I frequently get questions about dog play, whether it is between two siblings in the same home or about a dog that frequents the dog park and plays with other dogs. The questions might pertain to my client's dog and if their play style is too rough or worries about the behavior of other dogs at the park.
I have a simple list of things to look for and actions to take when dogs are playing.
- Intensity and duration of behavior. If your dog interacts with another dog ten times at the park and each interaction results in a little rougher play, more intense vocalization and worry by one of the dogs, then it is time to step in. Eventually this situation will escalate into a fight. Gently move them apart, take your dog home or move to another part of the park.
- Intensity and duration of eye contact. While some dogs "eye" each other because of their innate herding instincts, often a "hard" stare lasting for more than a couple seconds could indicate anxiety. If a dog is afraid of another dog, they will not feel comfortable turning their back on them.
- Extended periods of chase. If you ever see a dog getting chased by one or more dogs for an extended period of time, step in front of the chase dogs to give the lead dog an opportunity to get away and rest. Sometimes dogs are running because they like being chased, other times, they are trying to get away and are not able to.
- Yelping. If one dog yelps and the other dog backs of ("Sorry about that!") then, that is acceptable. However, if one dog yelps more than once, I always step in and tell the other dog to back off.
Overall the keys are to look for patterns of play involving all dogs. If you are ever in doubt, separate the dogs to give them an opportunity to calm down before the situation gets out of hand. It is always easier to prevent a fight then to break it up.
I do not subscribe to the notion that dogs "will figure it out" during their interactions. Many people follow this rule of thumb and I think it is a mistake. Sure, if every dog is socialized perfectly and knows when to back off before hurting another dog then this would be a fair comment. But, I have seen and heard of very serious dog fights including a few dogs getting killed by other dogs in Chicago.
I don't want to leave the safety of my dogs up to another dog or owner. If something feels too rough, then break it up and keep your dog safe.