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Big or Small This Dog Knows What He Wants When it Comes to Play

March 17, 2011

Dear Joan:

Our dog Bill (named after the Humane Society officer who rescued him) is a year old, 24-pound beagle mix. We walked him on behalf of the Humane Society in a community parade, and now he’s a family member.

We take Bill to a local dog park that has a fenced area for small dogs (25 pounds or less) and a different fenced area for large dogs. We tried taking Bill to the small-dog area and he would walk in, sniff around, sit, walk around slowly, stare at us. We took him to the large-dog area, full of German shepherds, Bullmastiff’s, Alaskan malamutes, labs, etc., and he loves it. He can barely wait to get into the area. He runs all around, hardly pays attention to us and becomes the center of attention as he runs around with a pack of big dogs playfully chasing him all over.

Why does he prefer the big dogs? He could easily run and be chased by the small dogs, and I worry about his safety (getting trampled) with the big dogs.

We take him to doggy day care three days a week, and it’s the same — he runs and mingles with the larger dogs.

— Julie M.

Dear Julie,

Poncho and I adore the story of how you, your family and Bill all came together. It sounds like an outline for the perfect made-for-television movie. As a certified professional dog trainer who adopted from a shelter, I appreciate you volunteering your time with the Humane Society and rescuing.

Your question about why is a tough one to answer. Unless you’re the animal in question, it would all be speculation. Who knows the exact reasons Bill came to enjoy playing with these larger canines? Some reasons might include:

  • He was born with a predisposition of liking the presence, actions or appearance of larger dogs.
  • His first encounters with successful dog play were with larger dogs, so he has developed positive associations with these types of breeds.
  • He discovered his play style has had better success with larger breeds vs. the smaller ones. In other words, the larger dogs have a better return on investment.

You mention that Bill also enjoys playing with the big dogs so much that his focus tends to stray away from you and over to his new friends. It’s wonderful to be able to give dogs an opportunity to spend time with friends free of leashes, but it’s important that your dog can perform behaviors such as “coming when called” for his safety and the safety of others. There are many ways to practice recall skills with your dog, and I recommend activities to hone this behavior in my Out of the Box Dog Training Game as well as on this dog training tips blog post, where I outline the five rules for when teaching your dog to come when called.

Similar to humans, dogs have preferences in the friends they choose, the activities they partake in and the intensity of his or her play style — some rough house while others prefer to chill out and relax. It could be that at one time, the only opportunity Bill had for playing was with larger dogs — and it was fun! Maybe this is what he is used to.

Your concern of him getting trampled is definitely a valid one. Bill has learned what appropriate dog play is, and it seems the dogs he chooses to play with have learned this, too. I would say you could continue to allow Bill to play with these larger dogs, but do so with a watchful eye — as you have been doing.

You’ll also want to make sure you’re monitoring the other dogs’ behaviors (especially ones you don’t know) and that the guardians of these other dogs are as diligent as you are. For more tips on what to look for in appropriate dog play, click here to check out this Dear Inquisitive Canine column.

A few key points to remember are:

  • Dog play should be reciprocal. The dogs that are enjoying the activity of play will continue to play with one another. If one is running off and trying to escape by hiding or cowering, then it’s not reciprocal. The dog exhibiting this type of fearful body language would not be an ideal candidate for dog parks or doggy day care. He or she might enjoy other activities with his or her guardian, such as agility, Flyball, herding or dock diving, to name a few.
  • Big bouncy inefficient movements. Dog play is rehearsal of behaviors a dog would need if he or she were out in the wild living on his or her own. This includes hunting, fighting and mating behaviors. You might see common behaviors such as running, chasing, stalking, mouthing, chest banging, rolling, pinning, vocalization including low growls and barking, and even mounting — again, to name a few. But think the Three Stooges vs. Muhammad Ali. It’s almost comedic.
  • Self-interruptions and “Let’s take a break” signals. Dogs will signal to one another through his or her beautiful innate body language when he or she wants to play (or not), and when he or she needs a break. Play-bows are a commonly seen signal that play is on the agenda. A sudden stop to sniff the ground, shake off, drink water or check in with humans are often a signal of break time.

Similar to when children play together, and someone gets hurt, a dog can get hurt during play. But as long as Bill is having fun — and he is the best one to determine whether he is or isn’t — then it’s most likely fine to allow him to play with the friends that he has chosen. Just make sure you continue with your playground monitor skills to help avoid any unfortunate events.

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail them directly.


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