by Sue Sternberg
This article is the third in a series of articles about what defines “play” in dogs by Dog Behaviorist Sue Sternberg. Often in dog-to-dog interactions, owners often assume anything that is not an outright attack is play. This series reviews what behaviors are considered more risky than “healthy” play. These are things as an owner you should watch for and interrupt when you see it.
The last two articles published in the Pet Happenings have been about risky behavior when dogs interact. These observations come from author and dog behaviorist Sue Sternberg, who has spent the last few years filming and observing dog interactions. There are also some other types of behavior that stand on their own and need further explanation. Targeting and unhealthy chase play are both something we do not always catch as owners, but is the hardest to manage when conflict arises. Understanding what to look for can help you manage your dog, but more importantly help you identify potential problems.
Targeting behavior is a particular high-risk behavior that I see so frequently I feel it merits its own section. The following are behavioral components that define Targeting:
One dog keys in on one other dog, making continuous and obsessive engagement
Engagement of Targeting dog is almost always, aligned (head, eyes and spine) with tail up high and ears forward
Targeted dog cannot and will not be able to cut-off, stop or interrupt the Targeting dog
I have friends and colleagues who report that they recognize targeting behaviors from their agility classes—usually they notice because it is their own dog being targeted. If you have a dog that is targeting another—remove your dog from the situation. I don’t believe it is fair to try to manage the situation, as most management systems are not 100% and in a class or group dog play situation, the risk far outweighs the benefits of staying in that particular grouping. If you have a dog that is being targeted at a dog park, leave immediately and only enter the dog park when the dog targeting your own has left.
Chasing play is defined as interactions between two or more dogs where one dog is running in front of another, and the other(s) are trailing behind, following the lead dog. This type of play is quite energetic and aerobic, and quite common. It is safest in a secure area in which there are only two dogs engaged. Chasing can be especially risky in a group dog situation, like a dog park. Too often, one dog starts out inviting another to chase him, and as they increase speed, they begin collecting other dogs in the chase, and this can quickly turn into a mob mentality, and dogs in a mob will behave in ways each dog would not necessarily behave as individuals. Some play areas are simply not large enough for dogs to generate enough speed to make it dangerous, but large areas invite speed. Speed creates inevitable distance between owner and dog, and a heightened state of arousal. This can create a high risk situation.
Very often I see a group of dogs of mixed sizes and a smaller dog incites chase and quickly finds himself in a terrifying situation where a pack of larger dogs are bearing down on him. A small dog who invites chase games should only be allowed to engage with other dogs his size, or only with one familiar dog in a secure area with no unfamiliar dogs.
Least Risky Behaviors During Chasing Play:
Ears back on the ‘chaser’
No physical contact when the dogs catch up to each other
Tail level or high on dog being chased
Accepted or Swapped Roles
Most Risky Behaviors During Chasing Play:
Ears forward, base of tail high on the “chaser’
Mouth open on the ‘chaser’
Tail tucked on the dog being chased
Hard physical contact when dogs catch up to each other
More than one dog chasing another
Conclusion to Play
There is a current trend in the dog world to encourage dogs to engage with other dogs. More and more towns are erecting public dog parks, more and more puppy classes are encouraging free play amongst the puppies. More and more owners are encouraging their dogs to go up to and greet other dogs.
At the same time there are less and less natural areas that allow off-leash dog activity. For many urban owners, a public dog park is the only available off-leash exercise area for their dog. I think it’s harder to be a pet dog these days; less time in an owner’s schedule, less access to the natural world, more crowded conditions, more encounters on the streets, trails and parks with other dogs. And if you’re a great dog otherwise, but not comfortable meeting and greeting unfamiliar dogs, you’re options for exercise are quite limited.
I believe a dog can be a good canine citizen, and a great dog, but simply not suitable for off-leash dog activities. A dog play group such as day care or a dog park can offer aerobic exercise and energy outlets, but dog sports offer benefits PLUS relationship building, bonding, skills acquisition, better communication between owner and dog.
Dogs need to play. They just don’t need to play with other dogs. As humans, we should play, and I think need to play with our dogs to keep the relationship strong and healthy. When playtime is relegated to dog-dog play, humans take a secondary role. A true leader is not one for whom physical domination or intimidation is the method. A true leader is simply the one who communicates most clearly, and who is the most fun one to be with. These skills are best gained by playing with our dogs. Human with dog.
If you are interested in more information from Sue Sternberg please check out www.suesternberg.com and www.greatdogproductions.com. We also carry her books in store at the Moab BARKery.