Home > Daisy, Dog Behavior, Dog Park, Jasper, Pet Videos > Dogs: When does play stop being play?

Dogs: When does play stop being play?

September 13, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Jasper as a puppy, harassing DaisyOver a week ago, I wrote about the Sue Sternberg seminar I attended and the Red Alert Behaviors she often sees at dog parks. What I did not share then was how much of a revelation it was for me when she shared the videos showing what these behaviors looked like. Until then, I had not realized that one of my own dogs, Jasper, displayed and practiced some of these behaviors in his early years. Until then, I had not made the connection that Daisy had been the unfortunate recipient of these behaviors not only from him, but also other dogs at the dog park.

Sometimes we can see things going on around us and not really “see” what is right in front of us, you know?

The Red Alert Behaviors Sue identified were:

  1. Risky chasing behaviors almost always include out of control and high arousal chasing that may include one of more of the following: group chase, hard physical contact, pinning, high tail carriage, neck or throat fixation and the chasee hiding, or trying to get away.
  2. Mobbing is a group of individual dogs approaching, harassing, controlling or attacking a single dog. This can be with or without bloodshed.
  3. Targeting is one dog following or pursuing another dog relentlessly, exclusively, obsessively. It’s relentless engagement that may or may not include many of the behaviors displayed in Risky Chasing.
  4. Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior through the use of physical overpowering, hard contact, body slamming, hip-checking, shoulder-checking, relentless engagement, chase or ganging up to affect an individual dog.
  5. Hunting is when a dog moves around the dog park going from dog to dog, looking for something to jab, chase, poke, pounce on, roll. This is not looking for a playmate, but forcing himself on other dogs.

After that first day of Sue’s seminar, I came home and started looking through old video footage of Daisy and Jasper. (You can see one of them below.) It was pretty clear from what I found that the behaviors I saw were not always”play.” I wasn’t paying attention to dog body language, but seeing only what I wanted to see as a proud dog owner hanging out at the dog park. You can even hear me laughing on some of them. Maybe some of what I recorded was “play”, Daisy does have her tail up and she appears to be having fun in some of the video clips, but I would argue that sometimes what was fun for Jasper was not always fun for Daisy.

It’s a strange feeling realizing that the people you are railing against (for not intervening when a dog was being bullied or mobbed) in Sue’s videos was YOU just a few years ago. I should have been Daisy’s advocate and protector more than I was. I am not beating myself up here, just acknowledging that had I known what I know now, I would have done more to intervene, not only with Jasper, but with other dogs too. I think all of us can relate to moments like this – when one realizes that what they thought they knew about their dogs and how to work with them was not how they would handle it now.

I tried to keep that in mind while watching the videos I had taken back then (six-seven years ago). I can see now that Jasper did a lot of Targeting behaviors and when he got too excited, and when took it to a a higher energy level, it would sometimes lead to Mobbing or Bullying by other dogs. I am thankful someone finally pointed out to me what I could not see at the time so I could stop it before it really got out of control. Sue Sternberg says the dog park is often a place where dogs practice aggressive behaviors. I think there is some truth to this.

This doesn’t mean Jasper or other dogs are inherently bad, they are just exhibiting bad behaviors that should be interrupted and stopped. Jasper still herds Daisy from time to time, but he does not do it for longer than a few seconds and he does not escalate it to a higher energy level like he did when he was younger. I think that is because I finally learned to intervene and stop it before it any further and was consistent about it.

So what are appropriate play behaviors? Here is what Sue shared with us in her seminar:

  • Play is usually limited to two dogs. When there are more it stops being play.
  • Play often is limited to games of chase (between two dogs), with the chasee initiating the game of chase and both dogs taking multiple breaks in between the game of chase.
  • Play also may include air biting, but no actual contact with skin and no actual biting. (Dogs who “play” by biting or grabbing a dog around the neck are practicing aggressive behaviors.)

You might be thinking to yourself, “Only two dogs?”, but I would suggest that if you sit at any dog park, you will see that when a third dog enters play between two dogs, they are often going in to harass the dogs or one dog (like a nip to the ear or leg). They are opportunists and taking advantage of the situation.

And when a group of dogs gets involved in a chase it is usually not play, but the chasing of a weaker dog. This is a dangerous situation that can escalate very quickly and cause harm to that dog or another dog involved in the chase.

