Features July 2003 Issue

Picking the Right Playmates for Your Dog

It pays to manage your canine pal’s social life at the dog park.

by Mardi Richmond

Spend any amount of time watching dogs play, and you’ll quickly learn how much fun two or more canine pals can have romping and wrestling. And you can’t beat playtime for exercise and burning off energy. But dog play does a whole lot more than simply provide an opportunity for fun and exercise; it helps dogs learn important communication and life skills. Play and socialization can mean the difference between a dog who is friendly toward other dogs, and one who is shy, anxious, or even aggressive.

Unfortunately, not every social encounter provides the kind of positive learning experience that helps dogs develop good social skills. In some cases, playtime can actually teach dogs to behave badly around other dogs. If social time goes very wrong, it can do emotional or even physical harm to your dog. But with a little caution and a bit of dog sense, you can ensure your dog’s play encounters provide the best in both fun and social learning.

Many owners have learned the hard way that not all socializing at the dog park is fun. Unless you pay attention to your dog and his playmates, interrupt play that begins to result in aggression, and steer clear of playground “bullies,” your dog can get hurt and/or traumatized – potentially ruining his future social life.

Why dog play is important
Puppies and dogs learn essential canine manners and social skills when playing. Through play, they can also learn to tolerate frustration and to control their excitement. Without puppyhood play, dogs have a much greater risk of nervousness or aggression toward other dogs later in life.

Perhaps the most important behavior that puppies learn from playing with other puppies and dogs is bite inhibition – the ability to control their mouths. While bite inhibition is first established when a puppy is six or seven weeks old, ongoing play with other dogs throughout puppyhood reinforces a soft mouth. There is no better way for a dog to learn to control how hard or softly he bites than through playing with other dogs.

Socializing with other dogs, however, should not start and end in puppyhood. Playtime during adolescence teaches dogs social skills that they will use for successful adult interactions. They begin to learn to behave as “dogs” instead of as “puppies.” As young adults, they continue to refine those skills. It’s not uncommon for young adult dogs to suddenly begin experimenting in their behavior with other dogs. Positive social interactions at this stage of life are very important to reinforce appropriate behavior and social interactions.

As dogs mature and grow older, continuing social interactions will help them maintain their meeting and greeting skills. In her book, The Other End of the Leash, trainer and behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes, “ . . . dogs need to learn that part of what’s normal and familiar in life is to meet unfamiliar people and dogs.” Regular interactions with novel dogs help reinforce the idea that meeting new dogs is simply a part of everyday life.

Will they be friends?
Your role in your dog’s play with other dogs is to always pay attention. Too often, people take their dogs to dog parks or play areas and ignore them while they visit with the people. Taking the opportunity to socialize with other dog people is certainly one of the perks of dog parks, but you have to pay attention to your dog, too!

When two dogs meet for the first time, there is sometimes a bit of initial tension. If both dogs are friendly and have good social skills (and they are off leash so they have the opportunity), they will generally approach each other on a bit of an arc or circular path. They may sniff and check each other out. At that time, either they will choose to disengage, or to engage in either play or conflict.

How can you tell what will happen? Watch the dogs and they will tell you through their body language. For example, ears back, a slightly lowered body stance, barely visible hackles on the shoulders, and a low tail may tell you that the dog is nervous about the meeting. Depending on the reaction of the second dog, the nervousness may be calmed, or it may be intensified. Learn and watch for your dog’s signals; his behavior will let you know whether he is comfortable in any given situation.

If dogs choose to disengage, respect their choice. Give them the opportunity for personal space. Encouraging dogs to continue to engage when they are setting good boundaries for themselves could lead to an avoidable conflict.

If the dogs decide to play, continue observing their behavior. Watch how they play. Does your dog seem to be enjoying the interaction? Does the other dog? Are they frequently changing positions, with one dog in charge or on top first, then the other? Sometimes this is hard to see. Try to notice if they seem to be taking turns. If your dog is not enjoying the play or if the play seems one-sided, you may want to separate the dogs and take your dog to another corner of the park.

If you see that the dogs are not happily greeting, you may be able to separate them before a conflict erupts. A cheerful, “Come” or “Let’s go!” can sometimes help give your dog permission to leave the situation. Please note: The timing of the “Come” will make a difference. If you call too early, your dog may not be able to make a graceful exit (and may choose to continue with the greeting rather than be rude or put himself in harm’s way). This is not a time to worry about whether your dog responds instantly to your call. Try calling again when you see a pause in the greeting ritual.

Play time gone bad
Some squabbles and dogfights can’t be avoided. But many can. An inappropriate play situation can lead to tension or a fight between dogs. It may also teach your dog to behave badly in future social situations. While it is important to give dogs the opportunity to deal with a variety of social situations, you want to make sure the “play” will not (as one dog trainer I know puts it) “send them to therapy.”

What can you do when you see that playtime is taking a turn for the worse? Get your dog out of the situation – immediately. Watch for four situations in particular: overly aroused dogs, bully dogs, pack behavior, and predatory behavior.

