Bonnie the Bull Terrier and Porter the Pitbull: Dog Park Pals or Not?

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

It’s fun to take your pooch to the park for off-leash play and dogs can look like they are having fun, but are they always learning the right things?

One owner of a Bulldog knows all to well that the answer is no. “Max took a while to warm up to new people and dogs,” she says. “Then we left him with the breeder where he got to run around with other Bulldogs in what the breeder said was normal rough bulldog play. When we got him back he was suddenly barking and lunging people he would have just stayed away from before and dogs didn’t seem to want to play with him.”

What happened? The same thing that happened to my parent’s Australian Cattle Dog, Lucy, after a few overly rowdy play sessions during puppy class. Before the classes and by about 9  weeks of age, she had already had 5-7 appropriate play sessions with dogs and learned to come when called away from them so we could keep her from irritating other dogs. But after this class, and by 11 weeks of age, she no longer heeded the signals that other dogs gave to stop and when they upped their message, she’d start to fight.

Lucy engaging in fun but appropriate play at 8 weeks of age.

Here are the results of her overly aroused play. You can see when the little dog, Dozer, gets irritated. He suddenly speeds up his interactions in hopes that she will get the message. She doesn’t. Then when he more forcefully tells her to back off, she starts to fight.  After this incident, Dozer, who had a great track record with playing other dogs, started becoming more defensive with big dogs running up to him so his owner had to specifically work on training him to feel comfortable with big dogs running up to him.

The problem that has occurred here is that these dogs have engaged in overly aroused play and as a result are developing poor impulse control.  And top of the impulse issues,  overarousal itself is an issue because overarousal and  aggression are on a continuum. In fact that’s one reason why fans at the Superbowl just start out really excited but then so often after their team wins, the arousal leads to a riot. (Find out more about the impulsivity research in newsletter 7).

So how do you know if your dog’s is exhibiting behavior that may put him at risk. Here’s a video of Bonnie the Bull Terrier and Porter the Pitbull and see what you think. The answer is below in the text.


Bonnie the Bull Terrier is super-excited to be at the park. She dragged her owner on leash and is wound up and ready to spring. When she’s released, she comes bounding into the park.
At first glance, this may look like fun for all; however, some people see this hyper approach and immediately fear for their knees. Similarly, some dogs see a potential trampling threat and react by becoming defensive. In fact, Bonnie’s demeanor suddenly changes when the tables are turned.
Porter the Pitbull, whom she played with last week, comes rushing in. Note that Bonnie’s tail is down and she’s leaning away. Bonnie’s not a small dog, but Porter is bigger. And then here she’s cowering for an instant as Porter heads for a crash with her.
Porter hurls himself over her. And later he comes back to jump on her.
Notice the intense look on Porter’s face. Bonnie’s just trying to get away.
Now she runs and, for short bursts, she’s playing and having fun. And other times the play is too fast for her and she cowers slightly. Later, Bonnie’s mom comes to the rescue and holds Porter. Bonnie chooses to stay away, which shows that she thought the play was too rough too.


Overall these two dogs do get along with each other. But their rough behavior can affect their relationship with other dogs and can affect other dogs detrimentally, just the way Lucy’s behavior affected Dozer’s tolerance of other dogs. In fact Chloe barks and lunges at dogs when on walks. That, in turn, trains some of those dogs to defensively learn to bark and lunge back.

For instance earlier in the day Bonnie was acting like Porter around Lucy, whom she has never met before.

While Lucy is comfortable with familiar friends when they play rough, when an unfamiliar dog invades her space and tries to repeatedly jump on her, she becomes anxious (see her lick her lips) and then snaps in warning.


As soon as Bonnie backs off, Lucy sits and focuses on me. She also can heel around the park with Bonnie near her. Bonnie’s keeping a little wider distance instead of jumping on or getting in Lucy’s face. She’s learned to keep back from Lucy. But she may not remember next time or she may test every dog she meets, which can be traumatic for the dogs she rushes.

While Bonnie is a bit rude, she’s good-natured so she backs off. But some highly excited dogs respond to such reprimands by fighting back, often with less impulse control, which often leads to a fight that might just be spit and drool or that may end in a bite. Note that in this situation, Lucy can take care of herself but it’s nor really fair that she has to do so. The more she has to take leadership role in protecting herself the less likely she will turn to humans to help her or provide guidance in these situations. For the purpose of this photo I let her respond this way when I could have easily redirected her attention away from Bonnie, or distracted Bonnie, or asked Bonnie’s owner to hold her.

Like Bonnie, Porter is playful but socially inept. He likes to play but he’s too rough. His saving grace is twofold: 

  1. He gets tired after about 5 minutes and then interacts more calmly.
  2. So far, when dogs have growled or snapped at him, he’s learned to stop bugging them, rather than getting more aroused and starting a fight.