You can see one of Sue’s videos showing some of these dangerous behaviors here:

We dog owners need to be more vigilant when our dogs are playing with other dogs, and we shouldn’t hesitate to intervene, when necessary.

Have you intervened when your or another dog’s behavior escalated to a dangerous degree?

Worried you won’t remember any of these behaviors? Or, worried your own dog is practicing these “bad” behaviors in your dog park? I highly recommend you get Sue’s Dog Park Assistant app for your phone. It only costs 99 cents, but it will pay for itself in the long run.

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  1. September 13, 2015 at 11:33 PM

    I love it when Tina comes up tp Ike, bows ans wriggles her hinie. She turns and runs with Ike close behind. They make a lap or two around the field and come back with Ike in the lead. This goes on for 15-20 minutes and then they stop, tank up on water and lay panting, watching the world go by.

    • Mel
      September 13, 2015 at 11:57 PM

      What you described is exactly the right kind of play. How fun!

  2. September 14, 2015 at 12:04 AM

    At the Humane Society they told us that dogs will do a little too much, but then pause and do play bows to remind the other dog that they are playing and mean no harm. Or, as “just” says above, separate and take breaks… But yes, herding is fun when you’re the herder. Jasper didn’t give Daisy a turn to chase him, she was just trying to go places with this naughty boy bugging her!

    • Mel
      September 14, 2015 at 10:13 PM

      Agree Natasha. Breaks and pauses are good things. Yeah, in the early days, Jasper was relentless. I wonder now if that is why I recommended he and his sister be adopted separately? He was bigger than her and would do the same thing with her. She hated it. You could tell. I intervened because he didn’t know when to stop and she was often overwhelmed.

  3. September 14, 2015 at 8:11 AM

    Great videos. I have let behaviors slide in the past too, before I knew better. Tino used to nip at his playmates heels all the time. I would step in,but he would immediately do it again – I didn’t teach him something different.

  4. September 14, 2015 at 9:27 AM

    Really interesting info, thanks for sharing. Penny, my “wild child,” has been on both sides of the spectrum, especially during her roiling “teenage” months. I always watch the pups closely and have practiced ways to immediately disengage play.

    This is the first I’ve read about physical biting not being “play.” My two frequently jaw at each other’s face/neck. They’ve never hurt each other and they both seem to get a kick out of the game. But I can certainly see where this behavior could lead to problems with other pups.

    • Mel
      September 14, 2015 at 10:11 PM

      Jasper is definitely on the better side now, but I can relate to the “wild child” comment. I thought I would never survive his adolescence. 🙂

  5. September 14, 2015 at 10:44 PM

    It’s sad how often people don’t see their dog isn’t happy in the situation. Jasmine loved to play chase. But sometimes when being chased, she’d tuck her tail, I’d immediately parted ways to give he a break. And that was before I knew anything about anything.

  6. September 16, 2015 at 11:50 AM

    We started at a dog park with Cocoa and she actually exhibits some of these signs. I thought it was play and now I am going to look more into what these behaviors all mean. Good advice!!

    • Mel
      September 17, 2015 at 9:52 PM

      Let me know what you see when you go back!

  7. September 17, 2015 at 8:20 PM

    This line: “I would argue that sometimes what was fun for Jasper was not always fun for Daisy.” That really resonated with me. I think a lot of times when Cooper and Lucas play, Cooper is having a blast… and Lucas is not. Something to be WAY more conscious of on my part. Such a great post, Mel! (My guys never, ever go to the dog park. None of them are dog park appropriate, and together? Whoo, boy.)

    • Mel
      September 17, 2015 at 9:50 PM

      Thanks Maggie. So honored by your compliment.

      Yeah. That was a realization for me and it wasn’t because I figured it out, it was because someone else pointed it out to me. It’s amazing how someone saying something can make you see something you did not see before.
      (P.S. I don’t think we’d ever go to a dog park if we didn’t have 16 acres to enjoy. It makes it easier to stay away from a situation or a particular dog or owner.)

  8. September 23, 2015 at 11:03 AM

    I have seen some of this kind of behavior in the dogs that we used to be owned by 😉
    Thankfully Sam is a better pup that they were with dog manners but we still tend to avoid dog parks because there are too many that aren’t on the same page as he is. Great info.

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