Zulu waits until a dog ventures close then growls and wrinkles her lip to show her pearly whites. If that doesn’t work, she snaps. If the other dog still doesn't get the message, she nips hard...and lets go.
Metro sees a dog and flies off the handle, barking and flinging his body against the leash or fence.
Bailey tolerates dogs until she has to share her owner’s space. Then she attacks with great drama but is all bark, no bite.
In recent columns I described the behavior of Green and Yellow dogs and their participation in group play. Green dogs have safe dog play styles. Yellow dogs need to be carefully teamed up with playmates and behavior managed to create a safe play experience.
The dogs described in the introduction to this column would be labeled Red Dogs. These dogs are real and all of them can be managed safely around other dogs. But they are not suitable for unscripted group play, hence the label among adoption organizations, “Not a dog park dog.”
Red Dog Behaviors
Here are a few common Red dog behaviors that create barriers to safe dog play. Red dogs can be loving family pets, just may not be acceptable playmates in a group setting.
Another Red dog behavior is seen when the hair, known as hackles, goes up on the neck, back or tail. Hackles indicate an excited emotional arousal state, sometimes at a level that can easily provoke an aggressive response if the dog continues to feel threatened, overly excited or irritated. For this reason a dog that hackles up for more than a few seconds should not be in a play group until he calms down or the other dogs move away.
A potentially dangerous Red dog would be one whose chase behavior changed into predation. When there is a size differential or a group of dogs mixed with smaller dogs, chasing play should be interrupted frequently. If a caretaker notices an increased fixation on one dog, the play should be stopped and at least one dog removed from the area.
Can Red Dogs Join Group Play?
Red dogs whose first intent is to do harm, whether from intolerance or predatory behavior, will obviously never be group play candidates. Once a dog demonstrates it is unable or unwilling to regulate its behavior and emotions to the extent that it inflicts harm or bullies other dogs, it should not be allowed in a public play group. For dogs that draw a drop of blood once in a while, the group norm may decide if that dog is group compatible. Needless to say the dogs must also be safe around people.
Some dogs, like Sweet Pea, might enjoy hanging out with a like-minded fellow and even be persuaded to share a lap. Zulu wouldn’t mind sharing her world as long as the dog doesn’t enter her body space. Bailey might be great if the owner is not present.
Metro-type dogs needs more work to teach them that play is not done at high speed and volume. When he shows us that he can relaxed and be under emotional self control, we will find a Green dog with great canine teaching skills to instill the social play lessons from the dog’s point of view.
With savvy owners or professionals present, it may be possible to include Yellow and even Red dogs in an environment tailored to the needs and wishes of the dogs. The humans will anticipate just what angers or frightens each, and thus prevent stressful interactions before trouble begins.
Next we’ll look at behaviors that are associated with safe play.