If you see the dogs are becoming overly aroused – getting so wound up that their play style begins to look less playful and more aggressive – it is very important to have them take a break from play. It may be that the dogs just need a little break, and then they will be ready to play again. Some dogs, like some children, get more active or wound up when they are tired.

If you know your dog is tired, or you see his arousal level going up, you may need to help him disengage. If you can’t have him take a break (for example, taking him to another part of the park while the other dogs continue to play), you may need to remove him from the park altogether. Letting tired dogs continue to play could result in them forgetting their basic manners, or ending up in a fight.

Beware, also, of dogs exhibiting bully behavior. Some young dogs do “test out” bullying. Usually, the dog will try out the behavior on one or two dogs, get firmly told off, and consequently modify his behavior.

A bully over-asserts his or her authority, even when – maybe especially when – the other dog issues no challenge whatsoever. Bully dogs are also quick to “pile on” if another dog is getting picked on.

Occasionally you may run into a confirmed bully at the dog park or other off-leash area. This dog may be uninterested in actual play, spending most of her time between scanning the park for potential victims and bullying those victims. When she does engage in play, she will always be the dog “on top,” rolling the other dogs to the ground or standing over them. She is often the first dog to rush toward any other dog-dog conflict in the park, seeking an opportunity to jump on whatever dog is on the receiving end of punishment.

If you see a dog exhibiting bullying behavior in a play area, keep your dog away! Bullies can and will create an atmosphere that can result in conflicts and even fights between dogs who would otherwise get along just fine.

If your dog has a tendency to bully other dogs – for example, if he continually “picks” on another dog or does not stop playing even when the other dog obviously wants to disengage – use caution in choosing playmates. Playing with other dogs that “allow” or tolerate the bullying could actually serve to reinforce your dog’s bully behavior. Ideally, you’d find dogs who will play with your dog, but who won’t tolerate bullying behavior. Let them teach your dog not to be rude!

Finding the ideal dogs to teach your dog manners may be difficult, however, and you may have to intervene instead. The type of intervention will depend on your dog’s age and the severity of the behavior. It could be as simple as a brief time-out each time the bully behavior begins. Or, it could mean a more involved behavior modification program. If your dog is behaving like a bully, consult with a behaviorist experienced in dog-to-dog interactions. Letting the behavior go unchecked may result in a dog who doesn’t get taken anywhere any more.

In addition, where groups of dogs congregate, watch for pack behavior. When dogs “pack up,” the rules of play change. It’s not just dogs who live together who will pack up, either; dogs who regularly play together at a dog park can form what I call “play packs.” A group of friendly dogs that get along smashingly well with each other can suddenly engage in conflict when a new dog enters the scene. In addition, one dog in a playgroup can sometimes become a target for the rest. Interrupt and extract your dog if a group of dogs begins to charge, chase, or pay extra attention to any single dog. Whether your dog is part of the pack, or on the outside of it, he could learn unwanted behavior.

Predatory behavior occurs when one dog reacts to another dog as if he is a prey animal. The result can be fatal, with the predatory dog trying to or succeeding in killing the other dog. Predatory behavior may simply be due to a momentary error; the dog who sees a cute fluffy little dog bouncing through an open field may think for a moment that it’s a bunny rabbit. In this case, the predatory dog may or may not do harm to the fluffy little dog. He may run up, discover it’s a dog, and immediately back off. Or, he may be in such a prey drive state that he doesn’t register the cute fluffy creature as a dog at all, possibly hurting or killing the small dog.

What behaviorist Jean Donaldson has referred to as “predatory drift” is a different type of risk for small dogs playing with big dogs. It occurs when a bigger dog suddenly, and seemingly without warning, reacts to a smaller dog when the small dog squeals or struggles when playing or fighting (out of excitement or because of a minor injury). It’s thought that an instinctive part of the big dog’s brain is triggered to kill the squealing “prey.”

Predatory drift could occur in an instant, even when two dogs know each other, like each other, play together regularly, or even with two dogs who are family members. The phenomenon is an uncommon but very real risk for any small dog who lives or plays with larger dogs.

Dealing with fights
Whenever you have dogs playing with other dogs, conflicts will arise. They may argue, or actually get into a full-blown fur-flying squabble. What should you do? Should you let them “work it out”? This is a judgment call and one that I believe should be approached with great caution – erring on the side of intervention.

Recently I observed a young dog getting picked on by a group of adolescent dogs at a park. The young dog exhibited calming signals and unsuccessfully tried to hide under a chair to escape the snarls, nips, and body slams of three bullies. Her guardian said she thought her young dog was overwhelmed and that perhaps it was time to leave. Another dog’s owner replied, “Oh no, you shouldn’t take her away. She needs to learn to work it out with the other dogs.”

This was not a situation in which the dog should have “worked it out” on her own – she was being mistreated by a group of bullies! She needed help and protection from her person. Left to her own resources, she may have been forced to either tolerate abuse, or resort to serious aggression to get the bullies to back off. Fortunately, her person had the good sense to leave, in spite of pressure from the other owners.

