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Dog Park Etiquette: Appropriate Play

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

I hope everyone, both two and four-legged, had a fun and safe Halloween!

Yesterday, Chowder and I headed to the dog park and like many trips demonstrated by example what appropriate play looks like. Chowder is 6.5 months old and is experiencing a surge in testosterone, and much like some teenagers, his manners may escape him. He started to play with a young medium-sized mixed breed female dog and things were going well. The play started appropriately, but then a series of events turned this playdate South.

We are going to look at what about the play between the dogs was appropriate, and what caused things to go South. Let's dive in!

At the start of play, a young female dog ran up to Chowder and played “bow” just before turning tail to run. Chowder obliged and gave chase. After a short distance, they started to jaw spar a little, before re-engaging in a game of chase. Jaw sparring is a healthy form of play in which dogs will open their mouths and hit their muzzles together, think of it as a doggy play sword fight. The mouthing mimics an actual fight but is done in play without serious biting or causing injury. What made this play appropriate is that both dogs never escalated too high in arousal, and it always went back and forth. One dog was not always the chaser and both dogs were engaged in the mouth sparring. Like a dance, the play flowed and the body language of both dogs was loose and relaxed. In addition, both dogs would break off occasionally to say "hi" to another dog. This break-off gave both dogs time to reset, and it naturally brought the arousal down which helped ensure the play did not escalate too high.

While watching, I noticed that at times the female would drop to the ground and roll over exposing her belly. She did this not just with Chowder, but with all dogs she engaged with. This told me that she was a submissive dog that lacked confidence. This behavior had also become her "go-to" as it is was a way to tell the other dogs she had NO intention of challenging them. When she did this with Chowder he would stand over her for a brief moment then she would pop back up, and play would ensue. So, why did things change? Let's take a look.

As Chowder and the young female were racing by in a game of chase, another dog joined the fun and gave chase. This addition of another dog chasing caused the young female to become overwhelmed and like dominos being tipped over it set into motion a series of events. Chowder and the new dog both being confident dogs escalated in excitement/arousal while the young female, being less confident, escalated in insecurity. Her escalation in insecurity activated her fight/flight response and turned what was once her running away in play to running away in fear. This sudden shift in her energy naturally shifted the energy in Chowder and the new dog to more of a predatory mindset, and the chase was on. The young female reverted to her go-to behavior and dropped to the ground, rolled to her back, and added a tail tuck. The new dog became distracted by another dog and went in a different direction. Chowder however trapped in a state of arousal immediately came in and dominated her. This time there was no letting her up as he proceeded to mouth at her while pinning her to the ground.

The owner of the young female dog was standing close by watching. To give you an idea of how quickly everything unfolded, I had already headed towards the situation from about 20ft feet away when I saw the other dog joining in. Upon reaching the two, I removed Chowder placing him on lead, and the young female jumped up and skirted away. Both the behavior of Chowder, and the other dog that joined in was a direct by-product of the increased arousal and their instinct to chase. Dogs and puppies, like Chowder, have to be taught impulse control and how to break away from situations like these. While addressing Chowder, the young female's owner stated to me "Oh, she likes to play on her back". This disconnect with her dog is something I see all the time with dog owners. I mention that I was a dog trainer, and began to explain what had taken place.

Inappropriate play is, unfortunately, something that happens frequently at the dog park, but it doesn't have to. Equipping yourself with the knowledge of what appropriate play should look like can keep you ahead of the game, and help make sure you and your dog enjoy the experience. Likewise, knowing when and how to stop inappropriate play can keep your dog from being bullied, being the bully, or worse, getting injured at the park.

Here are eight tips to keep in mind when headed to the dog park!

  1. Appropriate play goes back and forth.

  2. One-sided play will have one dog dominating the encounter.

  3. Multiple dogs chasing or engaging with a single dog is a form of inappropriate play and should be stopped right away. This type of play can cause the single dog to become overwhelmed and the other dogs that are chasing become overly aroused. When this happens play can turn into predatory behavior, and dogs can be injured.

  4. Remember that things can change rapidly, so you need to be engaged and monitor your dog's play while at the dog park.

  5. If you begin to see things change, or notice that your dog is not a good match for the dog they are playing with, remove them from the situation.

  6. Never yell, or panic if things get out of hand. This rush of chaotic energy communicates instability and can escalate situations. While calm confident energy can help diffuse situations.

  7. Do not worry about offending other owners when stopping play with their dog. You are your dog's leader, and it is your responsibility to protect them, and redirect unwanted behaviors. You will have some people that understand, and others that do not. What is important is that you do what's in the best interest of your dog.

  8. Being a good leader means we are always looking out for our dogs – our pack! What better way to build confidence in your leadership skills than keeping them safe and well-balanced while playing.

Stay Calm. Stay Confident.

Lead with Purpose!

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