Off-leash play, whether at a friend's home or at a dog park, can be lots of fun for social dogs. It can also be terrifying for our less-confident furry friends. Maintaining awareness of your dog and the dogs around him is essential for preventing a bad play experience!
But how do you know if a dog fight is about to happen?
In my experience, dogs are excellent communicators with each other. Their communications can be so subtle that we humans never even notice. Socially appropriate dogs see and respect when another dog is telling them to "back off", but in certain situations, those signals may get lost in the commotion of normal play. The truth is the fights don't happen out of the blue, and we have the opportunity to redirect dogs before things get out of hand. Here are a few tips for promoting safe off-leash play:
First, and foremost, watch your dog. While this may be a social outing for you as well as your pup, be careful not to ignore the dogs as you chat with other dog owners. Always, always, always be aware of what the dogs are doing -- it's the only chance you have to interrupt a potentially bad situation before it escalates!
Identify the potential issues. Are there gangly, excited adolescents in the group? Are there senior dogs (who may have lower tolerance for physical play)? How about small dogs who are likely to be overwhelmed by the big-dog play? Any wallflowers (fearful/avoidant dogs)? These are not necessarily reasons to avoid the play group, but certainly be aware and respectful of these situations, and help protect the dogs who may not be as gregarious.
Check in regularly. This keeps communication with your dog open, and helps prevent him from becoming too intense in his play. Practice a sit or a down, then release your dog to play again. If there is a lull in the activity, use the opportunity to practice a recall (and give him a jackpot when he gets to you). Grab a toy, and encourage your dog to follow you to a less busy area for a little one-on-one play, even if it is only one or two tosses of the toy. The idea here is that you are remaining relevant to your dog, even in a situation where you are not directly in control.
Interrupt inappropriate play. Types of play that can escalate into bad situations include:
Excessive chasing, where the chased dog is becoming uncomfortable or fearful.
"Wrestling" where the dogs are not taking turns and role-reversing (one dog is consistently on top).
Playing near a dog who is trying to stay out of the fray. This commonly happens during chase games, where the chasee and chaser pass to closely to a dog that is trying to avoid the situation. Even more dangerous is when the avoiding dog gets bowled over by the freight-train of chasing dogs.
"Pecking" excessively. This can be commonly seen in the herding breeds, but I've also seen it in poodles. When a dog is constantly taking little jabs, the receiving dog is bound to get annoyed eventually.
When you see these types of play happening it's time to step in and redirect the dogs to more appropriate activities. This might mean moving the crazy adolescents away from the wallflowers, or encouraging a dog who is pecking at the others to hold a toy in his mouth instead.
Watch for early warning signs. Dogs are great at communicating with each other, but only if they are paying attention. If you see any of the following signs, it's time to intervene:
Stiffness or a rigid posture
Constant direct stare (like tunnel vision)
Low growl or raised lips that are not being heeded by the other dogs. This is different from the play growling and vocalizations that we hear when dogs are wrestling appropriately.
Tail tucked and ears back, especially when cornered
Normal play can be loud, and a certain amount of arousal is expected. As long as the play is equal and the dogs are taking turns "role-playing", it can be a great experience for all involved. If things are getting intense between dogs, it is ok to interrupt them and give them some time to cool off!
However, if your dog is consistently fearful, or if your dog is consistently pushy, then off-leash play may not be a good option for him. More structured activities may suit him better - experiment with agility, or rally obedience, or even flyball. These sports are great for building the bond between handler and dog, and will burn off tons of energy as well!