Downeast Dog News

Give and Take:

The Perpetual Space Dance
By | Oct 01, 2019
Photo by: Daisy the Vizsla and Skipper the Poodle share a toy during play

If you’ve ever been witness to dogs interacting well with each other, you have undoubtedly been captivated by their movements, at once seeming haphazard but at the same time intentional, theatrical and even choreographed. There is give and take; the interaction maintains a steady energy level and both dogs seem totally happy. Each dog bounces and pounces and mouths, miraculously avoiding causing injury to the other. Play can go on for a long time like this. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

Giving and taking, yielding and approaching.

We should all be observant of canine body language so that we can gauge the quality of interactions, whether it’s between dogs or between dogs and humans. It all comes down to controlling and respecting personal space.

Each of us has our individual personal space bubble, a “force field” of sorts, which we want to preserve. Whether we are human or dog, entry into this bubble is by invitation only. When a dog jumps on you, she is taking your personal space without invitation.

The Importance of Pauses

In good dog-dog interactions, there is an equal balance of giving and taking space. This will come in the form of approaching and retreating from the other, taking turns mouthing and play biting, tackling, etc. There will be a reciprocity of movement, with each dog offering equal doses of taking and yielding, intentionally weaving them into the conversation in order to prolong it. You will see a lot of “pauses”: brief moments when one of the players yields a bit of space to the other, a form of self-regulation. A pause may consist of a play bow, a spin away, a step back, a change in action or direction or a reduction in intensity, etc. Once in a while, a dog will suddenly grab a toy and offer it to the other dog to share. We expect to see pauses every 4-8 seconds in a good play session. Pauses are critical elements to mutual interactions.

When things start leaning towards The Dark Side:

Dogs need to learn to respect the personal space of others, and we need to help cultivate this by managing their interactions, whether it’s with people or other dogs. The tendency to have respect, or “deference” - the passive acceptance or submission when responding to another dog’s cues - can be genetic, but it’s also something that must be learned and reinforced from an early age and throughout a dog’s life.

Unfortunately, there is often a discord in “conversations” between dogs, and we often miss the signs, let the interaction go on for too long and risk harm to one of the dogs. “Harm” can come in the obvious form of emotional or physical distress, but it can also simply be enabling the perpetrator to be inappropriate to the point where she becomes a bully, so ingrained is the behavior. We must not “let dogs be dogs” and sort things out for themselves. “Play” is not “play” if it’s one-sided.

Some questions to ask as you observe interactions:

• Who initiated the interaction?

• Did the other dog move towards or away from the initiator?

• Is one dog initiating most of the space-taking?

• Is the taking and yielding of space equally balanced between the dogs?

• Are there pauses? If so, how often and in what form?

• Does it look like one of the dogs is trying to get away?

All of the above pertains to off-leash dogs. When we are talking about leashed dogs or one who is on leash and one who isn’t, the dynamics completely change. The bubble around a leashed dog tends to be much greater. If a leashed dog has not invited another dog into her space, it’s very likely that she will try to defend it, no matter what the Space Invader’s intent may be.


I invite you to watch a few videos on my YouTube channel so you can see pups in action. I’ve put them in a playlist called “Interactions: Give and Take.”