Dog’s Eye View: Hi! Wanna play?
February 2, 2017
For our canine walking buddies, sociability is the number-one personality trait required to have good off-leash encounters with other dogs. A social dog avoids conflict and is not reactive. He or she gives good communication signals to other oncoming off-leash dogs. What does this look like?
Often, there is the classic play bow described as lowering the front end of the body while the back end is raised and the tail is wagging. The dog's movements are loose, and his body looks excited but relaxed. Two social dogs will approach each other in an arc, which displays friendly intention. A social, off-leash dog will invite another dog to play but will also respect cut-off signals by a dog who is stressed. What does stress look like?
A worried or stressed dog will often back away from an encounter. He might return to his owner for security or comfort. A stressed dog might also flip onto his back and turn his head away. He will probably continue to move away and turn his back or sniff the ground as a cut-off signal. If these signals are not respected, a worried or stressed dog will become defensive. He's tried to be polite and communicate that he's not interested in play. Some dogs would rather enjoy the environment and walk with their owners.
Healthy, off-leash play is enjoyed by two social dogs. They take turns chasing. They will break from play often and shake or scratch to signal a time out. They will sometimes mirror each other's behavior or go searching for smells to sniff together.
It's a wonderful thing to watch two well-matched dogs play together, but both owners should be watchful for signs of energy escalating or growling to increase. The human should be able to interrupt play and call dogs out of play reliably. A simple, 20-second down/stay at the owner's feet will lower energy and tension, and the reward can be returning to play.
This skill is number one for off -eash play times. Too often, we become distracted and think that, since the dogs are playing, we don't need to pay attention. Nothing could be further from the truth, We need to stay involved to keep our relationship with our own dog first on his list. A rock-solid recall is the most important component in off-leash play. Calling out of play and returning to the owner for a treat can lower the energy and keep the dog play from escalating into a scuffle.
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A social, off-leash dog will also respect humans and automatically give space unless invited to greet. Anyone should be able to tell a social dog to sit or return to his owner. This is a great exercise to practice at home with company. Anyone visiting your home should be able to tell your dog to sit, and your dog should be taught to respond to this request.
Personality requirements for social, off-leash play include a great relationship between owner and dog. A non-reactive personality is a must; there's no sense in starting play with a challenge for who's boss. This often leads to conflict about who owns the sandbox. A social, off-leash dog returns to his owner reliably and is respectful to humans in the park or on the trail. A social dog can understand communication signals from oncoming dogs and control himself enough to allow dogs to pass without engaging. He should be taught to leave it if play does is not on your agenda.
Keep your training skills and relationship in good shape, and enjoy the dog park or trail with everyone.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 25 years of experience. She has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, as well as Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.