Can Large and Small Dogs Play Together Safely?

26 | Posted:

By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

R.I.P. 1966-2014

Question: We are having a debate in our city regarding our off-leash dog areas.  A person is trying to get the city to create segregated large and small dog areas because of his belief in the premise of “predatory drift”.  For years (ever since it was created), our dog park has had one big area for all dogs to socialize and play.  The owners in our park are very responsible and quick to jump in when play gets out of hand, no matter the size of the dog.

Answer: Having different sections to a dog park—a general section, and one perhaps for shyer dogs or dogs who need a quieter area with calmer or fewer dogs—can be a good idea. Many dogs do become overwhelmed when crowded by a group of dogs or when other dogs are engaged in fast-paced play.

However, the idea that large and small dogs cannot play well together is untrue. And there is no scientific term for dog behavior called predatory drift. Big dogs and small dogs can play together on a regular basis, and big dogs are not destined to become predatory to little dogs.

The main factor dictating whether there is trouble at the park is the ability of humans to recognize inappropriate or rude interactions and ability of the humans to call their dogs away in a come when called immediately (not after 5 calls). Also, if one dog is more comfortable playing on his own, the other dogs at the park should be able to play away from him while he stayed in his own section.

So, if anything, it would be smarter to say, “You can only use the park if your dog can come when called away from play with other dogs and other park-type distractions, within in 1-2 calls–whether your dog is small or large.” Or, you promise to have your dog on a long leash so you can control him as needed.

Tips for Knowing When There is Trouble: Even if your dog’s come when called is quick and 100%. You may still have trouble knowing when you should use it. Here are some tips:

·        Avoid letting your dog crowd other dogs who are trying to enter the park. Instead call him to you and keep him occupied playing with you until the dog is well-inside the enclosure.

·        Avoid letting your dog tailgate other dogs. If your dog has his nose glued to another dog’s butt as the other dog weaves a jagged path around the park, don’t just stand there and ponder if the other dog minds. If you wait long enough and no-one comes to this uncomfortable dog’s rescue, the other dog may finally take matters into his own hands and snap to tell your Bowser to go away. (To see video of a puppy playing obnoxiously and an older dog defending her personal space, click here.)

·        Understand that just because both dogs are playing rough and seem to enjoy it does not mean that the play is safe. Overexcitement can be practice for or lead to aggression. Just like when young boys are wrestling, playing storm trooper, or light-saber duel, if it gets too rowdy and one hits the other just right, it can escalate into a fight.

·        In general when dogs are playing well, even if they are racing around full speed, they should have many natural pauses to their play. Generally one dog will suddenly lay down or roll over or will suddenly stop dead in his tracks. If this doesn’t happen frequently (such as once a minute or more), or the second dog doesn’t take the cue and slow down or pause, or if when it happens the dogs are not relaxed, then the play is probably not safe. That is, down the road it may lead to a fight, or it may train the dogs to be overly aroused and uncontrolled in other situations. The deciding factor is that if you call your dog and can’t get him out of the situations, then it’s not safe. (To see video of appropriate play, click here.) This video shows Jonesy and Ryder playing—they frequently stop, and Ryder is always relaxed. Plus, I can call Jonesy away.


For additional information and videos on appropriate play in dogs refer to Chapter 19 in Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats Book and DVD.

You can also visit our youtube page.

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26 responses to “Can Large and Small Dogs Play Together Safely?

  1. Our local dog park does have two sections; one for dogs under 35 lbs and one general larger park. We found the small park useful when the guys were puppies and we felt they would be intimidated by all the big dogs. However, now they are full grown and are right on the line for the 35lb restriction we take them to the bigger dog park. They are some of the smallest dogs in the park but they have a ball with the big dogs and we have never had a problem. There have been a couple of times when particularly aggressive dogs are in the park with irresponsible owners but we just make sure our guys steer clear of them. We are lucky that the park is big enough to allow this.

  2. Interesting idea, but what about the clients that own both small and large breed dogs?
    I guess they could stick to the large dog run, since their little dogs are used to large dogs. The best situation I believe are the runs where there are trails so people and the dogs get to walk-run together, I have seen so many less fights in that situation, wish there was always room for this set-up!

    1. I have a German Shepherd who got along with my chi who was about 15 pounds. Shepherd just ignore him.The chi died of old age. I now adopt a smaller dog who is only 4 pounds. I just love so much
      But don’t know how to introduce them to each other. Will the bigger dog hurt the smaller one? Has anybody else had this problem? If so what did they do?

      1. Hopefully not if he’s gentle.
        I personally owned a chow that accidentally, during non-aggressive play, punctured a small dog’s lung with his tooth. The small dog died.
        I’ve learned from others at the dog park that this is not completely uncommon occurrence.

  3. What a GREAT blog entry. Love the focus on pauses and ability to recall to gauge play appropriateness. Everyone that allows thier dog to engage in off leash dog play should be aware of this article!

  4. Helen,

    Thanks for your input. That’s good that the park is big enough to have 2 areas and the big area is large enough to steer clear of problem dogs. Sometimes problem dogs seem to take up an entire football field!

