Dog-Dog Play – Facilitating Play that Everyone can Enjoy
Firstly, a quick word on Passing or Casual Meet & Greets On-Lead
- Ask first – “Can my dog say hello to yours?”
- Keep the interaction short and sweet – aim for three seconds and then move apart.
Like a Handshake, but with Noses and Butts by Sara Reusche, Paws Abilities https://paws4udogs.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/like-a-handshake-but-with-noses-and-butts/
Why it’s worth giving opportunities for Dog-Dog Play
"So why do dogs play?
Ultimately, dogs play because it helps them learn motor skills, build social cohesion and prepare for unexpected things to happen so they can cope better when they do. Different stages of play may have different functions, with the beginning and end of a play bout especially important for social cohesion, while the main part of play is most important for learning motor skills and preparing for the unexpected."
Why Do Dogs Play? by Zazie Todd, PhD
Dogs can play more naturally when they are off-lead. Being tethered to you can generate tension and frustration, and getting tangled is likely! The rest of this article assumes play partners are off-lead.
Ready to Play?
Before you think about how to help your dog play with other dogs, honestly review your dog (and repeat the review regularly - sociability declines over time).
Resource: Understanding Dog-Dog Sociability by Sara Reusche, Paws Abilities https://paws4udogs.wordpress.com/2017/02/16/understanding-dog-dog-sociability/
- Does your dog enjoy play? Does the number and/or type of other dogs make a difference to whether they like to play?
- Is your dog mentally or physically fragile?
- Is your dog pushy (poor social skills)?
- What is your dog’s play style?
Common play styles
Even if you haven’t seen your dog in action with another dog, you may have a good sense of how they like to play based on how they play with the humans in their life.
Some breeds are more likely to play in particular ways, but note there are always individual differences.
A dog’s age may influence how they like to play too.
Humping can be involved in play whether the participants are neutered or not. [Resource: Why Does My Dog Hump? by Breanna Norris https://cattledogpublishing.com/blog/why-does-my-dog-hump/] The humpee or their humans may not accept the behaviour. This is another reason to stay close to your playing dog: you can intervene calmly and cheerfully as needed. Experiment with:
Read your dog and do your best to predict what they are about to do. It is always better to intervene and redirect before a dog starts an unwanted behaviour than stop a behaviour underway.
How To Create Better Playgroups Instantly by Robin Bennett https://thedoggurus.com/create-better-playgroups-instantly/
Playstyles: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Robin Bennett https://thedoggurus.com/playstyles-good-bad-ugly/
Having done your review, now consider the following questions; the answers will guide your next steps:
- Is an off-lead, wide-open-space situation right for your dog? (There’s more info specifically on fenced dog parks further on.)
- Could your dog benefit from some training before play with unfamiliar dogs?
- Would your dog benefit from you helping them build a social network of specific dogs who will be compatible with your dog?
Step 1 covered issues to consider before you and your dog go to the park.
Now you want to improve your knowledge of dog body language. (Step 4 has a cheat sheet.) Your ability to correctly interpret your dog’s emotional state and the intentions of other dogs will be boosted by learning about dog body language.
Recommended canine body language resources in a variety of formats can be found in our Online Resources at https://gentlemodernschoolofdogtraining.com.au/Online-Resources
You’re well-prepared! So what’s your next move:
- Where to go? Ask your neighbours and Vet staff for recommendations on off-lead exercise spots.
- Who to take with you? If you have children with you, you really need another adult. One set of eyes have to be on the kids and one set of eyes on the dog.
Now for some things to consider at the park before allowing your dog to engage in play and during free play.
- Is your dog in a good/relaxed mood?
- Is your dog an entire male? Some dogs – neutered or entire – react negatively to entire males. Be especially vigilant if you have an entire male dog.
- Consider the possibility of accidental injury if there is a significant size difference between your dog and the other dogs present.
Dangers of Play Between Large and Small Dogs by Robin Bennett https://thedoggurus.com/dangers-play-large-small-dogs/
- How does your dog feel about balls being thrown? If you’ve brought a ball with you, will your dog feel the need to protect the ball? If your dog is a ball-taker, will friction be generated is s/he ‘steals’ another dog’s ball?
Other Dogs in the Off-Lead Space
- What other dogs are around?
- What's their body language? How are they moving around the space? How are they interacting with other dogs there? Or, if there are no other dogs, do they look like they will respond positively to other dogs?
- Do they have people with them? Are they focused on their dog(s)? Are their dogs paying attention to them?
Dog-Dog Interaction - Signs to Watch for
(remember to consider the individual dog – some dog’s fur may mask some signs, and breed differences in ear and tail shape and position affect the information they provide)
NOT ENJOYING /STRESSED
Loose, bouncy, exaggerated movement
Looking away/head turns
Give & Take (e.g. taking turns at being the play partner on their back on the ground)
Self-handicapping (e.g. a bigger dog lying on the ground during play with a smaller dog)
Different Activities (e.g. a wrestle followed by run about)
Circumstances you might observe:
Seeking Cover (with their human, picnic bench, etc.)
Intense chasing (no breaks)
Fast speed (speed = adrenaline*)
One held on the ground
One pinned against the fence
Vocalisation - growling, barking - can be ambiguous. It can be playful, or it can be a sign of the interaction becoming tense. To interpret the emotion of the noises, you need context. For example, are all the other body language signs in the green zone?
Raised hackles (erect fur along the shoulders and back) can be excitement or agitation.
Now that your dog is interacting, you still have an essential role to play.
