on his way to becoming a perfect "NEUTRAL" dog. He's a big boy though and is still learning how big he really is, so we have some fine tuning to still do.
All in all, there are endless variables involved with dog play including environment, the size of the dogs, whether they're intact or not and so on and so fourth. There is no way to be 100% positive that everything is going to go smoothly 100% of the time but that is life and both dogs and humans can learn from their mistakes.
Part 2 of Not All Dog Play The Same will focus more on the individual styles common body movements as well as advice on teaching your dog boundaries when playing. I'm attaching a few different video examples of dogs playing. Try and figure out what dogs fall into what categories and leave your thoughts in the comments.