Doggie Dialogues: Stylin’ at the dog park

Wrestling matches are often supervised by the “fun police.”

Dog parks—canine professionals either love them or hate them. When asked if I am a fan of dog parks, my response is “it depends.” There are many factors to consider before deciding whether a dog park is right for your dog.

Dog park considerations

Not all dogs are good candidates for the dog park. Senior dogs, young puppies, dogs with behavior issues, fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, reactive dogs, bullies or introverted dogs might do better in a different venue. Controlled play dates with one or two dogs your dog knows well, long walks, a game of tennis ball catch in your driveway or an organized dog sport or group class are better choices.

Size matters. Most experts suggest no more than a 25-pound difference in playmate size because of a phenomenon called “predatory drift.” This occurs when normal play suddenly “drifts” and the dog’s predatory instincts kick in. A larger dog who was fine just a moment ago playing with a smaller dog might suddenly perceive the running dog as prey and a disaster could occur. Most dog parks have separate areas for small and large dogs to prevent this from happening.

Common play styles

One important aspect pet owners frequently don’t consider are play styles.

Not all dogs play the same way. Being cognizant of your dog’s preferred play style can help select appropriate playmates for your dog.

Wrestling. Wrestlers enjoy full body contact. The key to a good wrestling match is the dogs take turns being on top or pinned on the bottom. Neck biting and showing teeth is normal. If the dog on top won’t switch places when the dog on the bottom is ready to, it may be time to intervene.

Policing or cheerleading. These dogs position themselves just outside of where the action is. They tend to run around the group, barking, nipping and lunging but never enter the fray. Often referred to as the “fun police,” they occasionally may jump in to break up what they perceive as play getting out of control. Keep an eye on these dogs; not all dogs enjoy having their play interrupted.

Body slamming. Body slammers like to run full speed into another dog to see if they can knock them off their feet. Body slammers can play well with other body slammers if the dogs are of similar size. Not all dogs enjoy this game, so human intervention may be required.

Boxing. This style of play is primarily associated with the boxer breed, though any breed may learn to box. Play involves two dogs of comparable size standing up on their rear legs while pawing at each other with their front legs. 

Tugging. Tuggers love to play tug-of-war with humans as well as other dogs. If a toy isn’t available, a big stick is a great substitute. Dogs who are resource guarders should be discouraged from participating in this type of play.

Chasing. There is nothing more fun to watch in a dog park that a group of dogs, joyously running around in a huge circle, chasing each other. Some dogs like to chase, some like to be chased and some dogs enjoy both roles. It’s best to keep chasing sessions short to keep the arousal level from getting out of control. Dogs with a very strong prey drive should be closely monitored, particularly if there are small dogs participating in the game.

Nipping. This form of play is often seen with puppies as they are learning bite inhibition. Dogs will usually correct their playmates if nipping gets too intense.

Touching. Shy and older dogs often prefer this play style which is sometimes described as kissing; play consists of short spurts of activity with gentle touching or nuzzling.

Self play. Who doesn’t love a dog that can entertain himself? These dogs may toss a toy in the air and catch it, push a ball around, wrestle with a stuffed toy, bite a squeaky toy or run around in circles.

Breed specific play styles

The staff at Unleashed Joy, a boarding facility in Maryland, made the following observations after observing dogs at play over the years. 

• The sporting group, which includes retrievers, pointers, setters and spaniels, tends to enjoy body slamming, neck biting and wrestling.

• The herding group, which includes border collies, Australian cattle dogs and Australian shepherds, likes chasing, nipping and policing.

• The hound group includes sight and scent hounds; sight hounds like the greyhound love to chase.

• The terrier group is fond of body slamming and wrestling. 

Play styles in the remaining groups (the working group, toy group and non-sporting group) vary due to the diversity in these groups.   

It’s all fun and games until it’s not

Most dogs enjoy and engage in a variety of play styles and may exhibit different play styles in different situations. The number of dogs, size of dogs, play style of dogs and even location can determine what games might be played.

It’s our responsibility to keep our pets safe. Watch your dog’s body language and, if play seems to be escalating, retrieve your dog for a short doggie time-out. Dogs will generally take a short time-out on their own, but sometimes—just as with children—we need to step in and remind them to do so. 

Additional information

For more information about dog body language, Google “ASPCA dog body language.” To learn more about dog park safety, Google “APDT dog park.”

As Tony Gwynn, a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, once said, “Remember these two things; play hard and have fun.” Happy training! 

Doris Dressler

Doris Dressler is a CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer, knowledge assessed) with more than 20 years’ experience training service dogs and family pet dogs.