One day I was driving with a passenger in my car. We had just turned off a road with a 25 mph speed limit onto one with a speed limit of 35. I was gently increasing my speed, but every time I got to about 29 mph my passenger would say, “Don’t go too fast!”
I could have responded to this behavior in several ways. I could have been annoyed but totally ignored her. I could have slowed down, perhaps remaining at 28 mph, quietly resenting the passenger. I could have gotten angry and sped up quickly, driving much faster than the posted limit. What I did, eventually, was to pull over and request that the passenger drive instead. She declined, and was quiet for the rest of the drive.
I imagine that this is similar to what it must be like for dogs who are constantly interrupted and warned by their owners while trying to play with other dogs. Of course the owners are only trying to avoid trouble, like my passenger was, and perhaps they are even a bit nervous about dog play in general. It could be that your dog has had scuffles in the past and you don’t trust your dog to make good decisions, as I also suspect my passenger didn’t trust me. Whatever the reason, what you are actually doing is simultaneously circumventing social interaction and play as well as any potential problems.
When I say my passenger was quiet for the rest of the drive, what I mean is that we were both quiet. There was no small talk, no real social interaction. We were both feeling awkward and stifled. We did succeed in avoiding a speeding ticket or car accident, but there was also an interruption of normal conversation due to my passenger’s anxiety and my response to it.
Now, I fully admit that I could have used better communication skills to handle my situation and avoid the social awkwardness. But what chance do our dogs have at explaining to us that what they are doing is part of normal dog social interaction? They can’t turn around and say, “Listen, I know you’re nervous, but you have to trust me that this is how dogs do things. I’m not going to hurt the other dog, I’m just playing.”
Not only are they barred from giving us an explanation we can understand, they also have difficulty communicating effectively with the other dog because they are being interrupted and being forced to conduct two conversations with two species at once! This can actually cause the very incident that the owner is trying to avoid.
So what is an anxious owner to do? First, we should acknowledge that sometimes dogs are socially inappropriate. It’s quite possible that you’re correct about your dog’s inability to successfully — that is, safely — play with another dog. It is also possible that the other dog is not a good candidate for play, or that the two are simply not a good match. The secret is to become well versed in dog body language and appropriate social behavior.
What I often see at the dog park is a whole lot of hoping, breath-holding, guessing, misinformation, and really bad timing. Some dog owners mistake serious red flags for normal dog play, while others mistake normal dog play with inappropriate behavior. This could all be remedied with a bit of education about how dogs communicate. It’s really that simple!
Even the simplest of dog interactions, butt sniffing, is often met with reprimands and embarrassment. I mean, c’mon! Butt sniffing is equivalent to shaking hands or exchanging business cards between humans. It is how dogs get to know one another. As a prerequisite to further interaction, being denied this behavior can make it impossible for dogs to move forward in their relationship.
During play, jumping on one another, mouthing or gently biting, and mounting and growling are all behaviors that make some dog owners very nervous. Each one of these things can be a problem depending on many factors, but each one of them can also be a normal, appropriate part of dog play. The trick is to learn enough about dog play behavior in general and enough about your individual dog to know the difference.
I believe no dog owners should be attending the dog park with their pets unless they’ve educated themselves on how dogs play. Otherwise, how will you know how to keep your dog and the other dogs safe?
The other trick is to be very careful about where you get your information on dog body language and play behavior. Social interaction between dogs has far less to do with dominance and rank than some would have you believe.
If you’ve been watching the Dog Whisperer, you’re going to have a hard time allowing play to happen because you’ll see everything the dog does as an attempt to dominate. Facilitating and allowing play requires a more up-to-date, scientific understanding of dog behavior, as opposed to the outdated and incorrect view of wolf pack theory. Pack theory applies to wolves in the wild who are working towards survival, not to domestic dogs at a dog park who are simply negotiating safe social interaction.
We’ve come a long way since the days of dominance and punishment based training, and the information on true domesticated dog communication is readily available. Check out the Dogster article “Understanding Dog Body Language and Verbal Clues.” Also, the ASPCA has webinars on dog body language and dog introductions. They are short, informative, and easy to apply. Yes, they are geared toward shelter workers, but they are also very useful for the average dog owner.
Once you’ve reviewed these resources, I suggest visiting the dog park without your dog. This is a great way to observe dog play without being distracted by anxiety or emotion. Watch for the body language you’ve learned about. Pay attention to differences in play styles due to breed, age and size. Perhaps you’ll even spot a moment that might have been great, but was interrupted by an overcautious owner.
Read more on training and dog body language: