Dog Park Behavior and Etiquette Tips
When You Get There continued...
What Good Play Looks Like
When dogs play, they often play-bow, paw at each other and bounce around
like puppies. Their bodies look relaxed, rather than stiff, and they might make
“play faces”-they hold their mouths open and look like they’re smiling. During
play, the dogs might growl playfully and open their mouths wide, exposing their
teeth and pretending to be ferocious. They might switch roles so that one dog’s
sometimes on top when wrestling and sometimes on her back, sometimes chasing
and sometimes being chased, sometimes pouncing and sometimes getting pounced
on. The dogs might also frequently switch games, alternating between stalking
and chasing each other, wrestling and rolling around on the ground, mouthing on
each other, playing with toys, and taking breaks to drink water or sniff
around. As the dogs run and wrestle, you might notice them pausing or freezing
frequently for just a second or two before launching back into the game. These
little pauses and breaks in play help ensure that play doesn’t get out of
Signs of Trouble
If possible, watch for warning signs and step in before a fight
happens. Your first clue that things aren’t going well during play might be the
absence of all the signs of polite play described above. Instead of those
signs, you might notice the dogs’ bodies becoming stiffer and more tense. Their
movements might seem faster and less bouncy. Play might become louder and build
in intensity, without any breaks or pauses. If you see any of these signs, it’s
time to separate the playmates. You should also interrupt play if you see a dog
who’s pursuing and playing too roughly with a playmate who’s trying to get
away, or who’s repeatedly knocking down or standing over another dog. Intervene
immediately if a number of dogs start to chase a single dog-especially if that
dog is small.
Damage Control: If There’s a Fight
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to monitor playtime, dogs get into
fights. These scuffles often look and sound ferocious. The dogs might growl
fiercely, snarl at each other, bark, snap and show their teeth. However, most
dog fights don’t result in injury to either dog. They’re usually the equivalent
of getting into a brief, heated argument with a friend or family member. Even
so, if a fight lasts more than a few seconds, the dogs’ pet parents should
separate them. Doing this can be dangerous. If you grab a dog who’s in the
middle of fighting with another dog, she might startle and reflexively whip
around to bite you. To reduce the likelihood of injury to all parties, follow
- Prevent fights from happening in the first place by actively watching dogs
during play. If you think things are starting to look a little tense, end play
for a while by calling your dog to come to you. (Please see our article, Teaching
Your Dog to Come When Called.)
- Have a plan and don’t panic. Remember that most dog fights are noisy but
harmless. If you stay calm, you’ll be able to separate two fighting dogs more
safely and efficiently.
- Before you try physically separating two fighting dogs, make lots of noise.
Clap and yell. Consider carrying a mini-air horn or two metal pie pans to bang
together. A sudden loud sound will often interrupt a fight.
- If there’s a hose handy, you can try spraying the dogs with water.
- If you’ve tried briefly (3 seconds or so) making noise but the dogs are
still fighting, you and the other dog’s pet parent should approach the dogs
together. Separate them at the same time. Both of you should take hold
of your dogs’ back legs at the very top just under the hips, right where the
legs connect to the body. (Avoid grabbing the dogs lower on their legs, like by
their knees, ankles or paws. Doing so could cause them serious injury.) Like
you’d lift a wheelbarrow, lift your dog’s back end under his hips so that his
back legs come off of the ground, and move backwards away from the other dog.
As soon as you can, turn your dog away from the other dog.
- DO NOT grab your dog by the collar. It seems like the natural thing to do,
but it might startle your dog and cause her to turn and bite you. This kind of
bite is like a reflex that’s done without thinking. Many pet parents get bitten
this way-even when their dogs haven’t shown any signs of aggression in the
- After a fight stops, put both dogs on leashes and end the play session.
Avoid giving the dogs another chance to fight. If the dog park is large enough,
you can walk your dog to another area, far away from the dog she squabbled
with. After she’s calmed down and relaxed again, try letting her off leash
again to play with other dogs. If the park’s not that big, just call it quits
for the day.