Dog-dog play and off-leash manners (for Tony and his dad)

Phoebe, Nayeli and I spent yesterday afternoon at our favorite park in Vienna: the Prater. This is a huge public park with, among other things, forest, meadows, ponds, and Vienna’s biggest official off-leash area for dogs (generally, dogs have to either wear a leash or a muzzle in public spaces in Vienna; getting caught ignoring this law can be quite expensive).  The off-leash/no muzzle area isn’t your typical “dog park”. It’s unfenced and spacious enough to actually take walks there. 

I like the Prater because it’s just around the corner from my house, it’s beautiful and makes me feel like I’m in the middle of nature rather than the city. Due to its size, it’s not too crowded, and due to the fact that it’s unfenced, the people walking there dogs there tend to be owners who keep an eye on their dogs. Furthermore, since dogs are allowed off leash, you get less joggers, bikers and children than in other parks in the city – less potential triggers.

I don’t like the typical dog park and avoid it, because there you get lots of dogs forced to share a small enclosed space, whether they want to or not, and often a subculture of owners subscribing to the “Oh, just let the dogs do their own thing, don’t you dare intervene!” philosophy. Visiting dog parks like this is stressful for both me and whatever bomb-proof dog I’m taking. However, I like visiting the Prater’s off-leash area and the big unfenced off-leash area on the Donauinsel every now and then (only with a dog who is comfortable being around other dogs, of course), because these big and unfenced spaces seems to have a different vibe.

However, the other day, I was reminded that there’s always the chance of frustrating encounters there, too. At some point, a border collie came flying our way, no handler in sight. Without stopping, he lunged at Phoebe, repeatedly tipped her over, chased her down when she tried to get away and pinned her to the ground with his body rather than choosing the fully grown golden retriever as a playmate.

Nayeli usually protects Phoebe from all-too wild play encounters by means of splitting the dogs up with her body and directing calming signals towards the strange dog. This is one of the reasons I’m comfortable taking a puppy places where I frequently meet strange off-leash dogs: Nayeli, while generally much more interested in people than dogs, is very versed when it comes to calming signals, and she looks out for Phoebe. She discriminates between appropriate playmates Phoebe has fun with and dogs she wants to protect her young friend from. 

In this case, however, Nayeli was busy sniffing around elsewhere. Phoebe looked to me for help, showed calming signals that the border ignored, then growled and tried to get away, which didn’t work. Since the border collie’s dad approached in the distance, I didn’t body block the border as I would have done otherwise, but called out to his dad and asked him to please call back his dog, since his play was getting a little too rough for my puppy. 

This guy belonged to the “let-them-fight-it-out-among-themselves” subculture. “They’ll fight it out among themselves,” he shouted back and added, laughing with an air of superiority, “as a dog owner, you should know that yourself! Dogs have to play!”

“I’d really ask you to please call back your dog. My puppy is uncomfortable with your dog playing rough,” I explained patiently. “I agree it’s nice for dogs to play and socialize, but ideally with dogs who match their temperament or strength.”

He continued to shout at me as a response to my friendly request, finally called his dog with the words, “Come, Tony, the bimbo doesn’t want you to play with her dogs, leave the bimbo alone!” I ignored him; he kept calling his dog, but to no avail. As I was getting ready to step in myself, Tony finally decided to take off himself. He continued to ignore his owner’s recall, ran the other way and disappeared in the distance to do his own thing. 

About half an hour later, Tony showed up again (handler nowhere in sight). He seemed to have spent his energy by now and was just hanging out there, taking turns sniffing the ground and looking around alertly. He didn’t seem calm because he was relaxed, but because he was exhausted. After a while, I also saw his owner again, who continued insulting me as he passed even though I hadn’t said a word. “Oh, come, Tony, quick, there’s the bimbo who doesn’t want her dogs to play. In an off-leash area! Hahaha!”

So here’s my take on dog play (in off-leash areas and elsewhere): 

Respect your fellow dogs and respect your fellow humans

If I take my dogs for a walk in an area where it’s likely I’ll encounter other dogs, off-leash or on-leash, I always try to make sure my dogs don’t bother other dogs or other owners. If either dog or owner seem uncomfortable, I’ll call back my dogs. This is basic manners, and I expect the same from other dog owners.

