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Playing with other dogs is a great outlet for energy and companionship! After all, dogs are social beings, an important part of what makes them such good partners for us humans. Most of us strive to socialize our dogs and take advantage of opportunities for them to play with others. Not all dogs, however, know how to play nice 100% of the time. It’s important to be aware of play styles that might lead to a negative encounter for your dog or his/her playmate. Once you learn when to intervene in playtime, you can better control the positive experiences your dog has with others and eliminate the negative ones.

As I’ve touched on in the past, dogs are phenomenal at communicating with body language. It’s in our best interest to understand how our dogs communicate physically with us as well as with other dogs and people. If you don’t pay attention to the cues, you may end up with changes in behavior that seem to arise from out of nowhere despite there having been numerous warning signs.

One example of poor play behavior is when one dog (often a puppy or younger dog in this case) is perpetually bothering another dog to play who is uninterested or needs a break. If this behavior is allowed, one possible outcome might be that this playful dog never learns to read when it’s time to stop pestering. Even worse, the uninterested dog could snap or bite the nagging dog after warning attempts have failed to stop him/her. If you notice that your dog or another is relentlessly attempting to play with an uninterested dog, calmly separate them or redirect the playful dog with treats, a toy or to play with you instead.

Another example of unfavorable conduct is when one dog seems to be controlling play the entire time. This is most noticeable when one of the dogs is constantly on top, continually pinning the other dog down and often playing a bit too rough. Although this may or may not seem to bother the other dog, it’s a behavior that shouldn’t be allowed to persist. It’s important that your dog learn appropriate play in which both dogs thoroughly enjoy themselves and don’t feel intimidated. If you witness this behavior. separate the dogs and give them time to cool off before resuming play. You can also try to convince the ‘top dog’ to lay down when the other dog approaches with positive reinforcement or tire the dog out before a playdate so that he/she plays in a calmer manner.

Whether or not a dog is pinned down, body language can still reveal tension in one or both dogs. If either dog seems alert with his/her tail up stiff, ears back, mouth drawn, tongue flicking out, side eye, yawning or stiff posture, they are nervous rather than calm and playful. It isn’t unusual for dogs to act this way and to seem on edge when they first meet. Much like humans, dogs can be wary of strangers and who can blame them? If this behavior persists, however, the dogs should be separated or distracted from one another to ease the tension. Sometimes first greetings are best done through a gate or fence where neither dog feels cornered or intimidated. Toys can be used to distract or refocus the dogs but you should never use toys or treats when either of the dogs have shown any signs of resource guarding as this would cause more rigidity.

Once you start paying careful attention to your dog’s play behavior, you can help them avoid negative encounters and learn how to play in a productive, fun way! If your dog knows that you’re there to intervene when things go wrong, they’ll become more confident and calmer in their play style. If they are stopped anytime they get out of control, they will learn that such play behavior doesn’t work and won’t get them what they want, which is more play time! Always pay attention and reward good behavior and yours and your dog’s lives will be more playful and uplifting!

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A recent visit to the dog park inspired me to write about the responsibilities of dog owners who take their furry companions to play there. It’s important to note that I have very mixed feelings about dog parks in the first place. The idea of a place to bring dogs that is safe for off leash play and interactions with other dogs and people is great. In theory, it should be a place for exercise, socialization, and even a ideal spot for like minded (dog loving) people to mingle. However, there are a lot of things that people don’t consider (or fail to understand) when it comes to dog parks and the dangers of such a seemingly wonderful place…

First off, dog parks are for dogs! I know this may seem obvious to a lot of you, but what isn’t necessarily obvious is all that this entails. Anyone bringing their dog(s) here should have a basic understanding of who their dog gets along with and who their dog doesn’t get along with. If you go to the park knowing, for example, that your dog doesn’t like men with hats on. Noticing a man with a hat inside the park should be enough to deter you from entering. Same goes for any other type of person or dog that you know your dog may have a hard time with. When in doubt, LEAVE!

That being said, there are usually (and should ALWAYS be) restrictions on what types of humans are allowed in the dog park. Small children have no business being there. As much as a toddler would love to be surrounded by dogs in a park where he/she can run around and pet new furry friends, it is an extremely dangerous place for a them! This is the encounter that I had at my last visit to the dog park. My dogs and I were first greeted by a two year old when entering the park. Luckily, Kona and Hobbes are used to children, so this little girl escaped with just a few licks to the face from Hobbes. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if even my own kid loving pups had knocked her down on their way to chase a ball or meet another dog in sight. Any dogs that are afraid of or aggressive towards children could posed a much worse threat. As one other dog parent said so eloquently ‘Children aren’t allowed here. If my dog jumps up and nips her, it’s not my fault, it’s her idiot mom’s fault.’

As much as I agreed with this lady’s statement, I decided to take a calmer, nicer approach to try and teach this family about the danger they were putting their toddler in. The little girl was being escorted by what seemed to be her older teenage sister while the mom sat in the small dog area with the stroller. I approached the teenage girl and calmly stated, “from a dog trainer’s perspective, that little girl is in a very dangerous position. This park is for people to bring dogs to, and those dogs don’t always feel comfortable around children. She could get bit or even knocked over by a couple of dogs playing. Children aren’t allowed here for a reason, I wouldn’t want to see her get hurt.” The teenage girl honestly hadn’t thought about all this and seemed to understand what I was trying to say. She immediately went back to the other park with the little girl (still not out of the woods, but at least only the family’s small dogs were in there).

It dawned on me that dog parks are dangerous because of either people that don’t understand what the parks are for or people that just don’t understand dogs (including their own). Either way, I would love to see more education out there in regard to dog parks and how to use them responsibly. I plan on educating as many people as I possibly can! Please make sure you understand your dog well enough to know that they will be comfortable in this setting, and that you are always ready to walk away if there is ever a moment of tension.

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