Dog Park Etiquette #48: Playing Or Fighting? (Or Play-Fighting?)
Dog Park Etiquette #48: Playing Or Fighting? (Or Play-Fighting?)

Just came back from a great weekend at the beach – ooh la la! The best part was dogs were allowed to run free offleash.

Greyhounds can’t swim, as far as I’ve ever known; but that doesn’t stop our twins from loving to lie down on the sand and let the waves wash over them! Whenever a wave is too big or strong, they leap up with a giant smile on their face as if they just narrowly escaped danger, and dash off in a giant loop around the beach.

One lady’s yellow lab – leash still attached, which tells me something – ran over in a submissive wiggly ducking crawl to say hi to the greys. Turtle, the male, barked and play-growled, then tore off to be chased. The owner came running over and grabbed her dog’s leash, dragging it away helpless as it tried in vain to get in its last few seconds of free play.

“If your dogs can’t behave, they should really be on leash!” she snarls at us.

“They’re behaving just fine!” I respond in disbelief as she disappears over the hill.

I have no desire to be rude, or start a fight. But people who can’t tell the difference between when dogs are playing and when they’re being aggressive, out of control, or fighting are a big downer in public parks. Apart from causing bad vibes all around, the worst consequence of overreactive owners is that they put a kabash on their own dogs’ fun – and often others’ as well.

For what it’s worth, here’s a list of all the things that I consider “kosher” – in fact essential – parts of most dogs’ style of play, followed by their non-kosher counterparts:

Kosher:

  • Chasing
  • “Mouthing”
  • Tug-of-war
  • Wrestling
  • Barking

Non-kosher:

  • Chasing dogs that are scared or overtired
  • Biting hard enough to cause a squeal or break skin
  • Stealing toys and guarding them without sharing
  • Pinning another dog down for more than a few seconds, or continuing after the dog squeals
  • Barking at humans, or at dogs who are scared.

In general, the rule is that play should be “reciprocal”: you chase me, I chase you. You bark at me, I bark back. You knock me down, then I do the same to you. Anyone who tries to project human rules of etiquette into the dog park – like don’t chew on each other’s cheeks, and don’t yell at the top of your lungs in my ear, or don’t knock me down into the mud – won’t be letting their dogs get out the kind of fullfilling, animal play they want and need. Those are certainly kosher rules in the human arena; try chewing on my cheek, or knocking my niece into the mud, and you’ll see me break several rules of etiquette and probably the law as well in return. But dogs don’t mind. In fact they crave this stuff.

Finally, when your dog doesn’t get his needs fullfilled is precisely when his bad behavior WILL come out! You don’t let him wrestle at the dog park, and he’ll have no choice but to try to take out that pent up energy on you – or worse, your six-year-old son – when you get back home. And if you’ve never tried wrestling an energetic young pit bull, lab, or boxer, trust me, you won’t win. And you’ll wind up with bruises and scratches to prove it.

Relax, trust in nature, and let your dog have fun with his friends. You might have to towel him off a bit more fully when you go home. But everyone will be happier.

6 comments

  • Natalie says:

    I found this to be very helpful, and I was wondering if you could help me sort through a social interaction that took place at the dog park earlier. As we were entering several dogs greeted us. In their company was a growling, foaming, barking pit. I have never had issues entering the park until today, but as soon as I did the pit went after my German Shepherd pup, trying to bite her face. I pulled the dogs apart, and we entered as the owner of the pit left. Subsequently, about five other dogs then ran up to my girl and backed her into a corner. While all her hair was standing on end, she was trying to get as low and far away as possible. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her bear teeth… she looked terrified, so I backed the dogs away, but two minutes later they chased her and pinned her down again. So I left. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do, or not do in this type of situation. Did I prevent her from having an enjoyable romp, or are there times when you are supposed to remove your dog from the situation? Many thanks!

    • Anthony says:

      Good question Natalie. My first comment is that since no blood was drawn, there was no fight. Fights happen before you can see or hear anything – puncture. Everything else is the dogs working out who’s who, and is part of normal socializing. Which doesn’t mean they don’t need guidance – your pup obviously needs help telling the other dogs to stay away. So we should step in, as you did, and communicate to the other dogs to steer clear for a minute – but instead of leaving, you should then lead your dog right back to the other dogs to continue the socialization process. The tip-off here is that ALL of the dogs – not just the hyper pit – obsessed on your pup. This is normal for puppies, but also happens for other fearful/anxious or hyper dogs with poor social skills. The other dogs see the lack of social skills and are basically putting her to the test. So although it looks as if the other dogs were the problem here, they’re in reality being the “village” that can help you raise your pup into a calm, social, trusting and respectful adult dog. Seek a professional who deals with this daily (let me know if you’re in NY!) and keep the socialization exercises going! Best of luck and please give your baby a bellyrub for me.

  • Melissa says:

    Hi, almost every time i bring my dog (10 mo old mix / pit maybe )- there is an “issue”. She is very playful & loves play fighting wrestling. I watch her closely- she is normal in my eyes…shows teeth but doesn’t clamp down … Rolls around …takes turn being pinned & chased…but sometimes she growls – and people get upset… They think they r fighting.. But dogs still seem playful & loose to me. Should I break my dog away/ I guess to please others? It seems like ppl r treating their dogs like humans …aghh

    • Anthony says:

      I feel you! Some dogs, especially pits, make gutteral noises when they’re playing that can sound scary to the uninitiated. (Though it’s mainly humans who take it wrong; other dogs seem to understand.) All dogs need to romp and wrestle! It is a shame for all involved when owners misunderstand their or other dogs’ body language and put an end to the fun for everyone. And in fact that can cause pent-up physical, mental, and social energy, and lack of practice at social communication, all of which can erupt in bad behavior — so parenting that is too “helicopter” can cause the very problems people are trying to avoid! Keep trying to spread the good energy and good word 🙂

  • kyle says:

    This is very dangerous advice!

    Your web site is called calm energy, yet you promote mouthing which is aggressive behavior. Then you advise ‘no blood no foul’ to a poor woman who’s dog was backed into a corner without any comment on what it means to be a pack leader. She did the right thing by stepping in front (which you said) but obviously the dog is intimidated by multiple dogs at the same time, and to advise her to just keep forcing that situation on the dog is (at best) foolish.

    If this is how you train your dogs I wish you would let people know when you are bringing your dogs to the park so they could have the opportunity to choose what is best for their dog or to avoid both them and you. I would much prefer a park where dogs are properly trained but unfortunately not every owner wants to put in the time or effort. To that end I would advise that if you go to a park and there are dogs (and owners) that will not respect your space or your dogs space, leave. Let the crappy ‘no blood no foul’ dogs mess each other up.

    Please be more responsible in your posts, understanding pack behavior and body position is important, but not the end of training. Its the beginning.

    To give your opinion online is your right (one that I proudly served for) and I respect your ability to say whatever you want as this is your site. I just will leave with this, in a free society you can say whatever you want, and if you want to believe ‘no blood no foul’ or biting another dogs cheek is acceptable behavior, go right ahead. But if you think these things AND have influence over others (as would a successful dog trainers with a website) then being wrong becomes harmful to the health and security of our fur babies. Discovery and learning got us into a civilization, and each generation benefits from what previous generations have learned.

    Please post more responsibly for the sake of your followers, they are trusting your advice.

    Also, a bit of advice to your followers. Walk your dog 15-30 min prior to going to the dog park. The dog park is not a place you just ‘let nature take over’. Be responsible and walk or run that energy out of them before entering an area where calm dogs want to be calm. When you don’t de-energize your dog prior to taking them to the park you are part of the problem. The dog park is not a place for other peoples dogs to wear out your dog, that’s your job. The dog park is intended to be a social environment for acceptable, submissive behavior. Its not, however, because the opinions shared above are more common then the truth.

    • Anthony says:

      I appreciate your comments! However — first of all I never say “no blood no foul”. I made a distinction between fighting and other aggressive/dominant behavior, BOTH of which are unhealthy and should be corrected and repaired. I also never said to “force” a dog into social situations; force is never helpful. Finally, if you read the rest of my posts about dog park work and other forms of obedient socializing, you’ll see that I never say to simply “let nature take over”. Far from it! There are ways of conditioning prior to socializing, while entering, after entering, while socializing, and when leaving. I ask that if you feel the desire to criticize what I post, please first of all read it all; then quote it correctly.

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