If I encounter a dog on leash, or a dog who seems to be training with his mum or dad, I won’t let my dog run up to them to say hello in an off-leash area any more than I would let them do this anywhere else. Rather, I’ll keep my distance. Just because it’s permitted to have your dog off leash doesn’t mean you have to have him off leash all the time, and just because she’s off leash certainly doesn’t mean you should ignore her whereabouts. If she doesn’t have a reliable recall (like Tony), she shouldn’t be off-leash in the first place: a dog without a reliable recall can get into all kinds of trouble involving cars, strange dogs etc., and a leash is a matter of keeping her safe.

If I encounter someone walking their dog on a leash, no matter whether I’m in an off-leash area or not, I assume there is a reason for this, and I keep my dog at a distance. If I run into a training session on a public place, whether in an off-leash area or not, I’ll keep my dogs at a distance as well in order not to distract the working dog and handler. And I think that’s great: I love seeing dogs work and have fun despite the distractions in an area like the Prater – such as the young couple with two border collies who I’ve watched practicing cool two-dog tricks involving a park bench, a frisbee, freestyle moves and human as well as canine jumps, while all around them, all kinds of dogs are running, owners are shouting, squirrels are jumping etc.

If my dogs really want to greet an on-leash or training dog in an off-leash area, I’ll do the same I would do in an on-leash area: ask their owners if it’s okay for my dog to say hello. If they say yes, then we’ll let them greet each other and I might turn greeting the strange dog into a Premack reward; if they say no, I respect that decision. This is basic manners as well, and I expect other owners to show me the same kind of respect.

What does healthy play look like?

For me, healthy play means that all the dogs involved enjoy themselves. The moment one of the playing dogs experiences distress, is scared or seems to bully the others rather than match his strength to the other one’s strength, it’s not play. Ideally, if you let your dog play with a strange dog, you watch your dog’s and the other dog’s body language and call them back before a problem develops.

In my experience, the dogs who best play together are familiar dogs. Also, usually, two (strange) dogs play better together than three or a group. If three or more dogs are playing, make sure they don’t gang up on one of them.

Healthy dog play may consist of chase (with or without role-changes), mouth-wrestling or rolling around with a lot of physical contact (this third variety especially occurs between puppies). Even what looks like “rough” play to us may be okay – as long as it’s obvious that all the dogs involved are enjoying the game as a social ritual rather than engage in a serious quarrel. Boxers, for example, seem to have a tendency to enjoy rough play with each other. Different dogs play differently, depending on their breed-specific motor patterns, their experience, and their personality.

Play is only healthy as long as all the dogs involved are relaxed and enjoy themselves. Examples of body language and behaviors indicating this include:

– tail and ears are in a “happy” position.

– The play partners take breaks every once in a while and show calming signals (sniffing, licking their mouths, turning away from each other, or briefly lying down) before resuming the chase or mouth-wrestling session. Each play mate respects the other one’s calming signals and responds to them.

– They don’t get play-high, deaf to their surroundings and tunnel-vision (1), but can hear you and respond to your recall.

Dogs can even learn to match their play-style to the size and strength of their play-partner. For example, Nayeli plays differently (much more gentle) with Phoebe than she plays with other retrievers, and Phoebe used to play differently (more gentle) with 17-year old Snoopy than with younger dogs – even though she’s only a puppy herself. 

To me, it seems that there are different games a dog can play with other dogs. There are multilingual players, i.e. dogs who play well with dogs of all kinds of ages, strengths, sizes and levels of outgoingness, and monolingual players, i.e. dogs who apply one play-style for every play partner. While the breed-specific motor pattern influences play behavior and is innate, play multilingualism is an acquired skill. However, I assume that an aptitude to learning different games/play styles may be innate.

What is especially important for us in the context of healthy play is that a monolingual player is probably not a good play partner for a strange dog whose play style is very different from his own. (Very often, this will be a dog with a significantly different breed-specific motor pattern. This makes it easy for you to judge a potential play partner coming your way from a distance.)

Now let’s look at behaviors and body signals that show you it’s high time to end a play session. Ideally, you should have anticipated them and stopped the game before you see any of the following:

– tugged tail

– shaking off invisible water

– running away and trying to hide behind people

– one dog trying to get away, but at the same time afraid of turning his back on the other dog

– one dog using his strength to overpower the other rather than controlling his strength to match his play partner’s strength

– any calming or break-off signals that show you one of the dogs has had enough and would rather end the game.