  5. Something to consider is that some dogs have high prey drives and small dogs can trigger that. I had a greyhound, for instance. I kept him muzzled at the dog park per the rescue’s directions, but many owners of small dogs are unaware that their pups could be in danger in the large dog area.

      1. I agree. My small dog is great with big dogs, and frequently plays with her much bigger friends. But I would never take her to a big dog park because I know not all big dogs are good with small dogs!

  6. I used to run play groups for small, “featherweight” and shy dogs, and puppies. Since I was staff, my 55 lb husky mix was allowed to join. He LOVED to play with the little dogs. There were more chase games and less crashing. This, however, was a very well-controlled scenario with well-socialized large dogs. It can be difficult at the dog park when there is a milieu of all types of dogs — big and small — some with manners and some without. Unfortunately, if there is a scuffle between a large and a small dog, the big dog comes out on top and can do more damage to the smaller dog. If I had a small dog, I guess I would be more inclined to keep him in a designated small dog area.

  7. My 4 pound chi-minpin mix does well around bigger dogs, but I feel we’ve just been lucky that they’ve all been slow, gently creatures that give her a quick sniff and leave her alone.

    Her “sister” is a 35-pound cattledog mix, and they grew up together. The big girl played too rough, but over time, they seemed to sync up. The big girl now lays and rolls over to get down on her sis’s level, and the little one seems to be able to communicate when she’s overwhelmed.

    Even during good interactions, one swipe of a big paw can pop out a little dog’s eye. Supervision is key. I love my little dog and want her to be happy around all dogs, but I’m careful not to take risks.

    1. It’s good that you let her interact with gentle large dogs – some small dog owners refuse to ever allow their little dog to interact with large dogs ever and the small dogs turn out fearful and aggressive towards larger dogs as a consequence.

      I lost count of the number of small dogs that charged my dog and attacked him out of nowhere – I’d often have to pry them off his throat where they’d latched on to his thick neck ruff. He didn’t like other dogs much and was prone to fighting other large males but was much more tolerant of small dogs so thankfully he never retaliated more than smacking them over onto their backs with a forepaw. It could have gone so much worse for the little dogs if he’d been seriously aggressive though.

  8. I do agree that it is untrue that Big and Small Dogs cannot mix well. In fact, I have seen many of these dogs having so much fun in the local playpen. Having said that, there are some dogs that are overly aggressive too. Like that Lindsay had said, supervision will be important.

  9. Please remember, you always have to walk your dogs leashed for at least 30 mins before letting them in unleashed pn a dog park.

    Dog parks are for dog enjoyment, not for releasing their bad negative aggressive energy. Don’t be lazy. Take a long walk with your dogs before letting them play with others.

    1. I don’t believe it’s a matter of whether they can play together but whether a large dog can accidentally or purposefully kill a smaller dog before you can get the situation under control.

  10. I personally owned a chow that accidentally, during non-aggressive play, punctured a small dog’s lung with his tooth. The small dog died.
    Moreover, I’ve learned from others at the dog park that this is not an uncommon occurrence.
    You need to take a better look at what you’ve written here. It’s negligent.

  11. Visualize if you would a conflict occurring between a 5 pound canine & a 70 pound canine. Now visualize a conflict between two 25 pound or less canines. The 1st scenario involves a possible fatality whereas the second a possible injury. Fatalities between large dogs & small dogs are more common than most think.
    Large dog owners are usually the ones contesting segregated areas. Probably because they don’t have to worry that their dog is going to be killed by a 5-10 pound Chihuahua.

    1. I agree! My medium sized dog injured a toy poodle in seconds. First, she probably didn’t even register the toy poodle as a dog with all that curly fur. And second, even though we were able to break up the fight in record time, it’s very easy to injure a toy breed. The dog park has both small and large dog sides but the owner brought their toy dog to the large dog side. Now, they blame my dog for hurting their dog when my dog was just being a dog. Keep the small dogs and in this case extra small dogs to the small side of the dog park and if there isn’t a small size, don’t risk it.

  12. We have a small dog who for the last two years or so has been the only one we bought a German Shepherd puppy and growing like a weed but a lot of time he is bitting at the smaller one and I’m so afraid he is going to hurt her. Should I be fearful of that or just let it go? My husband thinks I’m overreacting.Please if anyone has any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Dude, no offense and I’m not trying to be a douche, but seriously? Did you not research Germans? They have a super high prey drive. Don’t be scared if such a large dog with such a different personality (NOT recommended to be with cats OR small dogs) snaps that smaller dogs neck. I know you posted this comment 2 months ago, so all I gotta say now is GL.

  13. I have a little cairn yorkie mixed dog female. And ive been offered a Doberman Rottweiler mix puppy in a months time …. it’s my pals dog who’s pregnant……..she said my winnie will become the boss . But they’re so big and accidents happen and i love my little Winnie do very much i will look after a pup for her but i dont think I could have one

  14. So I have a 18 pound boxer puppy girl and a 70 pound boxer boy, the big dog likes to play very ruff, and then the little one is a very low key player. Please anyone give me some tips on how I can get them to play and be together.

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