These are some of the common phrases about dog play we hear at the dog parks all the time:
“Look how cute they play despite of the size difference”.
“He just likes to play rough but won’t hurt anyone”.
“Look at the energy levels these two have”.
Most of the time they are in deed accurate and will not escalate any further. However, there are always risks involved in Dog Play and we as owners have the full responsibility to observe and intervene when required.
Before we go through some of the risks and control mechanisms for Dog Play, let’s be very clear that as humans also dogs are all individuals. Their behaviours depend heavily on how they have been socialised and trained. So we cannot generalise that all terriers are aggressive and all retrievers calm.
Monitor early warnings in Dog Play
Size difference doesn’t necessarily cause a problem, however it does increase the risk of accidents, which we need to be aware of. Breeds with strong predatory instinct such as terriers might grab the smaller dog too hard confusing it with prey. Large breeds such as Bernese Mountain Dogs, Golden Retrievers or many guardian dogs may accidentally roll over a smaller dog causing some serious pain and damage. They need to be monitored very closely to ensure excitement levels do not rise too much. If the smaller dog shows any signs of stress or fear such as tail positioned between legs, lip licking (see image), closed mouth, heavy panting or hiding behind the owner the play should be stopped immediately and the dogs should be separated into different play groups.
Style of Play
Some dogs like to play rough with high intensity, which is fine as long as they find playmates with similar style of play. Even in these circumstances the play should be stopped and both players should be calmed down to ensure nothing escalates. Again, look for early signs such as imbalance of power or dominance.
If one of the dogs seems to be on top all the time, then play should be stopped. Dogs engaged in a healthy wrestle take turns on top.
Also watch for their posture. Stiff posture and whale eyes (when eyes are wide open and you can see the white part of the eye in a half moon shape) are signals of increasing stress levels.
And finally, puppies should always play with puppies.
Many older dogs seriously dislike puppies as they are too energetic and in their face. As a new puppy owner, always ask whether the older dog is ok with puppies and even then, proceed with caution and high alert.
When we got our cute little groodle named Lumi in June 2016 we learned the importance of finding suitable playmates the hardest possible way. At the age of 4 months, Lumi was playing off leash at the park. So was a 4 year old American Pitbull. There was no aggression at the beginning and they seemed to get along just fine and then it happened. Out of nowhere the other dog attacked Lumi and broke his front leg and the elbow joint. I can still hear Lumi’s panicked cry in my head. After a couple of months of intensive care and rest, Lumi started to go for short walks again and luckily made a full physical and mental recovery from the incident and is one happy dog today.