We look at dog play as two or more dogs running, romping, and having a fun time with each other. In reality, canine play is predation (hunting) practice. Thankfully, most dogs modify the sequence and enjoy a happy playtime. As owners, we want to protect our dogs while optimizing opportunities for the exercise that play provides.
The information contained here provides general guidelines for recognizing safe vs. risky dog-to-dog interactions. The social chemistry between dogs varies, so be watchful of each individual interaction. Please note that one of the most stressful interactions for your dog is meeting another dog on leash. This is not proper socialization. During leash walks, dogs should be attentive to the human at the other end of the leash. There is no substitute for a strong and respectful bond between dog and owner. If you’re uncertain whether your dog is dog-friendly, consult a qualified trainer for a behavior assessment.
Signs of Low Risk Interactions
Many dogs can run, romp, and have a great time with other dogs, while getting very beneficial aerobic exercise. Play is likely to remain safe when you observe these signals:
- A non-frontal approach or non-aligned body posture
- Two-way communication
- Frequent self-interruption
- Slow interactions
When two dogs approach each other, their bodies should be somewhat curled or curved. Look for “soft” eye contact, a mid-body tail set with a wide waving motion. The bodies of both dogs should appear relaxed, without any sign of “muscling up”.
Eye contact, body posture, and excitement level are all communicators. A healthy dog interaction involves two-way communication. It is a good sign when the dogs exhibit tandem or mirror actions during interruptions. Dog A should not use Dog B’s interruption as the time for an ambush. There is mutuality in safe play.
All dogs should have a self-regulated “off” switch. Most dogs must be taught a calm-down mechanism through training. Basic training can help dogs develop frustration tolerance and reduce impulsivity. During play, it is essential that dogs self-interrupt to prevent the interaction from becoming too intense. Signs of self-interruption include checking in with a human, sniffing, or grooming. A dog should also respond to his owner’s recall – even during play. If you haven’t taught your dog to come when called, it’s never too late to make a change.
When dog-to-dog interactions are slow-paced, each dog has time to communicate and read the responses of his playmate. If play seems relentless, it’s time for a break. Go with your gut instinct. It’s probably correct.
Chase games are common in dog play. Look for ears back on the chaser, no or limited physical contact, and self-interruption.
Signs of Higher Risk Interactions
If you take your dog to a dog park or plan playdates, be watchful and learn to recognize when the safety risk to your dog, his playmate, and yourself may increase. Knowing when to intervene could save the day from an ugly event.
Here are signs that the unfolding play is likely to become more risky than fun:
- Direct eye contact longer than two seconds
- Frontal body alignment
- Faster interaction
- Limited self-interruptions
Dogs communicate volumes to each other with eye contact. If it lasts longer than two seconds, the dog on the receiving end feels threatened. Someone is on the defensive.
A dog whose body is frontally aligned has head, spine, and tail in a straight line. This dog is aroused, looks ready for anything, and means business. It is not a friendly stance.
When play action is fast and furious, neither dog has time for that all-important two-way communication. Excitement levels escalate and play become intense. This intensity can lead to trouble, especially when self-interruptions are limited. Dog-to-dog interactions that take a bad turn are often a result of too-high arousal levels. A dog who is over an excitement threshold-for any reason – cannot respond appropriately. A solid and well-timed recall could defuse a heated situation.
Signs of the Most Risky Interactions
In some circumstances, dog interactions are best terminated for the safety of everyone. Here are signs that indicate a potentially dangerous event:
- Sustained direct stare
- Body weight forward
- Rapid escalation of intensity
- No self-interruption
- Showing teeth while barking
A sustained direct stare is threatening to any dog and has an intention, which is not benevolent. In observing this behavior, it is often a matter of seconds before dogs clash.
When the dog’s body weight is forward, he is assuming an offensive posture. Combined with frontal alignment and a direct stare, this look is scary. Intervene immediately, but calmly.
A sustained direct stare and forward, frontal alignment are preludes. A fast escalation of arousal results in intense and uncontrolled behavior. The dog can lose his marbles, and therefore, his ability to calm down to a manageable level.
Be mindful of the noises you hear during play. If one dog is barking with his teeth showing, snarling, or curling his lip, the interaction has the potential to be dangerous. Interrupt the dogs and end the session. Training in a recall is enormously helpful!
A dog that targets can be insidious and dangerous. Dogs in a group who appear to calmly watch the scene, may, in fact, be targeting another dog. In a moment the “targeter” can take off after the “targetee” with an unsafe chase. Human intervention is necessary. This can become a bigger hazard when several dogs target an individual. Targeted puppies and adolescent dogs can be traumatized by this experience. Puppy socialization should happen in a puppy class under professional supervision or with friends and family dogs you know. Puppies “socialized” at the dog park can turn dog aggressive.
The best ways to keep dogs and humans safe is to learn to “read” dogs’ interactions and pay attention during playdates. Intervene at the first sign of trouble.
Assessing Dog-to-Dog Interactions by Sue Sternberg DVD (2009) is a great learning resource to observe safe and risky interactions.
Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2018 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC