Dog Play: What's normal VS when to intervene


Why we don't want to "just let them fight it out".

There's always one or more of them at the park. Bully's. And their owners who justify and dismiss their dogs troubling actions and aggressive behaviors as no bog deal. I've heard these excuses over and over again:

"It's ok because..."

"It's cute/funny. 

"She's so small, she won't hurt anyone"

"He means well he just doesn't know better"

"She's always been the dominant type"

"He's just a puppy"

"She's never bit a person before"

"Your dog is just being overly submissive and should toughen up"

"He's just playing"

"Well it didn't break skin"

"Your dog started it"

"She's just protective of her toy so your dog shouldn't have gotten close"

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this ignorance has a hefty cost not just financially when it comes to liability and law suits, but also emotionally on the dogs involved and their owners, as well as in more serious ways when animals or humans are seriously injured or even killed. If it's us who need to check our pup, I can help, no judgement. If it's other dogs, steer clear. Keep in mind however, dogs have certain personality traits- they won't all necessarily have the same interactions with all dogs, the dynamics can change with each dog, scenario, environment or change in other factors. Try again after learning some solid behavior cues. You can sign up for my beginner class or private training to earn those valuable skills and safety cues.

No, it's NOT ok, never ok, to let your dog intimidate, dominate, bite, scare or hump others dogs. We have GOT to do better. Let's help rehabilitate our dogs to being dogs again!

Proper Socialization is KEY: It's best for all dogs if they all learn appropriate and safe communication skills with each other, learn to read and send appropriate body language and are well socialized with lots of small positive interactions with a variety of other dogs before they're 6 months of age. One-on-one, off leash, in a big enclosed area, with similar sized and similar aged, even-tempered dogs is best at first. Then, more dogs and more scenarios over time introduced in a low-stress environment. This pads their social resume and allows them to understand, communicate and de-escalate interactions with other dogs. Unfortunately, a lot of dogs aren't allowed to be dogs, and thus are lacking proper social skills, leading to conflict and fighting. Also, when we allow a dog to achieve an elevated status in our human lives, there is a power imbalance that can create even more conflict and aggressive interactions when dogs attempt to take control in moments that are too complex, causing stress and a vicious cycle. This is where my group class is very helpful! I teach proper introductions and we practice each class.

Ideas for positive social interactions:

1) A neighbors puppy down the street comes to play in the back yard for a hour a day.

2) Join my GROUP class, where we learn the right way to introduce pups!

3) Going to a park with lots of space, when it's not busy, to sniff noses and butts

4) Look for puppy play groups in your area, or ask friends on social media!

5) Look for videos online of dogs playing nicely, have your pup watch and listen to it at a low level

6) Ask your vet or groomer, they always know people with puppies!

7) Try looking for a doggie day care that allows small groups with 4 or less at a time, with dogs of the same size and age category.

8) Invite friends over so your pup can meet and greet a variety of people too! Tall, short, big beards, baseball cap, cowboy hat etc. Socialization includes learning how to be social and accepting of all aspects of life- people, places, animals, things, sounds and environmental stimuli.

What NOT to do:

1) Avoid all contact or interactions with dogs until they're 4 months or older because of vaccine limitations (there ARE many safe and effective ways to still get our pups socialized- ASK ME HOW!).

2) Bring your dog to a dog park and just see what happens.

3) Let your dog think YOU'RE a dog and learn all of their social cues exclusively from and by you, a human.

4) Bring your dog all over the place without being safe and checking with your vet about what they determine is acceptable. (Beach vs Pet store, People park vs dog park, Your fenced in yard vs the sidewalk etc).

5) Avoid exposure to outdoor stimuli, sounds and sights (Ex: they can watch from the car, or sit on the front porch with you and observe the world, you can carry them around the people park when they're very young without letting them touch the ground or other dogs.)

Let's take a look at body postures. Dogs use this way of communicating, and they assume everyone knows what they're trying to say. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. We humans often misunderstand our dogs, leading to serious behavior problems and even injuries, as well as perpetuating of the problems. 

When we're watching our dogs interact, what we're actually seeing is their body language in motion. Dogs use a variety of body postures, facial expressions, vocalizations, sounds, movements and behaviors to communicate. 

Dogs don't always learn how to send or receive clear messages with other dogs either, under socialization is the #1 cause of conflict and behavior issues in most dogs! 

It's not as simple as we think! Dogs interactions depends on a vast number of factors including, but not limited to:

  • Hormones
  • Genetics
  • Pain or Disease
  • History
  • Resources
  • Dynamics of the group
  • Personality traits
  • Hunger, fatigue
  • Environment
  • Stimuli

The 3 main categories of dog interactions are Normal, Monitor Closely and Danger!

1) Normal Dog Play: Everyone's having a good time, happy and relaxed, taking turns and taking breaks. It's a fluid dance of mutual respect.

Look for these signs that all parties are enjoying each others company and are communicating effectively with each other: 

-All dogs happily engaged and relaxed playful body language

-Taking turns chasing, getting pinned and let back up

-Relaxed facial expressions, floppy tongue

-Loose and care-free body movements and postures

-Taking turns relaxing in between play sessions

-Respecting each others space and boundaries

-Gentle mouthing or growling or other vocalizations

2) Monitor closely: If tension is present amongst the group, there could be a power imbalance at play, some dogs aren't communicating properly or are under-socialized, or there may be perceived resources that may be causing some guarding behaviors, all of which can cause confusion and conflict. You'll need to assess the body language of BOTH dogs interacting for clues about their intent and feelings about the scenario.

Look for these signs that things might escalate, or they may not:

-One or more dogs is showing signs of stress like excessive panting or drooling, worried or darting eyes, shaking, excessive submissively displays

-One dog is trying to avoid or withdraw from the interaction, might even try to hide behind something

-One dog is acting as a bully by not allowing others to take a break/relax, walk away or stop playing

-Biting and chasing while the other dogs runs to hide

-Biting or nipping causing yelping or other vocalizations from the recipient

-Mounting or humping another dog

-Guarding or becoming protective of toys, treats, people or other perceived resources

-Excessive barking at other dog

3) DANGEROUS: Be careful as aggressive displays of behavior can quickly be turned to anyone or anything nearby including us! You'll need to assess the body language of BOTH dogs interacting for clues about their intent and feelings about the scenario. Both the aggressor and the other dog being threatened need to be taken away from the group immediately and allowed to wind down and relax before resuming play. Remember, not all dogs will get along with certain other dogs- they have different and sometime conflicting personalities. It is dangerous to attempt to force this, even when they're in the same household. This is where a consultation with me is best, so we can assess the situation, the underlying issues and decide upon an appropriate plan.

Look for these signs of an escalated emotional state that likely indicates an aggressive interaction is going to occur if not "broken up" immediately: 

-Growling, snarling, hair standing up, taller posture (Trying to appear big and powerful)

-Fixated stare or looking from the corner of their eye, teeth bare, low front end (like they're about to pounce)

-Tight/stiff mouth, face or body-Trying to escape or avoid the other dog

-High pitched squeal, tail tucked, eliminating on themselves

-Overly submissive body language

-Protecting someone or something

What are some canine body postures we may be able to easily recognize? Scroll through the photos below for some guidelines. But remember, the dynamics and the environment play a huge role so no dog is always one way or the other in every situation!