Don’t let your dog go over threshold when playing, i.e. if a dog can play for two minutes before getting play-high, tunnel-vision, deaf to his owner and tuning out everything around him (1), don’t let him play any longer than two minutes. 

Do dogs have to play with other dogs in order to be happy?

No. If your dog enjoys playing with his dog friends and can do so in a healthy way, go for it. If he doesn’t enjoy playing with other dogs, don’t force him to meet other dogs up close: you’ll take a lot of stress off your dog and yourself.

Think about people: some people love to socialize with other people. Others prefer the company of their dog to the company of other people. Still others have a few close friends they enjoy seeing every once in a while, but avoid big parties and new people.
Dogs are like that, too. Some dogs simply don’t like other dogs. And that’s completely okay. Just make sure they aren’t forced to meet another dog and put over threshold. Some dogs don’t care about other dogs and ignore them. (These dogs tend to be most uncomplicated to live with.) Others enjoy playing with other dogs. Only the last kind should be introduced to other dogs. 

Who should I bring to the typical dog park (small fenced area, lots of dogs and owners, no hiding places)? 

In my opinion – no one, if it can be avoided. In my experience, these places are stressful even for bombproof dogs. This is especially true if they are frequented by owners who subscribe to the subculture of “letting the dogs do their own thing” rather than supervising.

Try going to a dog park without your dog, watch or maybe even videotape the dogs’ interactions, and pay attention to behaviors and body language before deciding to bring your dog there. If you look at dog parks “from the outside” or from behind a camera lens, you’ll see more than when you’re in the middle of it. Observe the dogs’ and their owners’ behavior, judge the dogs’ level of stress and their play behavior (healthy/unhealthy?). This will help you decide whether this particular dog park is a place you and your dog will enjoy or not.

Who should I bring to off-leash areas frequented by lots of dogs and their people?

Only non-reactive dogs with reliable recalls who enjoy or ignore the company of other dogs. If you’re bringing a reactive, fearful or irritable dog to these areas, you’re setting him up for failure because you can’t control the other dogs in the park who might approach her.

Who should I not bring to off-leash areas frequented by lots of dogs and their people?

Fearful, reactive, irritable dogs, very young puppies and new rescue dogs. You can’t control the other off-leash dogs (and their owners) at an off-leash area, and they might traumatize your puppy or reinforce your dog’s reactivity. In the best case scenario, the walk will simply not be fun for your dog.

Shouldn’t I bring my puppy to dog parks and off-leash areas with lots of dogs in order to socialize him? 

People tend to think they’re doing their puppy a favor if they take him to the dog park the day after he arrived at his new home. While well-intended, the opposite is the case. Your puppy may already be overwhelmed by moving into a new home filled with new smells, new sounds and new people. It’s the first time he’s away from his mother and littermates, and he hasn’t had a chance to bond with you! 

He doesn’t know yet that you’ll protect him, no matter what. If you take him to a place frequented by off-leash dogs and dog-loving people, he’ll feel stuck in the middle of strange sounds and smells, strange people reaching down to pet that fluffy puppy and strange dogs who approach him to sniff. This is not the first experience you want your new puppy to have at his new home!

One new stimulus at a time

Yes, socializing is an important part of growing up. But take your time. Let your puppy settle in and give him a chance to bond with you for the first few days. Only then should you introduce him to friends, other dogs and new environments – one new stimulus at a time. 

Get to know your puppy’s personality and let him set the pace. If he needs a lot of time, give him a lot of time. If he adopts quickly to new situations, great. Still, keep in mind he is a puppy with a short attention span, puppy needs and puppy fears. Never work over threshold and don’t forget to grant him lots of breaks at a place he feels save and can relax.

When introducing your puppy to other dogs, make use of well-supervised puppy play groups (who separate between size and temperament) or use your friends’ puppies or your dog’s littermates, if they get along well. Don’t take your new puppy to the dog park or highly frequented off-leash areas and expect him to cope! You may turn him into a fearful, reactive or aggressive dog if you expose him to that kind of environment too early.

