Dog’s Eye View: Run for your life
September 23, 2017
Some dogs love to run. Any chance they get it's off to the races. Whether it's a good case of zoomies or locked on a squirrel many dogs just thrive on the excitement and exercise. How can you tell when your off-leash dog is trying to encourage another dog to run and play? Now that we have more opportunities to let them be free for exercise a lesson in understanding dog communication signals might be helpful.
Some dogs will circle the newly invited prospect and include some play bow behaviors. Front legs down and happy wagging hind end high in the air. If the invitee is game he will reciprocate with a play bow or join in the circle behavior of a willing play partner. These are the types of dogs that might thrive in a dog park setting. The more dogs that are added to the chase play, the more the play begins to evolve.
Then there are the humans who enjoy watching the dogs romp and play and once the dogs are engaged in full play the humans disconnect and visit with each other or chat along the way. Sometimes, this is when things begin to deteriorate.
Just like kids playing at the park, each dog has a unique amount of individual energy and tolerance. If a certain dog starts to take control of the running pack then sides are taken. If a dog pulls out and wants to stop playing, quite often the boss dog says, "Oh no you don't" and presses the other dog to continue the chase.
So, how do we know when to step in? How do we give that one dog a chance to stop, disengage from play, sit by her owner and take a break from play? Let's say the dog who needs a break is your dog.
She's an easy-going, jolly dog who gets along with everybody. She's backing away from the play and asking for space. Her tail is no longer wagging in giant circles but is pinned to her back leg. Her ears are facing backwards and her head is down. She might be lifting a front paw and offering small lip licks as an appeasement communication. She keeps breaking eye contact but still needs to keep an eye on the gang.
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Can you tell when your dog has had enough? If this dog is pressed too hard by the boss dog then she will probably have to become defensive. She might end up snapping. She's tried all other forms of communication but boss dog is not listening. Call her to you or step in, and bring her to your side. This is a tricky part because boss dog might not like your intervention. This takes both dog owners to intervene.
So, what if boss dog is our own dog. He's busy rounding up the gang and setting the pace and energy level. He stands tall, ears forward and up. He thrives on leadership. If you are looking at him head on you can see his tail straight up between his ears. Everything about his body is tall and stiff. His tail wags but it's stiff not like the crazy full wag of a jolly dog. His body motion keeps pressing forward. This dog's eyes are locked on the dog asking to break away.
Boss dog is making all the rules of the playground. If the arousal is allowed to build that's when we start to see bad things happen.
What's an owner to do? It's not as hard as you might think. Parents watching kids play on a playground naturally step in and settle things down when you see the need. We can do the same thing at the dog park or on the trail by walking through the dogs and walking in between the dogs. We call this splitting.
If you watch dog park behavior sometimes you'll see a benevolent older dog walk in between two dogs to signal calm down. No yelling required. The hard part is keeping your cool. Just walk and interrupt an interaction before it escalates. This is not a good idea during a full-blown, teeth flashing, snarling conflict. It's too late and you'll probably get bitten.
We can control play arousal if we pay attention during play and listen to the arousal level. It should not ever be a free for all. We can teach young dogs to come out of play for a minute or two and release them to go back to play again.
Good parenting can be applied to canine family members too. Then your dog won't have to yell run for your life.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 30 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants as well as Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.