“My dog likes to bark at other dogs at the dog park. Is that okay? He isn’t being aggressive he’s just excited but other people sometimes give me dirty looks. Also, when he’s wrestling with other dogs, when should I break it up?”
Ah, the dog park. If we went into all of the rules of dog park etiquette, this could be a very long article, so I’ll just stick to your two questions!
First of all, many dogs bark in excitement at the dog park. There isn’t a whole lot that you can do about this. If you take your dog often enough he may find it less exciting and be better able to restrain himself. Dogs who hardly ever get to go are going to be MUCH more excited than dogs for whom this is just every day routine.
But then there are the dogs who bark in other dogs’ faces until the other dog gets angry and retaliates. These dogs are being the equivalent of internet trolls. They are trying to annoy other dogs, trying to provoke a reaction. If your dog is pestering other dogs, then you should definitely put a stop to this behavior. Stop your dog when you see him doing it, make him do some obedience before he is allowed another chance, and best of all, reward him with treats when he plays in a more appropriate manner. If the problem is severe, consider asking a friend to let you have some play dates so you can work on the behaviour in a more controlled environment, and/or call a trainer.
As for when to intervene when things get rough… well…there’s the ideal answer and the real world answer.
Ideally, dogs should be allowed to play rough as long as they are both having fun. Some dogs just love to wrestle, and chew on others, and be chewed on. They growl and flip each other over and slobber all over each other’s backs and play bitey-face with their fangs and have a GREAT TIME. There is absolutely no reason to step in unless one of the dogs stops having fun.
Even when it turns into a real dog fight, there is usually no need to intervene because it is over very quickly. A yelp, a snarl, and they break apart. Don’t assume that the attacking dog is the cause of the trouble, either. Usually these quick altercations happen because one dog did something annoying or inappropriate, failed to read the other dog’s signals, and the other dog finally snapped.
These lessons can actually be a good thing. Young dogs tend to be very inappropriate – jumping on dogs they haven’t even sniffed hello, pestering dogs who are giving out clear “I don’t want to play” signals. That’s normal, and older grumpy dogs actually perform a valuable service by telling an annoying whipper snapper what is what every now and then.
Of course, any time there’s an altercation, both dogs should be given a time out and a chance to cool down. But that’s about all you normally need to do.
It’s only when a dog starts screaming and KEEPS SCREAMING that it is time to come running. Even then, intervene with caution. Reaching your hand into a dog fight is a great way to get bitten, and then you have even more trouble, especially if you live in a province like Ontario where they place any dogs who bite under quarantine for rabies.
It is bad for a dog to get hurt at the park, but legally, it causes far more problems when a human gets hurt. A dog who bites another dog might get cautioned. A dog who bites a human might be ordered destroyed.
Most dog fights end with little more damage than a torn ear or cut on the cheek or neck, although in rare cases they can cause severe injury or death, especially when there is a big size difference between dogs. I have seen a couple of tragic cases of small fluffy puppies being mistaken for squirrels or rabbits by bigger dogs.
So, in an ideal world you hardly ever intervene unless someone is actually getting killed.
But we live in the real world, don’t we? And the real world dog park is full of owners who will panic if they hear your dog play growling during a friendly wrestle session with their precious Fluffers. The real world is full of people with puppies who yell at you when your elderly dog teachers their rambunctious puppy a well deserved lesson. And in the real world, we aren’t exactly happy about the idea of letting our dog get his ear ripped. If nothing else, that’s still a $500 vet visit.
So exercise your best judgement. If your dog is playing rough, but no one is screaming and the tails are wagging, watch the owner of the other dog. If they seem happy, then just enjoy. If they look worried or concerned, then step in and redirect your dog somewhere else.
If your dog snaps at another dog, even if the other dog deserves it, give him a time out and if the other owner is upset, a sincere apology. Always offer to pay for any damage that your dog does to another dog, even if the other dog deserved it, because we socialized dogs shouldn’t hurt other dogs when they fight, so you are ultimately responsible.
And if someone else’s dog snaps at your dog, even if you don’t think your dog deserved it, cut the other owner some slack. If your dog did diserve it, cut the other owner a lot of slack.
We all love our dogs and none of us want anyone else’s pet to get hurt. We just want them to have fun. But sometimes their best teachers are other dogs.