With tail up Princess charges every dog she encounters except for those her own size, 5 pounds.
Ashley went nose to nose with Maggie, and promptly grabbed her by the neck.
Zeus was an insane retriever, prone to protecting his toys. All toys were his.
In the last column exploring the role stress has in determining which dogs are safe in group play, I questioned
Remember that how one categorizes a dog’s behavior depends on the current dynamic of the assembled play partners and the type of environment, not on the dog itself. In other words, a dog’s behavior could be classified as Yellow in one group, and Red in another. It depends.
First, we’ll look at three underlying characteristics of marginal and unsafe group play behavior: Relationships, Volatility and Fearfulness.
Relationships defines a dog’s behavior around resources; some people call this the dominance hierarchy. Dominance terminology is being closely scrutinized nowadays as it has been poorly defined and misinterpreted. Often people think it a personality trait when it really is a strategy to access resources or achieve safety or attain rank at the expense of others. Here I’m going to use relationships, instead of dominance, as a descriptive term having a function. It not a personality trait, but operates according to the need of the dog in relation to the resources around him: people and dogs, toys, food and location.
Sometimes dogs take a disliking to another dog or believe they need to pull a power display to feel safe. Domesticated dogs are really good at self regulating, affiliative and appeasement behaviors that maintain group harmony and avoid conflict. Neutered males are less likely to create conflict as are dogs from the types of dogs bred to be group compatible like hounds and retrievers.
The vast majority dogs are good at social relationships; some are not, like Ashley in the opening paragraphs. By biting so quickly and bypassing a sociable introduction Ashley demonstrated a socially and physically dangerous Red Behavior. She ended up in one-on-one play with a human. No more play groups for her.
Another frequent problem behavior in play groups is when a dog wants to guard a resource using aggression rather than more socially functional appeasement and play. This dog may not be a good group play candidate. If you can remove the resource, however, such as food or toys, the problem may be solved and the dog can rejoin the group. Zeus, the toy crazy dog mentioned in the opening paragraphs, was able to join play groups where toys were banned. The problem Red behavior was solved by changing the environment, giving Zeus no reason for resource guarding.
In the next column I’ll continue with the last two types of characteristics defining unsafe group behavior, volatility and fearfulness.