Is This Play Okay?

August 7, 2013

2 snarls edit crop smallA woman asked me recently whether I thought the play happening between her own dogs was worrisome. She was concerned because one dog would nip at the other’s legs almost incessantly, and the behavior seemed like the genetically watered down version of how wild animals bring down prey. The dogs were about the same size and, outside of play, got along well. Without seeing video or knowing more it was impossible to give a definitive response, but my question was, “How does your other dog react?” She said the other dog didn’t seem to have a problem with it at all, and play normally continued with both parties enthusiastically involved. That, then, is the answer—it’s not a problem.

Dogs have their own individual styles, both during play and while issuing an invitation to play. While some use the traditional play bow to engage another dog, others will stand still and bark repeatedly. Some will nip at the other dog’s legs. In my seminar “Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play” (now on DVD), there’s footage of all of those things, plus a scene where a very rude Dalmatian tries to get Sierra to play by slapping her!

Sometimes, things that seem to us like potential trouble really aren’t. When dogs growl and bark at each other, that can look frightening to an onlooker and seem like a precursor to aggression. Certainly, if the vocalizations get more intense and deeper in tone, intervention might be warranted. (Other warning signs include fewer pauses, stiff bodies, and over-arousal.) But very often, dogs who are growling and barking during play understand each other perfectly well, and are having a grand old time.

It often happens that one dog chases another relentlessly, and we wonder if the chasee is getting overwhelmed. In that case, simply stop the action and ask the dog who’s being chased if he’s okay with it. No, I’m not suggesting you grab the dog and say, “Pardon  me, but is that peppy poodle a bit much?” What I mean is to calmly, gently, and carefully take hold of the dog who’s doing the chasing. (Ask permission first if it’s not your own dog.) Give the other dog a moment. Does he run and hide behind Mom or take cover under a bench? If so, the dog probably was getting overwhelmed, and an enforced play break is in order. But you might be surprised at how many times the other dog will run a short distance away and then dash back, or give other signals that he wants the play to continue, thank you very much!

Don’t get me wrong. There are times to interrupt play before it escalates into aggression, and a multitude of things that can go wrong, particularly among dogs who don’t know each other well. Just being different of breeds can create dislike and misunderstandings. For example, many dogs don’t love the way Labs or Goldens play, as they tend to be very in your face. Some dogs find bully breeds, with their “bull in a China shop” approach, overwhelming. And I’ve personally watched more than a few dogs who are playing with a standard poodle, have a thought bubble over their heads that reads, “I thought it was a dog, not a pogo stick!”

The better dogs know each other, the rougher play can be. And the better we know our own dogs, the better we can tell whether they’re okay with what another dog is doing. But when we’re not sure, the bottom line is always this: just ask the dog.

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Bodhi’s Big Day

October 6, 2011

Last week, my husband reminded me that Bodhi’s been with us just over a year now. While we love him, of course, there have certainly been plenty of trials and tribulations along the way. These include him having eaten the couch and disemboweled a mini-fridge, anxiety issues, urine leakage, and fear-based reactivity toward other dogs. The latter is something we’ve been working on for many months.

As some of you already know, my husband and I have an arrangement with the dogs. He takes one with him on weekday mornings before work, while I take the other to a different location. That allows him to run one dog through the arroyos or hike in the mountains, while whoever is with me gets a somewhat more sedate walking workout, but with more training and focus exercises. Since we’re at the park very early in the morning, I normally let whichever dog is with me run in the empty dog park area before we walk. If another owner shows up and wants to enter, especially if Bodhi is with me, we leave. It’s just not worth chancing Bodhi becoming reactive and undoing all of the progress we’ve made. And, I never know whether the other dog might be aggressive.

That’s what was going through my mind a few mornings ago when Bodhi and I were in the empty dog park. I spied an owner approaching with her smallish, mixed-breed dog. As she approached the gated entry, I asked her to wait, and explained that I wasn’t sure whether Bodhi would be reactive with her dog. He’s always been better with smaller dogs than large ones, and chances were that at this point he’d be fine. Still, I prefer to err on the side of caution, even if it causes other owners to think I’m being overly careful.

I had asked the woman to move her dog away from the entry gate so I could walk Bodhi out, and as we continued our amiable discussion, instead of moving back, she moved toward the chain link fence and allowed her dog to approach. Bodhi and the cute little dog, who looked like an American Eskimo/Pomeranian mix, had a getting-to-know-you sniff through the fence. Neither dog seemed reactive. Although she said the dog was a male and, as it turned out, just about Bodhi’s age, I had one of those intuitive feelings that all would be well. Just to be sure, though, I walked Bodhi out of the park and, with loose leashes, we allowed the two to meet. After a few seconds of curious but relaxed sniffing, the woman walked her dog, who turned out to be named Copper, into the park.

Bodhi and I soon followed. Copper was in the middle of the park sniffing what little grass there was. Bodhi walked in quickly, but without making a beeline for Copper. Soon enough, Copper began to solicit play by jumping at Bodhi and then darting a short distance away. Bodhi stood there looking interested but a bit perplexed. Copper continued, play bowing, spinning, and attempting to entice Bodhi to chase or wrestle with whatever maneuvers came into his fluffy little head. Soon Bodhi began to run, allowing Copper to chase him around the park. Of course, a dog running away does not necessarily denote play, but Bodhi looked like he was enjoying himself, and as the two rounded the perimeter and ended up back where Copper’s owner and I stood, they began to wrestle. Bodhi! Wrestling with a dog who wasn’t Sierra—and enjoying it! My heart swelled and I broke out in a big grin. This must be how parents of socially awkward children feel when their child makes a friend! I wasn’t so lost in my joy that I forgot to get video footage, though…I whipped out my iphone and captured some of the fun. Here’s a very short clip.

When we first got Bodhi I had taken him into the dog park when a few dogs were there, ones I knew to be friendly. Still, he’d been very stiff and had chosen to avoid them rather than engaging in play. I could have been like many owners and thought, Ah, he’ll come around and just let him get habituated to it. And he might have. But it could have just as easily gone the other way, with dogs pouncing at Bodhi and him becoming more and more reactive. And so I had made the decision to stick with on-leash walks around the park’s perimeter instead, working on his reactivity a bit at a time. Progress can be painfully slow at times, and there are setbacks, but we have made progress. There are certain dogs we encounter regularly, namely the group of dogs who are walked off-leash early in the mornings, that Bodhi actually ignores in favor of rushing their humans, who have taught him that if he approaches and sits, a treat will be forthcoming. Okay, not great manners with the humans, but I’m thrilled that he’s not at all concerned about the dogs. Strangely, a few weeks ago he did the same thing to a man we pass now and then with his Golden retriever. This man has never given Bodhi treats, but perhaps he reminded Bodhi of the others. Bodhi began to pull toward the dog and I let him, since his normal response is to whine, get himself under control, and then look at me for a treat—plus I knew the young Golden was friendly. When he reached them he looked at the man expectantly, and I laughed and explained why he was doing it. I let the very curious dog and Bodhi sniff each other for a few seconds, and then led Bodhi calmly away.

I know we’ve still got a way to go. Sometimes it feels as though we’ve been working on this behavior issue a long time, but I have to remind myself that Bodhi came to us from the shelter with this issue, and he’d already had a year or more to practice the unwanted behavior. Besides, a year in, things are looking promising.

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