Also, if your puppy is fearful, don’t force him to socialize with other puppies. Don’t flood him. Rather, choose a friend’s calm dog who your puppy will eventually learn to be comfortable with, or let him watch the puppy playgroup from a safe distance without any pressure to participate, and relax with him, play mat games, puppy parallel games, or give him a massage. Only if and when he decides he is ready to move closer to the action will you move closer.

The same holds true for a new rescue dog: take your time to get to know your canine companion first, work on foundation behaviors, a reliable recall and on building mutual trust and a good relationship before introducing your dog to (familiar) dogs and people and new environments – one new stimulus at a time. 

Only when you know your dog well and have equipped him with whatever coping skills he may need in a highly-frequented off-leash area should you take him there – and the same holds true for any other new place, be it the shopping mall, a restaurant or a friend’s house.

How frequently should I go to highly frequented off-leash areas?

Every once in a while, if both you and your dog enjoy going there, but not all the time (not for every single walk). Keep in mind the question, “Whose walk is this?” The answer should be, “My dog’s walk, of course!” Ask your dog where she most enjoys her walks. In my experience, most dogs find a walk with lots of unpredictable dog encounters stressful rather than fun. Even bombproof dogs might prefer a walk in a quiet area where they can concentrate on you and all the interesting smells on the ground, where they can play fetch and tug with you every once in a while and don’t have to stay alert in order to not be surprised by unpredictable strange dogs flying at them.

Yes, play dates for dogs can be a lot of fun. But they are most fun with familiar dogs; so if you can, make a play date with your friends and their dogs – people who share your training philosophies and have dogs you trust – rather than strange dogs at the dog park.

What am I supposed to do if I already have a fearful or reactive dog, a dog who gets “high” on play and doesn’t respond to recalls, or a dog like “Tony”? Am I not supposed to go to dog parks and highly frequented off-leash areas so he gets used to them?

If you ask me: no, right now, it’s not a good idea to visit places where you are likely to meet other dogs. Ideally, you’ll manage your dog’s environment in a way that protects him from practicing the reactive behavior (lunging/barking/jumping/attacking …), and take your daily walks in an area where he won’t encounter his triggers. That is to say, if he is dog-reactive, don’t go places where he’ll meet other dogs.

The problem with simply exposing a dog like that to a high dose of his trigger (an approach psychologists call flooding) is that rather than “getting used to it,” his problems may actually escalate. Flooding also implies that you deliberately put your dog in a situation where he’s uncomfortable and push him over his threshold. This is not fair to your dog, since there are less stressful alternatives to alter his behavior. Personally, I’m opposed to flooding, since there are effective and safe alternatives. Flooding probably works for some people and animals, but not for me: I once tried it on myself to overcome a mild case of claustrophobia and actually made it worse.

But let’s take another look at our example dog, the border collie Tony. If he was my dog, I wouldn’t take him to the Prater park for several reasons: I wouldn’t want him to practice not responding to my recall, I wouldn’t want him to practice pinning smaller dogs to the ground with his body, and I wouldn’t want him to offend other owners or traumatize other dogs. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want him to work himself up that way and experience the kind of stress Tony must have felt (even though his dad didn’t notice). 

What I would do with a dog like Tony, on the other hand:

1. Build trust between dog and owner – I would want to create a dog who can confidently turn to his owner for direction if he is overwhelmed.

2. Work on relaxation (reinforce calm behavior, Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol, play Give Me a Break and Take a Breath, relaxing massages etc.). First in quiet environments (house, garden etc., only later with distractions present). The goal is to teach him how it feels to relax. I don’t know Tony, but from our brief encounters yesterday, he seemed completely over threshold at first, and exhausted from all the stress, noticing stuff, and having to deal with the environment on his own, without directions from his dad, during our second encounter. 

3. Work on a reliable recall (in an environment where he can succeed every time I call him: first in the house, then in the garden etc.). Only after having a reliable recall in many different places would I add triggers such as people walking, cars, dogs etc.; one new stimulus at a time, and starting at a safe distance.

6. I’d look for a border collie-appropriate energy outlet. I’d try to focus his energy rather than letting him zoom around an unfenced area by himself while unable to control him: even though the Prater park is huge, it’s surrounded by busy streets, and there’s no fence protecting Tony from jumping into a passing car. I’d find a healthy way to engage Tony’s legs as well as his brain. Rather than independently patrolling the city’s parks, he’d get a job – agility, herding, flyball, disc dogging, freestyle, some combination of regular exercise and trick training, obedience, nose work … There are countless possibilities, and one of them would certainly be enjoyable for both Tony and his dad.

