By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
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.
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