Their Interaction the Week Before

Here’s Porter with Bonnie the week before.  Interestingly, from this interaction, you might think they are perfect playmates.

When Porter’s being held, Bonnie solicits play
There’s some even exchange of play and Bonnie does not appear to be scared. That is, Porter is not always the chaser.
There are also stops in play where the two calm the situation down.
Although Bonnie never looks scared, the pace is fast for her and she gets bowled over multiple times. This may explain why she showed more reservations to playing with Porter in the follow-up play date.


Take home message:
The take home message here is that not all play is good. Over-arousal can cause dogs to rush around in ways that scare other dogs and the arousal can spill into aggression.

The solution?

Teach your dog a fantastic come when called so you can call him before play gets out of hand. If you do this consistently, then this “come” cue will become a habit and it can even be used to help train good doggie play habits. (see blog on Come When Called).

Here’s Lucy at the park. She can let other dogs play on their own if they don’t want to play with her. She can also leave their toys alone and play with her owner OR take turns playing with Jonesy’s toys (and bringing them back in between).

To see a video of calling a dog away from another dog before trouble starts, watch Jack Russell Terrier Comes When Called.

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7 responses to “Bonnie the Bull Terrier and Porter the Pitbull: Dog Park Pals or Not?

  1. Ho Sophia,
    Excellent documentation, footage and breakdown of the behaviors and interactions between all parties. In Bonnie and Porter’s first interaction in the dog park, where Porter is more composed, this reflects a more exercised Porter than in the second interaction. If I had to guess, I would say that Porter had more exercise or training prior to entering the dog park the first time rather than the second. This is one of the main reasons I try to convey to clients and communities that dog parks are social interactions to be thought more of as a Starbucks or restaurant rather than a MMA gym. It is the responsibility of the guardians to provide proper and adequate exercise both mental and physical, prior to entering a dog park. I have detailed some dog park etiquette rules to follow in some articles here. Thanks again for your research and great article! smile Russell Hartstein CPDT

  2. Excellent video, photos and descriptive text. I will definitely be sharing this with students!

  3. Thank you for this post, I am relating to this exact situation currently.

    We have a 5 month old (neutered) pit/lab/shepherd puppy who really loves to play with dogs. His issue is that he doesn’t pick up on the social queues of when the other dog doesn’t want to play, or is done playing.

    We recently fostered a little terrier/chuhuaua overnight from the rescue that I volunteer with (trying to socialize our pup and help out at the same time). If the dog growled at him (as the terrier didn’t want to play at all), he’ll get startled, jump back, and then approach the dog again to play. He does not start fighting, but he really just doesn’t know when to stop or when the other dogs are done playing. We supervised them the entire time, always telling Stig (our pup) when to stop and come back, and eventually would learn to leave the other pup alone.

    Is there a different/better way of teaching him to be gentle and to know when enough is enough? I appreciate any advice.

    Thank you!

  4. Hi Melanie:

    Check out the blogs on come when called at the park and dog park etiquette rules poster. One key element beyond just the come when called is the need to perform the exercises that keep the dog focused on the handler around the other dogs. That is, work on fun focus exercises that rely on your body movement to make it fun (repeat sits backwards, running to the side, heeling in a fun way). Then release your dog to play. Then call him back to you before he gets overly aroused, repeat some focus exercises (as short as just a couple of seconds but can be a lot longer) before you release him again. vary the amount of time you do the focus exercises—goal is you do them enough that he’s less likely to run back to play in an overly excited way and that you call you dog out frequently enough so that his polite play behavior becomes a habit.

    Sophia Yin

  5. I use a similar technique where if the one or both dogs is/are becoming too boisterous, I stop the play with a recall each time the intensity level becomes too high, calm the dogs down for a few seconds and then allow them to play again. I find doing this means the dogs learn to play at a lower level of intensity as behaviour which is too boisterous results in play being stopped. I liked in the last video the way the JRT runs back to get the ball when Dr Yin points to it.

  6. HI Russell:

    that’s a great point. Porter had been in the park already for video we were taking with him interacting with Jonesy. And because he gets tired fast, only a few minutes of exercise were needed to (at Jonesy’s expense) before he reacted more calmly when Bonnie entered.

    I like your analogy about starbucks or restaurant vs MMA. and the interesting is that an MMA gym is, is really controlled. students are well-behaved/ courteous and are practicing carefully…. much better behaved than dogs at the dog park:-). Of course they are brutal in fights. haha.

  7. My boyfriend, whom I love to blame all of my dog’s behavioral issues on, encourages all three of them to play aggressively at home because he thinks rough play is “better exercise” & “gets their energy out”. This is while I’m at work. When I try to bring them out & about to meet other dogs they are pushy & off putting. This article helps me to understand the steps I need to take in attempt to counter their bad habits. Do you offer boyfriend training?

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