It’s difficult to know when to let dogs “work it out” and when to intervene. I’ve come up with my own loose set of guidelines. Trust your own judgment and err on the side of protecting your dog!

• If a dog admonishes another dog or puppy, the correction is administered quickly, fairly, and without doing harm, and the second dog responds by backing off, letting them work it out is okay.

• Sudden, quick disagreements that are over in a matter of seconds – and where neither dog shows any indication of wanting to continue the argument – may be okay. For example, if two dog friends are playing and suddenly have a minor squabble, disengage and start playing again, it’s probably safe to let them continue to play.

• I immediately interrupt any situation that seems to be escalating, separating the dogs. I would prefer to avoid any potential risk to my dog, especially if the other dog is unfamiliar to me, and I don’t know whether he has a hard or soft mouth.

• If a dog seemed to enjoy fighting with other dogs, I would not let him “work it out” under any circumstances, as it will reinforce the fighting behavior.

Finding the perfect playmates
Each time we take our dog friends to play with other dogs, we make choices that can either increase or decrease the likelihood of our dog having a positive experience. Consider carefully which dogs you will encourage your dog to play with, and which dogs you will avoid. Spend some time observing the dogs present before entering the park with your dog.

Many large and small dogs play together without incident. However, small dog owners should be aware of the risk of predatory drift, in which even a familiar packmate can suddenly regard a small dog as a prey animal and try to injure or even kill it.

In addition, if you take your dog to a doggy daycare or a training class that incorporates off-leash playtime, be sure the instructor carefully selects playgroups. Make sure play style, age, size, and the number of dogs are taken into account.

I believe that it is our role to protect our dogs, even when it comes to play. This shows our dogs that we are in charge (so they don’t have to be) and helps build and maintain their trust. I also believe that we expect and encourage our dogs to live a lifestyle that demands our active participation to keep them safe. Remember: our dogs do not choose to live in the kind of crowded urban conditions that require them to get along with great numbers of new dogs – we bring them to those conditions. With that in mind, I’d like to add these thoughts:

• Always protect your dog in social situations. Provide him with safe playmates. Don’t force your dog to remain in social situations that are obviously uncomfortable. Watch out for rude dogs – dogs who invade your dog’s space or intimidate your dog. Step between them or move your dog away.

• Size does matter! Many dog parks have separate areas for small dogs and big dogs, and for good reason. Tiny dogs probably should not play with huge dogs, no matter how sweet or gentle the big dog is, nor how energetic and tough the smaller dog. Even the sweetest big dog can inadvertently hurt a smaller dog in play. The risk of predatory behavior and predatory drift is another good reason to avoid large dog/small dog play.

• Consider the dogs’ ages; similar energy levels and play styles are often associated with age. You shouldn’t put your twelve-year-old, arthritic dog in with a bunch of rowdy, body-slamming adolescents. On the other hand, a good mix of dogs, both older and younger, can help teach a young dog how to get along well with all sorts of dogs.

• How many dogs are present? Because dog parks are fenced, they protect dogs from cars and other hazards. But the fencing also provides a barrier that can inhibit a dog’s ability to create space from the other dogs. It’s important to evaluate whether there is adequate space for the number of dogs in the park.

Even in larger or open areas, some dogs may be happy meeting and visiting with a few dogs, but too many will cause stress. A dog may be comfortable greeting 5, 10, or even 15 new dogs in one outing. But 20 or 30 dogs may put him over the top. There is one large, open space dog park in our area that regularly hosts up to 30 or more dogs. This amount of stimulation may simply be too much for some dogs. Each dog has a different tolerance for meeting and greeting new dogs. Get to know your dog’s comfort level.

• The most important thing – know your dog. Learn her behavior cues and stress signals. Watch for them. Observe her body language. Look at her ears, tail, hackles, how she carries her body. Does it look like she’s having fun? Does it look like she’s trying to end the game or keep it going? Is she getting too wound up? Don’t wait until your dog is pushed too far. Pay attention to the early signals. Your dog’s safety and comfort depend on it. Know her social strengths and weaknesses. Just as with people, different dogs enjoy different games. Some dogs love nothing more than to get a whole pack of friends to chase them. Some dogs never run or wrestle with other dogs, but thoroughly enjoy cruising, sniffing, and marking around other dogs. Some dogs are flexible and can adapt to a variety of play styles.

Knowing how your dog likes to play is important when it comes time to choosing playmates. If you provide her with opportunities to play with appropriate partners, she will maintain her strengths and overcome her weaknesses. Learn how to stretch and expand your dog’s social skills in a way that will keep her healthy, happy, and playing with other dogs for years to come.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "What You Can Do."
Click here to view "Five Dog Park Tips From Trainer Ian Dunbar."
Click here to view "Reading Canine Body Language."

Mardi Richmond is a writer and trainer living in Santa Cruz, California. She offers her thanks to Cherie Maitland of Our Furry Friends in Santa Cruz for her help with this article. See "Resources" for more information.

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