How dogs communicate with other dogsFamilyPet
I recently met a client at the dog park to observe her 14-month-old Rottie who was choosing various dogs and sitting on them. The client was understandably concerned and had been told that this behavior is aggressive. One of my friends brought her 180 lb English Mastiff whom I knew is well-balanced and keeps his cool. We were lucky because there were several dogs in the park that morning. There was lots of body language to observe. After watching and interacting, I did not see aggression, but this little Rottie was really being the referee of the dog park. When she saw other dogs playing and saw play escalating above her comfort level, she would weave between the offenders (in her mind) and sit on the one who was the rough player – then would get up and walk away when the offender had calmed down. We are going to continue to work on her habits because some dogs don’t appreciate the referee. Here are some of the things we saw that morning, and how to interpret them.
Ignoring – Many dogs will ignore the others until they can get the lay of the land and will watch to see whose play styles may match their own. Owners will try to engage their dogs with the others because it seems like a waste of time to go to the dog park if your dog isn’t going to play, but to push them before they are ready can be really stressful for them. Watch for no eye contact with the other dogs, lowered ears, tail between the legs, or clinging to you.
Body postures – the most often body posture you will see at the dog park is the play bow. This looks just like it sounds – front legs splayed out in front with hind end in the air. Many times you will see one dog play bow, then take off running, asking the other dog to chase. Dogs use the play bow to let others know “anything I do after this is just playing around – ok?” Just watch for inappropriate behavior like body slamming because not every dog appreciates it. The other body language you may see is one dog putting its head over the shoulder of another dog. While it may not offending, it is a way for that dog to try to intimidate by making themselves appear larger and should be stopped.
Humping is another behavior that should be stopped. It is most times not sexual, but dominate. Usually the “humpee” will let the offending dog know that they need to cut it out and that is best – to let them work it out. Just keep a watchful eye and be prepared to intervene just in case.
You may also see “boxing” where two dogs are both on their hind legs and pawing at each other. Usually these dogs are rough players and as long as both dogs are comfortable with it, there is no harm.
Noises and nipping – You will no doubt hear lots of noises while dogs are playing. Lots of dogs bark or growl while they are having fun and playing chase. Be aware of the noises and listen for high pitched yelps (this could indicate pain), or deeper barks and growls (dog is getting over stimulated and could break into a fight). Nipping is another thing that can get out of hand. Lots of dogs nip while playing. Mine will nip other dogs legs to get them to start chasing. Herding breeds will nip to move the other dogs along. Lots of dogs play rough, which includes light biting on the neck and legs. They key to this type of play is to watch what happens next. If both dogs are chasing, barking, and nipping you are probably ok. It becomes a problem and should be stopped when only one dog is doing that. Play should be reciprocal and not one dog continually doing the chasing.
While I was at the dog park, a lovely little beagle mix female came into the park. She had the most polite body language I have ever seen, and it was amazing to watch her transformation. She entered the park with tail down, making no eye contact with the other dogs, letting them know that she was no threat. As she entered the cluster of curious dogs, she stood still and allowed the other dogs to sniff her. Dogs sniff each others back sides to introduce each other. After the other dogs had sniffed her, she calmly walked through the group of dogs and sniffed them – tail up a little, ears relaxed, making glancing eye contact. After everyone had “met,” her ears perked up and she initiated play by doing a play bow and turning to run – trying to instigate a chase – which she got and then good healthy play was had by all pups.
As with most things in life, it’s all fun until somebody gets hurt. By watching these body language cues, you can curb the action before it crosses the line. If a time out is necessary, you can use whistles, air horns, soda cans with a few pennies in them, or maybe even a small squirt gun. You’re just creating a distraction so you can slow down or break up the action.
Terry Meeks is a Certified Dog Trainer, APDT member, CGC Elaluator, volunteer at two local shelters, and owner of Four on the Floor Dog Training in Pinellas County Florida. Find more info at www.fouronthefloor-dogtraining.com and on Facebook