Q: How can I get my dog to play nice? He gets over-excited and plays too rough with other dogs at the dog park. He also tries to play with dogs that obviously aren’t into it. (He hasn’t hurt any of his playmates but it scares their owners.) How can I help him dial down the intensity of his play?
A: I’m not a fan of dog parks—too much can go wrong. But I do respect your concern for other people and their dogs when your pup plays too roughly or solicits play from uninterested playmates. So, let’s talk about how you can go about ensuring everyone’s safety.
Dogs have different play styles depending on their breed, age, and other factors, but they generally understand each other’s body language. The first step in getting your dog to play nicely with others is for you to become very familiar with canine body language so that you can notice when tensions are first starting to build.
When I was filming at my local dog park for my DVD Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play, I captured hundreds of hours of footage of dogs interacting. In editing this immense amount of footage, I was able to break things down into body language and signals that indicate play is becoming too rough or overwhelming. Allow me to share some of these elements.
When dogs are romping happily together, their bodies are like limp noodles. Tails may wag in loose arcs, and mouths may hang open. When a dog becomes tense, his body stiffens. In play, although the tail is wagging, it may be held high and be moving stiffly from side to side (this can indicate confidence or dominance), be lowered and moving quickly back and forth within a small radius (possible nervousness or anxiety), or even be tucked between the dog’s legs (usually fear). When a dog’s body goes stiff and that “happy mouth” closes—he may be staring at another dog or taking offense to something a dog is doing as this happens—this is called a “freeze.” Momentary though it may be, this important mini-pause gives a dog time to assess the situation before him. Does he need to run away? Should he fight? Or is everything okay, and everyone can go back to what they were doing? Depending on the potential threat, the dog will make his decision. Watch for freezes in your dog and others, along with the other body language mentioned. If you notice a freeze or tense body language, stay alert and ready to intervene if necessary. Of course, there is much, much more to watch for, but this will get you started.
As far as the play itself, one thing to be wary of is speed and intensity. It is a lot easier for players to boil over into aggression when things are becoming fast and furious. Are the dogs racing around the park? There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but monitor them to ensure that all the adrenaline-fueled excitement doesn’t turn into aggression. The more dogs that are involved, the more potential danger. Also, the more vertical the play gets, especially where dogs are standing on their hind legs and mouth wrestling, the more potential for danger. And, watch for actions dogs may take offense to. A few to watch for are humping, hip-bumping or slamming, and placing a head over another dog’s neck or shoulder area.
If you notice that your dog is becoming overexcited or playing too roughly, or that other owners are becoming concerned, create an enforced break in the action by calling your dog to you. If he does not have a solid recall to the point that he will come to you even when playing with another dog, that’s okay; this is a very high-distraction scenario! Practice at home first, then work outdoors, gradually adding distractions as your dog is successful. Don’t forget to reward him every time! You can also practice recalls when the dog park is empty so that your dog will become accustomed to coming when called there (just don’t use food if other dogs are in the park). If you do create an enforced play break, it needn’t be long, just long enough for your dog and others to calm down. If things have escalated to the point where it looks as though there may be an actual fight, call your dog to you or, if he doesn’t yet have a solid recall, calmly walk over and take hold of him. Then leash him and leave the park. Careful monitoring and listening to your instincts will go a long way in allowing everyone to have fun while staying safe.