Dog Park Etiquette: Knowing Aggression from Play

Never walk into an off-leash dog park without being prepared to either defend your dog or to defend someone else’s. Let’s face it, dog owners: dogs can oftentimes be unpredictable, and oftentimes suddenly violent. There’s never a more appropriate time to learn about dogs and their behaviors than now, as that knowledge has the potential to drastically improve what would have been an otherwise dangerous situation.


“I’m Feeling Playful!”

Dogs that are in a playful mood exhibit distinctly different signs than dogs who are preparing to be aggressive or fearful. Playful dogs may bark or growl and often punctuate these noises with happy “attacks” and “retreats.” They will frequently drop into what is called a “play bow,” in which their waggling butts will be waving in the air while they lay on the ground with their front legs. Other body posturing includes:

  • Up-turned, broadly waving tail
  • Dilated pupils
  • Up-turned ears
  • Open mouth with exposed tongue

Dogs wanting to play will also pant in a particular way that signals to other dogs their positive intentions. Paw-swipes are common among younger dogs and certain older ones, which may or may not go over well with the recipient.


“I’m Feeling Aggressive!”

Aggression can come in either a fearful or a dominant form. Both forms are dangerous and need to be identified quickly before a crisis occurs. With fearful aggression, the dog’s body will be lowered, its ears will be back, and its tail will be tucked. In both fearful and dominant aggression, the following body behaviors can be observed:

  • Hackles raised
  • Lips curled back
  • Nose wrinkled

Dominant aggression presents itself with ears forward and spread and a stiff tail moving fractionally from side to side. The dog will also take a stiff-legged stance with its body leaning slightly forward. If any of these indicators are present in your dog or another’s, take immediate notice and assuage the situation by calmly leaving it.


Be Vigilant

Taking your dog to an off-leash park does not mean that you have the freedom to let it roam unsupervised while you type out messages on your cell phone. For everyone’s sake in the park, every dog owner is responsible for being continually on the watch for potential problems or fights. Vigilance is the key to preventing harmful encounters between dogs.


Know Your Own Dog

When you adopt your beloved Spot, make sure that you do some research both before and afterwards on his breed. Certain breeds are more likely to exhibit predatory behaviors in instances where other dogs appear to be prey. Hounds have the potential to bay and hunt other dogs as though they were raccoons, and the same goes for many other breeds with high prey drives. Don’t go in blind. Do your homework and keep your dog and the next person’s safe and sound, as everyone deserves to be.