There are hundreds of ways to keep your dog happy and exercised, safe dog-dog play is just one of many! Lots of dogs genuinely enjoy playing and romping with other dogs. Make sure your dog has the best time they can by practicing these simple rules. If at any point you are unsure about your dog’s safety or comfort, leave the area before things get out of hand.
1- Start off on the right paw
Avoid releasing your dog to play if they are already very aroused. Dogs who are “turned up to 11” are likely to overwhelm other dogs or themselves. Set your dog up to succeed by practicing calm behavior and releasing them when they have a loose leash.
2- Choose appropriate playmates
Do not allow very large dogs to play with very small dogs—even if your dog lives and plays with different sizes of dogs at home. Not all big dogs know how to safely play with little ones, and some dogs can become overly aroused by the sight of a little dog skittering about. We wouldn’t let human babies play where 12-year-olds are skateboarding or running around. Keep dogs separated by size and play style for everyone’s safety and comfort.
Similarly, don’t let your rough-and-tumble adolescent pair up with a wallflower senior dog. If dogs’ play styles are unlikely to complement each other, skip it and save everyone the hassle.
3- Be an active observer
Keep your eyes on your dog at all times! Stay close to your dog in case you need to intervene if play becomes too rough or aroused. Familiarize yourself with what healthy dog play looks like and when you should step in to help dogs keep their cool (see below for more details).
Don’t expect dogs to “work it out” on their own. It’s unfair to dogs who may be being victimized and it’s potentially unsafe. Dogs have the mental capacity of about a 2-year-old human child. We wouldn’t expect a group of toddlers to manage their emotions and interactions maturely and appropriately. We can’t expect dogs to do so without assistance either.
4- Be a proactive helper
Cheerfully redirect or interrupt situations that might be getting out of hand. Encourage your dog to take breaks or give their playmates a brief intermission. Make sure everyone has fun and feels safe by preventing your dog from cornering, “ganging up on,” or overwhelming other dogs.
Dogs can be a bit dorky or forget their manners just like people. Be a proactive helper by watching your dog’s and your dog’s playmates’ body language and step in as necessary to keep the mood light and fun. By preventing mishaps, you give your dog and your dogs' playmates consistently positive experiences with play and teach them to take breaks in their play.
So how's it going?
It's important to know what a stressed or a happy dog looks like. The more your familiarize yourself with dog body language, the better you'll become at keeping your dog's play sessions successful. Here are some guidlines to help you guage whether or not the play is going well:
Green light- lookin' good!
What to watch for:
-loose, wiggly bodies
-easy, smiling faces
-wide, sweeping tail wags
-breaks and pauses in play
-taking turns (chasing/being chased, chomping/being chomped upon, etc.)
-giving each other space and breaks as needed
-dogs choose how close they want to be
Yellow light- time to take a break
What to watch for:
-shaking off as if wet
-whale/crescent moon eye
-turning face or body away
-one-sided or non-stop play
-freezing or prolonged direct eye contact
-tails straight up in the air
Red light- we need help!
What to watch for:
-“ganging up on” or overwhelming one dog
-growling (absent of playful body language)
-cowering or hiding
-inability to calm down or pause in play
-forcefully mounting or putting chin over other dogs’ backs
-ignoring other dogs’ stress signals
What if there's a problem?
Maybe you missed a warning sign, or maybe things escalated too quickly for your puny human legs to get you there in time. How can you safely break up a scuffle?
In case of a fight
Stay calm and remain quiet. Leash all non-involved dogs and remove them from the area. Once person takes each involved dog by the hind legs like a wheelbarrow and backs them up in an arc away from each other. Alternatively, use a chair or other barrier to put between the dogs and break them up. Leash the involved dogs and keep them separated. Check for injuries.
For more information on what to do in the event of a real fight, check out this article by trainer Jolanta Benal.