Spring is in the air and we all know what that means? It means daylight hours are increasing, blossoms are budding, weather is warming up, hibernation is coming to an end and we are now ready to hit the parks with our dogs again.
Many of you already know my thoughts and views on dog parks and while the concept is great, unfortunately what goes on between fences is not so great.
You have heard me mention before that we have unleashed the ‘lazy dog owner’, where some, not all, dog owners use the fenced dog park as a way to let loose their uncontrollable dog. Instead of using this set up as a place where you can safely let your dog run around and play, some dog owners are choosing to release their dog, then ignore their dog and dismiss the havoc it creates and disappointingly, dog fights are breaking out. On a more disturbing note, some owners are even going to the extent of sitting in their cars while their dogs are in the park, or even going home!
So note to all owners, if you cannot leave children unattended in a playground, the same goes for your dog!
Anyhow, this article is not about lazy dog owners but instead about what appropriate play should look like. Quite often in classes, I get asked “what is ‘good’ play?” or “how do you know when it is getting out of control?” While most owners actually get it and know when it is getting rough, they sometimes feel conflicted because the other owners in the park throw phrases out such as, “leave them alone, they will work it out”, or “my dog is friendly but sometimes likes to dominate”!
So let’s have a look at how this can go wrong and let’s have a look at from another angle. For parents out there, if your child was being pushed to the ground and held down by another child, would you leave it there to work it out or would you intervene and end it? It isn’t about who or what is doing it but instead about the actual behaviour that is occurring so for dogs it really is no different.
I have once again set up some common scenarios and while the dog names have been made up, the situations I have described are real. Read on and see if you have been in this position before.
Imagine we have a new young dog (Maxi) who has just finished puppy classes, had a wonderful time and positive experience and thinks dog are pretty cool and fun to be around. So for the first time he goes to a dog park with the ‘bigger’ dogs to add to his buddy list. They enter and the owner lets it off and things look great. He runs up to a few other dogs, play bows, has a sniff and follows them and then moves away to explore. Suddenly a larger, bold dog (Rex) comes rushing up and hovers over Maxi and refuses to let it up. The owner of Rex believes it is teaching Maxi who is the boss and allows this behaviour to continue and even goes to the extent of telling Maxi’s owner that they are too soft and need to leave the dogs to it. Now Maxi starts to panic, lip licks, cries a little, lowers himself to the ground and Rex just takes advantage of the situation and now pins him. Rex’s owner still believes this is fine so now we have an exchange of words from one panicked owner to a very blasé owner. So now Maxi starts to growl and nip and before we know it, Rex goes in for the grab and all hell breaks loose!
So what has Maxi learned here? That big dogs are scary, big dogs bite and intimidate and you cannot escape the situation unless you use aggression and potentially have started the chain of events that leads to dog aggression. As for the owner, they are now anxious over big dogs, don’t trust other owners, don’t trust dog parks and are now reluctant to let their dog off leash again.
Imagine we have Maxi going off to the dog park for the first time. The owners are nervous because there are other dogs in there. Before they walk in, the other dog owners call theirs away from the gate and ask them to sit and wait. Maxi pops in and is let off the leash. The other dogs now come over to check him out and then the owners call them away again, giving Maxi time to check them out and explore his surroundings. One of the other dogs (Sally) comes over to check Maxi out again and starts to push him a little and Maxi freezes. Sally’s owner immediately notices that Maxi is nervous and calls her away and when she does not respond, she gently collar grabs her and moves her over. She acknowledges that Sally can get a bit rough with new dogs but will stop her when she sees the other dog doesn’t like it. So instead they now all walk together as a group so the dogs keep moving while they get to know each other.
So what has Maxi learned here? That other dogs can be friendly and sometimes they can be rough but they are not going to be threatening and soon after, everything settles down and the dogs can meet up while they walk. The owner learns that the park can be good, there are responsible owners in there who understand their dogs and recognises what is acceptable behaviour.
Maxi is going to the dog park for the first time today. There are a few other dogs in there so the owner is nervous. The dogs come rushing up to the gate and Maxi barks at them and growls. STOP. So we have two possible outcomes here and it all depends on the owner now.
- Owner calmly reassures Maxi and sees he is nervous so chooses to walk around the outside of the park, letting him get used to them while he settles down- preferred. Maxi learns his owner can read his body language and knows he needs more time and if he still isn’t ready, then he can try again another day.
- Owner scolds Maxi and tells him to toughen up, drags him into the park and is now yelling because he is snapping at the dogs who have encroached on his personal space- not preferred. Maxi learns that he cannot trust his owner, other dogs, the dog park or being on a leash and that he has been forced to try to deal with a very new and scary situation.
As you can see, it isn’t always up to the others to keep it all under control. Every dog owner needs to be responsible for their own dog and they must be the voice and the advocate for their dog.
Each time your dog goes to a dog park, it is having a ‘real time’ learning experience about dog interactions, people interactions, the environment outside of its home and more. If it has a great time, it continues to enjoy itself and looks forward to these experiences again and again. If it has a negative experience, it then begins to develop anxiety over these situations and before you know it, we have behavioural problems in our hands.
So here is a little list of what APPROPRIATE play should look and sound like.
- All the dogs seem reasonably under control, as in, the owners can call them back, they respond to various verbal cues and they can focus on the owner.
- The dogs can both play with each other but also move away to do their own stuff without being hassled.
- There is lots of play bowing (elbows down, bum up), tongues are hanging out of their mouths, tails are wagging and bums are wobbling, eyes appear soft, dogs look happy.
- There should be chasing games where they take turns to tag.
- There are wrestling games where they take turns to be on top and bottom.
- There can be tug-o-war where the dogs share a toy and display a sense of self control
- The dog can move away from the group to go to the toilet.
- The dogs can be called away from the entrance to the park so newcomers can come in without being mobbed.
- There can be barking and growling during play as this can be normal but the body language of the dog should still appear soft, wobbly, enticing and playful.
- Lastly, all dogs should look like they are enjoying themselves. If they look or sound angry, upset, nervous, scared, depressed, anxious, overexcited, overwhelmed or happy, then they are!
Here is a video of what I call ‘appropriate’ dog play. Note how it appears soft, dogs seem happy, they are taking turns at leading, turns at who is on top and who is under, there is no intense noise, it is quiet and they are smiling.
Here is a short list of what INAPPROPRIATE play could look and sound like.
- Dogs appear frantic, running all over the place with no purpose and owners seem to not notice or bother about it or have no control over it. Owners must be present when a dog is in a dog park off leash!
- Owners are not intervening when the play seems rough or escalating in energy and owners cannot get their dogs’ attention.
- Dogs continue to get cornered and are not given space to run off, even when they are giving off warning signals such as licking their lips, dropping to the ground, doing paw lifts, shaking their bodies like they are wet, yawning, urinating when rolling over, avoiding eye contact and whimpering or growling, expressing anal glands or raising their hackles.
- During dog play, dog bodies appear rigid, stiff, very upright, mouths are clamped shut or opened in an exaggerated way, tails are upright or touching the back of the neck, dogs seem to be ‘chesting’ each other.
- There is no play bowing but instead lots of standing over another dog, pinning down, holding down, hard staring and it is very one sided. One dog seems to be doing all the chasing and the others keep avoiding or scattering.
- There is a lot of humping going on and this is quite often not of a sexual nature but instead being overly assertive or anxious. When a dog does not know how to behave appropriately, it tends to hump as a default behaviour. This is extremely invasive and intimidating to most dogs so should be intervened immediately.
- There is a lot of growling, barking but also snarling and snapping, play seems frantic and other dogs seem to want to avoid the play
- Dogs rush at the park entrance and bark and growl at the incoming dog, making it very difficult to enter.
- High pitched barking is often heard when a dog is highly aroused. High arousal is often linked with aggression and it doesn’t necessarily mean your dog is nasty but sometimes when a dog is super excited, it behaves recklessly. If your dog is barking in this manner followed by growling and lunging, even if it is a friendly dog, it should not be allowed to interact until it has settled down a bit and if it doesn’t, just go for a quiet walk instead.
- If owners are going to intervene dog play, it needs to be done in a non aggressive manner otherwise things can escalate quickly.
- Shouting and rough handling aggravates dogs further so voices should remain calm and collar grabbing should be precise, quick yet calm.
- There should be no finger pointing and blaming as to who started what but instead a clear acknowledgement that the dogs got out of hand and that play needs to stop immediately.
- There should be respect amongst the dog owners and if one states they do not feel comfortable about the play, then it should be acknowledged, accepted and stopped.
- Owners should not feel belittled, ridiculed or uncomfortable to stand up for their dogs, even if those dogs were exaggerating in their reactions.
- Not everyone is comfortable with rough play and not everyone understands or has the experience to know what is good and bad play BUT if someone does not like it, they should have the choice to stop it and move away.
- Sometimes dogs just cannot ‘work it out’ in a polite way so please avoid going down this path before there is bloodshed, lacerations and tears. It is more effective to call it early and step in rather than allow the dogs to resolve the issue themselves. Either way, if they do, they are only learning that aggression is the solution to this situation.
I thought hard about whether I should place a video of inappropriate play and decided against it as there are people who enjoy watching dogs fight so rather than show you what it shouldn’t look like, I thought I would focus on what is SHOULD look like. It play appears rigid, the energy is high, it is one sided, the dogs do not appear to be soft and happy, then it is inappropriate.
To me it is pretty obvious what is good play and what is bad play because I have been around dogs for many years, observing interactions both in and out of their homes, consulting in households where there is conflict between the dogs, watching play time at Mutts during the week and I can both see and hear when things are about to turn or are building up in tension. It makes me smile when I see dogs at Mutts, rolling around on the floor with their tongues hanging out, spooning next to their dog buddy or shoving a toy in the other dogs mouth as it plays a game of tag. Yet it makes me sad when an owner tells me of their horrible experience in the dog park where their dog was bullied, pinned or even bitten or even yelled at for being soft, because both dog and owner now have to live with that memory and quite possibly, forever.
To the novice dog owner it can be quite daunting and you do have a sense to protect your new dog and to the owner who may have had a past bad experience with dog fighting, it can even be traumatic as memories flood back in.
To the more experienced owners, lead by example, teach the novices what is good and bad play, support them if they feel unsure and give them the time and space they need to feel comfortable with it and if their dog is just not into it, let them know it is okay and that maybe just a walk is better; I mentioned this in a previous article called Social Anxiety- not all dogs can handle a social environment.
I shall wrap it up now and I do hope that over the next few months, leading up to and during the holiday period, people are more mindful of each other and their dogs and that we do not have any incidences in the parks. Please share this with all your dog friends, especially the new ones who are still learning about all of this dog stuff and let’s make sure we keep our dogs happy and safe!!
Thank you to Chobe and Maasai for starring in the video.