This is a photo of two dogs experiencing the joys of canine friendship. Wiley (the one with the teeth), is in a tussle with the love of his life, Jessie. The better two dogs know and like each other, the harder they play, to the point where it’s difficult for someone who isn’t familiar with the dogs to know it’s not an attack.
If an unfamiliar dog approached Wiley or Jessie with the same level of intense play, chances are, a fight would break out. It’s not that different with humans. Close friends may insult us freely in jest. Strangers had better not.
Just like people, some dogs have better manners than others. When you are in an environment with strange dogs, it’s up to you to be aware of your dog’s tendencies and police their behavior or protect them when needed.
In the case of play between dogs, watch for signs that your dog or the other dog is being overwhelmed. Hunched posture, tucked tail, running away, are all indicators that a dog feels intimidated. If your dog or the other dog is displaying anxiety, it’s a good idea to separate the dogs. If the anxious dog opts to return to the tussle, you can assume they are just working out some jitters. You will sometimes see this when a dog is new to a dog park.
It may take a few low key visits and some ‘time outs’ for a nervous dog to become comfortable in the park.
Exposing their belly is a sign that they are conceding dominance to the other dog, and may or may not be part of acceptable play.
Some dogs, young dogs especially, have a poor sense of boundaries and do not recognize signals from other dogs to ease up or back off. If a dog pursues a dog that is clearly trying to get away, it’s time for the owner to step in and call the dog off. If the rude dog is pursuing your dog, feel free to ask the owner to call their dog. Chances are, you’ll get a response like, “Aw, Cujo’s just playing.” In which case you can respond, “He may be, but Poopsy doesn’t like it. It’s too rough for him.”
Cujo may just be playing. But just like humans who are teased too much, Poopsy may just explode.
Note: at our park, small dogs will take shelter behind their humans or under picnic tables to get away from larger dogs in pursuit. In many instances this is part of the play. Check the small dog’s attitude. Is it sneering or cowering?
Every dog is different, and they are different with different dogs. When Shadda was a puppy, Max would drag her around the yard by the scruff of her neck or wrap her jaws around her head. Shadda allows this from Max. Any other dog who attempts to dominate her is likely to get snapped at.
Chewy has been attacked by larger dogs and gets anxious if large, strange dog gets too close to him. On the other hand, I know mastiffs that shrug off provocation. The better you know the dogs around you, the better you can anticipate problems and separate dogs before a fight happens.
Note: If you have a small dog, keep it away from larger dogs unless you are well acquainted with them. If there is a designated area for small dogs, keep your dog there. Keep small dogs close to you if there is not a designated area.
Tiny dogs are about the same size as squirrels and other prey. On very rare occasions, a small dog will stimulate a larger dog’s prey instinct, especially if the small dog is roaming about alone.
I don’t want to be alarmist, but it is important to be aware of strange dogs entering the park, and to maintain awareness of the dogs within fifty feet of yours. If you notice a strange dog “stalking” your small dog from behind, pick your dog up until you determine the nature of the dog. Play stalking is usually within eyesight of the other dog. Stalking from behind is hunting behavior.
So far, we’ve been talking about one on one behavior between dogs. That’s the safest way to have rough play. Sometimes two dogs will gang up on one in play, and it’s okay, if they know each other. But the more dogs who enter into the situation, the more likely it is that a fight will break out.
Dogs are pack animals, and as a pack they are unpredictable. It’s natural for them to congregate to watch when two dogs are tussling. If you see them crowding in and/or joining the fray, it’s time to separate the dogs before play turns into true aggression.