Although becoming fluent in the language of dog takes years, learning some basics to increase the chances of safe interactions between dogs is simple. Here are some rules to help make off-leash encounters go smoothly.
Both dogs are similarly sized. As scary as it looks, fighting and predatory behavior during play is part of doggy communication. This is wise to keep in mind when pairing playmates of different sizes. The risk of accidental injury or trauma to a small dog during play is much higher, as is the risk that a smaller dog’s behavior may trigger a predatory response.
Both dogs are having fun. This seems obvious, but is easily overlooked. For an interaction to be considered “play”, both dogs have to be enjoying themselves. If one dog attempts to leave play or shows defensive behavior, it is not play and should be interrupted. Click here to see a dog that begins play without invitation and does not respect the others attempts to terminate play.
Only two dogs are interacting. Any safe dog-dog interaction is between only two dogs. Once another dog is involved, the chances that things will go south quickly will increase exponentially and the vicarious player should be redirected to another activity. Click here to see a video of too many dogs interacting. Notice the Beagle attempts to move away from the other two dogs.
Movements look fluid and comfortable. Dogs that look awkward during play or have hard, stiff, sharp, or sporadic movements should be interrupted frequently. Sometimes it takes buddies a while to get into the groove of play but until that happens, play is risky and should be frequently interrupted. Click here to see awkward play.
Chasing play is limited or frequently interrupted. Chasing play, particularly when it involves more than two dogs, is the riskiest form of play. It is very easy for chasing “play” to turn into more intense predatory-driven chasing and things can turn sour very quickly. Young dogs still polishing up their social skills love to run but chasing should be interrupted frequently. Also, group chasing and larger dogs chasing smaller dogs should always be interrupted in every situation. Click here to see polite chase play. Notice how both dogs are the same size and respect each others space well.
Neither dog’s behavior could be described as “relentless”. Play is a random jumble of different doggy behaviors and one of the only things that keeps it from being misinterpreted is frequent brief pauses in play for goofy looking exaggerated or slowed behaviors. Dogs constantly remind their buddy that they mean no harm and are just having fun. When these behaviors stop and play becomes “relentless” it needs to be interrupted. Click here to see a dog relentlessly try to engage another.
Play comes in many shapes and sizes. If you are unsure about what you are seeing, there is no such thing as too much interruption, so go ahead and intervene. A good test of the dog’s feelings toward one another is to separate, then give the choice to reengage. Two dogs that will continually reengage in play are probably enjoying themselves. If your dog is getting into scuffles or you are unsure how to interpret what you are seeing, contact a professional dog trainer experienced in managing playgroups.