4. Teach Tony strategies to influence his environment. This will make him feel safe, since the environment ceases to be a scary place where unpredictable things happen, and becomes a place governed by reliable rules instead.

I would look at why other dogs trigger Tony to go over threshold and what he wants to achieve by his reaction. Does he want to play or is he scared that if he doesn’t act first, the other dog will? I would integrate his functional reward into my training of a replacement behavior.

5. If I wanted a dog like Tony to have (close) contact with other dogs, I’d work on a safe way to greet other dogs. That is to say, always staying below threshold, I would teach Tony to notice a strange dog at a decreasing distance, then turn away. The goal is to establish a ritual Tony could fall back on whenever there was an encounter with another dog.

Only if Tony were comfortable doing this and really wanted to play rather than being happy to get away from the other dog would I, if I, for some reason, needed or wanted him to be able to play with other dogs, work on safe playAfter having established reliable foundation behaviors, a solid recall, replacement behaviors and a way to relax, I’d introduce play with a familiar dog, reward for appropriate play, keep sessions extremely short in the beginning and reward interruptions and the use and respecting of calming signals. I’d frequently take play breaks and ask Tony to calm down/take a breath before sending him off to play again. 

Is it my fault if I have a fearful, reactive, irritable dog like Tony?

No. There are many different factors that can contribute to reactivity, fearfulness, irritability etc. You may have contributed to them or you may not have contributed to them – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are willing to work on managing your dog’s environment and training together so your relationship will improve in the future. This way, both you and your dog will have more fun together and find it easier to trust each other and relax around each other.

Is it my dog’s fault?

No. Even though I haven’t met your dog, I can guarantee you it’s not “her fault”. She might be behaving the way she does because her behavior has worked for her in the past: let’s assume Tony would rather have gotten away from other dogs than be forced to interact with them. His dad didn’t protect him but believed Tony had to “fight it out for himself”. Tony might have made the experience that most other dogs he encounters in off-leash areas or dog parks want to greet him, but either retreat or are held back by their owners once he flies at them or tries to pin them to the ground with his body. This environmental reaction might inadvertently have reinforced his flying at the other dog, since he got the functional reward he was looking for: being let alone by the other dogs!

I believe it’s important for us as dog handlers to realize it’s never “our dog’s fault.” If we have a positive, empathic and encouraging attitude towards our dogs and their potential for improvement, the training will progress faster, and both we and our canine companions will have more fun along the way.

If it’s not my fault and not my dog’s fault … why does he behave the way he behaves?

Factors contributing to a dog’s arousal threshold include:

– genetic disposition: a dog’s autonomic nervous system can be sympathetically dominated or parasympathetically dominated. If the autonomic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that operates mostly sub-consciously and regulates visceral functions – is sympathetically dominated, the dog is prone to emotional reactivity and stress. If her autonomic nervous system is parasympathetically dominated, she’ll be calmer and more adaptable. This disposition is inherited from the parents and cannot be changed.

– the mother’s stress level: the mother’s body chemistry differs depending on her circumstances and environment before whelping – this also influences the puppies.

– sufficient time spent with mother and siblings after birth (or lack thereof)

– experiences during the important socialization period or lack of socialization during this crucial period (a very important time is roughly between 4 and 14 weeks)

-good and bad experiences/traumas later in life 

No matter who your dog is: if you’re committed to helping him change a problem behavior, if you’re ready to put some work into it yourself, and if you’re willing to seek professional advice if you’re in way over your head, your relationship can only improve. Also: just as you and I, a dog is never too old to learn. He’s already being the best possible dog he can be at this point, just as you’re already being his best possible mum/dad you can be at this point.

But let’s get back to what I was actually going to say: be protective of your dog, no matter whether on- or off-leash. Stick up for her when she gets in trouble. She’ll thank you for it. And it’s your responsibility towards her, just as it is your responsibility to stick up for your child, your friends, or your family.

Last but not least, Tony’s dad is probably never going to read this, but if he did, I’d like to thank him for the inspiration. 

(1) This is not “stubbornness,” but there is a level of excitement that causes the amygdala to stimulate the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that make it chemically impossible for your dog to hear yet alone listen to you.

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