Note from Con Slobodchikoff: This is a post by guest author Nancy Frensley, CPDT, CAP2, who is Manager of Behavior and Training at the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society in Berkeley, California. She writes periodic posts about the behavioral challenges and joys of shelter dogs.
One of first things adopters from our shelter, Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, want to do is take their dogs to a dog park. It’s easy to assume that all dogs both want to play with other dogs and have the right temperament and social skills to do so. However, everyone will benefit by considering a few things before beginning this particular adventure.
Until puppies reach maturity, between the ages of eighteen months and two years, most of them enjoy playing with other dogs. Good dog play can teach young dogs valuable lessons. Play enhances bite inhibition, develops communication skills, and maintains friendly responses to other dogs. As they mature, most dogs become less universal in their desire to play.
Even though some parts of each puppy’s play style are inherited, each of them goes through distinct developmental periods during the first two years of life in which social and play styles are formed. Puppies (under four months) can be very rude but are generally tolerated by adult dogs as well as their human parents. Between the ages of about five and eighteen months, almost all puppies start to push their boundaries with both people and their own kind. In addition, puppies experience distinct “fear periods” during this time of their lives. Unsupervised play as well as harsh corrections can cause pups to develop fear as well as the inappropriate play styles of chasing, body slamming and persistent wrestling; styles that can lead to aggression problems.
Most dogs reach full maturity at about two years. After that, they are less likely to engage in play with dogs they don’t already know and may become more reserved with people as well. Most are content, at this point, to play with previously established dog friends. Sometimes, they lose their desire to play with dogs entirely. Dogs adopted as adults have often had limited social exposure and may never enjoy playing with other dogs.
From the very first day, you should carefully monitor all your dog’s playtimes. By supervising, you can shape your dog’s play style for the rest of his life. The most important part of supervision is being able to recognize when play is appropriate and when it is not. The second most important part is being able to interrupt questionable or inappropriate play and call your dog away before it goes bad.
There are three kinds of dog play—good, questionable, and totally inappropriate. Here’s how to tell them apart:
Good dog play. You don’t need to interrupt this play. The dogs are monitoring themselves.
•Play is balanced. There is a lot of give-and-take. Both dogs are clearly having fun.
•Dogs have loose, relaxed bodies, and their movements are silly and inefficient-looking.
•Chase games exhibit a sense of sharing. But, if one dog is being chased into hiding or is becoming defensive, interrupt the play.
•Both dogs are making friendly play gestures. These include play bows, turning and hitting with the hips and both dogs stopping when things get too rough.
Questionable dog play. You should always interrupt this play before it goes too far. Any of the following behaviors can lead to a fight.
• Wrestling can be appropriate but is questionable and should be interrupted if more than two dogs are involved, or if one dog is always on the bottom.
• Tug-of-war if one or both dogs become possessive.
• Stalking postures: These postures are not play behavior. A stalking posture is significantly different from play bow and is often the first stage of a body slam.
Rude and totally inappropriate dog play. This “play” is not play at all; it is aggressive behavior and must always be stopped. After you intervene you have a good opportunity to play one-on-one with your dog while he settles down. Rude behaviors are:
• Neck biting and collar grabbing.
•Excessive barking and harassing another dog. Rude puppies often do this relentlessly at adult dogs that do not want to play.
• Body slamming. This is only fun for the slammer.
• Pinning. Bull breeds do this routinely, but others do it, too.
• Mounting other dogs. Both males and females do this and it is almost guaranteed to start a fight.
• Snapping. A dog that is scared or aggravated may snap; so may a dog that is guarding a toy or a bone.
• Standing in a “T” position (head over another dog’s shoulders). This is never play; it is always a challenge. Don’t let it happen at all.
• Ganging up. Two or more dogs ganging up on one.
• General over arousal, resulting in a case of the crazies, growlies, or snappies.
If you cannot call your dog away quickly and effectively as soon as play becomes questionable use a long line (20’-30’) and practice calling your dog with rewards every day. Once you call your dog away from play, give him time to calm down before releasing him to play again. If your dog has gotten into a scuffle, stop all interactions with other dogs for the remainder of the outing.
It’s everyone’s responsibility to supervise their dogs to keep play friendly.