Written By Leigh Pyron
A few years back I received a call from a woman who was having some behavior problems with her year and a half old Yellow Lab named Keaton. Keaton had always been very mouthy as a puppy, but now as an adolescent he had started practicing another bad habit of nipping people and their clothing whenever he would greet them. In addition, he had started acting aggressively on the leash, barking, lunging and growling at other dogs.
When I first arrived at Keaton’s house, I could already hear him barking before I reached the front door. As I approached the door, I could see through the window Keaton’s owner holding him by the collar as he leaped up and down, barking and lunging toward the door. As I got closer I could barely hear the owner in the background saying, “it’s ok, you can come in.” Being rather fond of my appendages and the clothes I was wearing, I instructed the owner to toss a few treats on floor for Keaton to find as I entered the house. When I entered, I told her to toss a few more treats away from us as we walked toward the kitchen island where we sat down on a couple of high stools next to it. Keaton was trying his best to get our attention, while we were working hard at ignoring him. I watched him out of the corner of my eye nip at the tail end of my vest and at my treat bag. He did this a few times, but since I continued to ignore him he finally walked away and lay down on his dog bed.
After interviewing the owner and getting bit more information on Keaton’s history, I asked her if Keaton had any familiar dog friends that he seemed to get along with. She said she did go on regular hikes with another woman who had a Yellow Lab, as well, named Ramsey who was close to Keaton’s age, and that they had been hiking and playing together for almost a year now. Knowing I could obtain an incredible amount of information watching Keaton interact with not only the owner’s friend, but her dog as well, I suggested she contact her friend and arrange a time for the three of us to meet with the two dogs.
Unexpectedly, a few days prior to meeting with my client and her friend, I happened to run into Keaton and his owner at a large open space area where I took my morning group of 6 dogs. My dogs were already off leash when Keaton and his owner arrived. Seconds after the owner unleashed Keaton, he came bounding into the group invasively greeting each one of my dogs. As I stood by observing, ready to intervene if necessary, Keaton came upon a little, white Poodle mix named Mini. The two of them immediately started cueing each other to play. They took turns greeting each other with polite play-bows, followed by running around in circles and taking turns chasing each other. Keaton was surprisingly quite gentle with Mini. Compensating for the size difference, he would drop to the ground in order for Mini to interact with him. They would also take quick breaks or pauses on occasion and then start right back up again with another gracious play bow as if to say “let the games begin!” and off they would go chasing after one another. I was thrilled to see Keaton interact so well with Mini, and from what I observed, it seemed to be very healthy play.
A few days later, I arrived at the Open Space trail a little early to meet my client and her friend. Her friend had arrived shortly after me with her Lab, Ramsey. As she drove up, I could see and hear Ramsey barking and jumping in the back of her SUV. He was jumping with such force that the vehicle was actually still in motion even after she parked the car. As the owner got out of the car, she waved to me and hollered a quick “hello” which was barely audible over Ramsey’s barking. I waved back at her with a concerned smile and wide-open eyes knowing she was going to release the beast at any moment, and he would most likely head right for me. I watched her as, without hesitation, she opened the back hatch to her SUV and this 90lb dog leaped out of the back of her car and headed directly toward me. Needless to say, he almost knocked me over once he closed the distance between us, with the owner in tow yelling, “Ramsey, get down, get down!” After many apologies, we greeted and exchanged a handshake. I asked her if Ramsey had always behaved this way when she took him for a ride in the car. She said, “oh no, he knows he’s going to see Keaton today, that’s why he’s so excited.” Not a minute later, my client pulled up with Keaton barking and jumping in the back of her car as well.
Trying to be fast on my feet, I quickly rushed over to her car hoping to get there before she let Keaton out. If I could get at least one of them into a calm state we might be able to walk to the trailhead without so much drama. I got no further than a few feet closer to her car when the back hatch of the car mysteriously opened on it’s own and Keaton, already airborne, flew out of the car like a cartoon character wearing a Superman cape! There was no question in my mind where he was heading… In seconds Keaton body-slammed into Ramsey and the two of them went at it like two Sumo wrestlers. I immediately took off running after them directing the owners to try and pull them apart and put them on a leash. I instructed the owners to quickly start walking and to keep a distance between the dogs by keeping their dogs on the extreme opposite sides of each other. I wanted to try and get the dogs to relax and calm down before we let them go off-leash. Once they were both calm, sniffing about and taking care of business, I told the owners to quietly and slowly unclip their leashes and let them go.