- Watch your dog and the others – How are they behaving? What’s their body language?
- Stay close to your dog so you can intervene as needed (e.g. use your body to body-block unwanted attention)
- Be proactive
- Not quite sure what’s going on? – take gentle hold of your dog. Now that there’s a break in play, what does the other dog do? If s/he takes the opportunity to move away/do something else, the play needed to end. If your dog takes some deep breaths and doesn’t return to the other dog when released, the play needed to end (perhaps only a break is required).
- Give play breaks yourself - call your dog (maybe do some heeling or a sit and down or tug or trick – something easy because there are lots of distractions!) and release them (“go free”). If it doesn’t frustrate/agitate your dog, you might put your dog’s lead on for a short period and walk away if they need to calm down.
- Call it quits (leave) if you/your dog is worried.
Keeping yourself in your dog’s mind
Dog-dog interaction can push humans out of a dog’s mind. You can remind your dog of your presence:
- Practice recalls during off-lead time. Call your dog to you, reward, then release them (“go free”) back to exploring/playtime. (This recall-release cycle encourages a responsive recall as it is usually just a temporary break in the ‘good times’, not the end of them.) Don’t overdo it, though – calling again and again and again can become annoying for any animal! Recall may also help interrupt the development of an overly intense chase.
- Accustom your dog to being held by the collar/harness – lightly hold the collar/harness for a short period when your dog comes close or after you have called them to you. Practice in low-stress situations sets you up for emergency grabs.
[A harness can be enormously helpful – so much easier to hold than a collar. Plus, a collar hold puts your hand too close to a dog’s mouth, potentially dangerous when a dog is in a highly charged emotional state. It is possible that another dog could get caught in your dog's harness during play (this has never happened with one of our dogs). This is another reason to stay close to your playing dog: you can assist if needed.]
- Teach your dog to stand/sit between your legs. This position allows you to give your dog support in a low-key, effective way.
Teach your dog how to find a safe space - the Middle cue (Centre, Peekaboo) by Adolescent Dogs Ltd https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7Z3gN0Y5w0 3.42 mins
- When your dog spontaneously checks in with you (gives you eye contact, comes to you), reward the behaviour, encouraging your dog to do more check-ins.
Fenced 'Dog Parks'
Dog parks, because they often have many dogs and the fencing means that it is a confined space, can pose risks. Visit the dog park/fenced dog enclosure (several times, ideally) when you think it would be convenient for you to go with your dog and then visit at that time without your dog. Have a look around with the view to answering the following questions:
- Is it really busy at that time?
- Do people seem to be ignoring their dogs and letting them do whatever?
- Is there a good supportive vibe - friendly, interested people? friendly, responsive dogs?
- Are there any holes in the fencing?
- If you have children with you, you need another adult. This is particularly important in the confined space of the enclosed dog park. One set of eyes has to be on the kids, and one set of eyes on the dog.
- Be mindful of pressure points. For example, gates can be a spot where dogs are pushed together.
- Don’t forget to shut the gate properly.
- Best NOT to feed dogs other than your own, and be low-key when you reward your dog (no waving food around); food can generate tension.
Alternative to Random Encounters with Other Dogs
Run through your entire social network (friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues) to identify friendly and stable dogs and then set up play dates for your dog. Go for an on-lead walk together with one or two (no more initially) humans and their dogs. If the canines are compatible, they might come off-lead for a play after their walk. In this way, you can grow a social network for your dog.
A few words about Fights
- If things are tense, but physical confrontation hasn't started, try to block eye contact between the dogs by putting something between them, a bag or jacket, or yourself if it is safe (if the dogs are really aroused, then it probably isn't). This might avert an actual fight.
- In general, but especially in a fight situation, do your best to stay calm. If you are feeling intense emotion (agitation, distress, etc.), that will fuel your dog’s intense emotion.
- Don’t Panic (easier said than done, we know! do your best). Most dog 'fights’ are posturing, trying to bluff the other dog. However, this doesn’t mean you can ignore them. Aggressive posturing can easily and quickly turn into real aggression.
- If humans attempt to separate the dogs by pulling them apart, those humans may be bitten, even the dogs’ own humans; the dogs aren’t in a rational state.
- Startling/Distracting the fighters may break the fight up – make a loud, weird noise; throw water or a LARGE jacket over them.
- Once separated, KEEP THEM separate - they may go at it again.
- Fights attract other dogs coming in for a look – keep them back. Ask people around you to help with that.
- Observe how the dog holds itself and how it moves. Check carefully over the whole dog's body (nose to tail) immediately and 30 minutes later for injuries (and probably later again - wounds can take time to open up). Watch the dog closely for at least the next few days looking for signs of internal injuries and behavioural changes, including toward other dogs.
- It can be appropriate to exchange details with the other dog’s humans if there are injuries if it's safe for you to interact with the other dog’s humans. Dog fights can be enormously upsetting/confronting for humans and dogs. Everybody will be in a highly aroused state.
- A dog can remain aroused for several hours, depending on how serious the altercation was. Uncharacteristic behaviour, especially generalised aggression or fear, is more likely to appear during this time.
- If the altercation didn’t get beyond posturing, the dogs calm down fairly quickly, and they are likely to see each other again; consider going through a reconciliation process with them very carefully. If the dogs can part on calm terms, there is less likely to be trouble next time they meet. Walking side by side with a considerable distance in between can be a good way of doing this. If either dog cannot ignore the other dog and keep its attention on their person, increase the distance. Keep any close meeting brief, one or two seconds.