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I have heard some real horror stories about taking dogs to the dog park. Too many owners just let their dogs run unsupervised, and many people seem unable to distinguish dog-on-dog play from dog-on-dog aggression.

If I bring my dog to the dog park, what signs should I be on the lookout for, both to indicate that my dog is being bullied, and to indicate that my dog may be bullying other dogs?

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I'm speaking here as an owner of a Shiba Inu, who is frequently the bully as well as split from playmates because their person is unable to tell that they are in fact playing.

Biting isn't always a sign of aggression

Dogs use their mouths to interact with the world, some do it more than others. Play biting is very common when dogs are wrestling. My Shiba will generally target legs of larger dogs in an effort to get them on the ground so he can reach them better. Dogs usually learn at a very young age how much pressure is ok to apply with a playmate.

Barking/growling isn't always a sign of aggression

I've seen owners show concern over a bark, growl, or even a squeal, but many dogs are vocal while playing.

Not every dog can wag their tail

A wagging tail is generally a positive sign, while crouching/tail tucking is a negative sign. A dog that's wagging their tail usually isn't aggressive. However, not every dog can wag their tail either because it has been docked or because they're physically incapable (my Shiba cannot). Similarly, a tucked tail isn't always something that can be discerned.

Body posture is your most reliable real clue

When my Shiba comes face to face with a dog he doesn't like, you can see it in his entire body: his lips may curl, his hackles are raised, and he tries to stand as tall as possible. When he's distressed, his tail will partially uncurl.

Dogs he bullies generally respond by yelping, slinking along the ground, and/or running away.

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  • 3
    +1 for the "barking isn't always sign of aggression" - I would even say, as long as you can hear something, it's all good! But be wary if two males stare into each others eyes, moving slowly around each other in circles, in total silence! Without intervention, a serious attack will most probably follow suit. – Ingo Dec 17 '13 at 23:13
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You should be alert for signs of "appeasement behavior" on the part of your dog whenever he/she interacts with other dogs, particularly when the other dogs are larger (although you dog may feel threatened by smaller dogs, too!).

Signs of appeasement behavior can include:

  • A curved spine

  • Lying down

  • Turning the head to the side; averting gaze from the other dog

  • Ears lowered, but relaxed

If the appeasement behavior does not curb the offending dog's aggression, there are some other indications that your dog is feeling threatened:

  • Tail tucked down

  • Ears pinned back/down

  • Attempts to make eye contact with you

  • Lips drawn back

  • Eyes are wide open ("Whale eye stare")

  • Placement of body against walls or other structures

If you see any signs of this, immediately intervene, and separate the dogs.

Similarly, you should watch your dog for signs of aggression against other dogs.

In addition to watching for the above signs in dogs your pet is interacting with, watch your dog for:

  • Erect tail

  • Body lined up with head and haunches, facing towards the other dog

  • Raised hackles

  • Full-speed running/chasing behavior, particularly after a smaller dog

This website has some excellent walkthroughs of some of these behaviors, in the form of videos with commentary.

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  • The videos you link to are good examples of behavior, but the last one doesn't really show bullying per se. Most of the dogs approaching the small dog are trying to elicit play. Yes, the small dog is terrified, but it looks more like a case of either poor socialization or prior trauma to me since it is reacting that way to every dog that approaches it. – cimmanon Nov 22 '13 at 22:12
  • True, but the last video is a good example of what to look for in a dog that is being dangerously aggressive (i.e. the Husky). Whether it is poor socialization, or some form of trauma, that small dog is triggering some very aggressive non-play responses from the Husky. – Beofett Nov 22 '13 at 22:37
  • You need to be mindful when intervening between two dogs, if they do fight, people can easily be bitten if they do get caught between two dogs that are fighting. – Yvette Nov 23 '13 at 8:04
  • That's why it's better to intervene immediately, before it eescalates to a fight or attack. – Beofett Nov 24 '13 at 0:37
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It is often the fear and misunderstanding of dog owners that they transfer to their dogs, which leads to critical situations. Typical situation: the tiny pinscher or yorkshire that is taken up (often with one hand) because the owner fears "big, aggressive dogs". (This is totally silly btw, because if a dog the size of a labrador, say, really wants to get the small one, he'll get him, because such dogs can jump 5 feet from standing without much effort. They will just tear you down, before you ever notice, you can hold your tiny dog as high as you want - you simply can't protect him that way. So better see to it that your dog is behaving orderly - for example, does not bark at bigger ones. You can easily teach him by going away as soon as he starts to bark - this will be a sign for him that he will have to fight on its own, and he'll soon realize that it is better not to, and will follow you.)

Also, be aware that normal dogs play can appear quite violent, when in reality it is just fun to the dogs. Serious fights are seldom among good socialized dogs. Bullying happens, of course, but even then it is not correct to apply human ethics here. (Of course, if your dog can't deal with it, and you see that it doesn't want to go there, just don't go there.)

As for aggression: we don't need to prevent aggression in all cases. For example, a dog may defend its toy very aggressivly, and the other dog will know by that that he may not take it. This is a problem only if the other dog thinks it is his toy. But aggression amon dogs does not mean I will fight you until you're dead. To the contrary, this would be a sign of a psychotic dog (hopefully a rare case in your country, and usually the fact that their owners bring them to a dog park means it is not), i.e. one that does not belong in a dog park.

All in all, be sure to socialize your dog early. From the first week on, see to it, that it comes in contact with other dogs as often as possible, ideally in a puppy play group or something. The dog knows then how to behave in the presence of other dogs, and things will be good.

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