Within in seconds the two dogs bolted ahead of us, front legs plowing into the dirt like bulldozers as they crossed the gap between them in order to make contact. Keaton and Ramsey were already at the peak of their arousal and they hadn’t even engaged yet! Both dogs were locked in direct eye contact, tails high and erect, ears forward and hackle’s up from head to tail, mouths wide open, bearing their glistening white, youthful teeth. It all happened as fast as lightening. They both collided like freight trains, lunging and grabbing for each other’s necks, bound and determined to pin the other to the ground first. I stood there, in those few seconds, watching this violent dance between these two dogs. I was shocked as I looked over at the two owners who stood by calmly smiling while they watched their dogs at what they thought was all fun and play. All I could think was that these two dogs had been practicing and perfecting this kind of “play” for almost a year now! Keaton and Ramsey’s “play” was no less than that of two fighting Pit Bulls. The only thing missing was a crowd of bystanders cheering them on!
Within seconds, I hollered out to the women to immediately grab their respective dog and put him on a leash. We all dashed towards the dogs and the owners struggled to grab ahold of their dog. Both dogs continued to lung and snap at each other even after they were restrained on the leash. I quickly got out some treats and handed them to the owners, instructing them to pass the treat by their dog’s nose and then immediately toss several treats on the ground in the opposite direction of the other dog. All I can say is Thank Goodness they were Labs! Where Labs are concerned, food is the cure-all-end-all for diminishing drama and arousal. Once the dogs got a whiff of the treats the game quickly changed to a hunting expedition.
Unfortunately, this type of “play” between dogs happens all the time. The most common place to find it is at your local dog park. Many people assume if their dogs are interacting and engaging with one another and they don’t draw blood, they are playing. When aggressive and inappropriate play is practiced over and over again on a regular basis, it can further enhance or create various other bad behaviors, such as Keaton’s nipping at people and being aggressive on leash.
Here are some things to look for in your dog and other dogs that will help you define what is healthy play and what is unsafe, more risky play.
1. Self Interruption – dogs take occasional breaks from playing, and then after a few seconds resume play again
2. Shared physical space – there is a comfortable amount of space between the two dogs at play
3. Ability to compensate or modify for size or strength differences – a large breed plays more gently with a small breed, sometimes laying on the ground so the small dog can engage better
4. Mirrored or tandem movement during interruption or during play – one of them stops to potty or sniff something, the other one follows and does the same
5. Accepted or reversible role – take turns with offensive and defensive roles, switching position of being on the top and on bottom at play
Slightly Risky Play
1. Rise in intensity of arousal – dogs become more aroused the longer they play
2. Hackles are up – hair stands up on back of neck, body and or hind end.
a. Hackles that are raised from shoulders down to rump often denote fear or conflict in the dog
b. Hackles that are razor-thin between shoulder blades, often denote high arousal in the dog
c. Hackles that are widely spread in any area usually denotes conflict in the dog
3. Snarling and/or barking with teeth exposed
4. No self interruption – no interment breaks during play
5. Hard, physical contact – pushing and shoving each other
Slightly More Risky Play
1. Direct eye contact – dogs stare directly into other dogs eyes as opposed to intermit glancing and looking away
2. Frontal and aligned body positioning – as opposed to uneven lines in body when they first meet or reengage
3. Faster interactions – respond without hesitation or pauses to every move
4. Recall with delayed response – if try to call dog to come, it doesn’t respond right away
Most Risky Play
1. Relentless, uninterrupted engagement – non-stop combative response to each movement
2. Reorientation to the other dog’s neck or throat – constantly trying to orient head in a position that allows for the dog to grab at the throat or neck area of the other dog
3. Grab or bite with headshake – once dog engages teeth in other dog he starts to shake his opponent back and forth
4. Full mouth biting – dog intentionally tries to directly bite other dog
5. Ears are forward in position, intense chasing with open mouth, making physical contact at impact
6. More than one dog chasing another dog – ganging up on weakest link
7. Targeting another dog – amongst several dogs at play, one dog keeps an eye on one other dog and continually tries to get at the dog to make contact with it. Targeting dog will make direct eye contact with frontal body alignment, tail up and ears forward. Very difficult to interrupt or stop dog that is targeting another dog.
Take the time to learn your dog’s body language and determine whether your dog is engaging in healthy play or risky play. Visit your local dog park one day without your dog and just sit and observe the dogs at play. See if you can assess into which group of play they would fall. Play is very important in a dog’s life whether it’s with humans or dogs just make sure it’s always safe play!