Safe dog play requires human guidance. Trainer Sue Sternberg, who has spent the last few years videotaping and studying dog parks, says, "The subculture in most dog parks is, it's a dog village, this is their time to be a dog, you don't interrupt — and that's a dangerous subculture."
To keep dog play safe and fun, know when to calm the situation. That should start before you're even in the park. When dogs run up to the gate and your dog is bouncing with anticipation, don't enter until your dog settles down and the others lose interest and walk away.
The connection between arousal and aggression is why you should keep a close eye on play and not hesitate to step in. "What keeps a group of dogs safe is timely interruption," says Sternberg.
A few of the play interactions that she considers red flags:
Group chase. Chase is great exercise, but Sternberg says it's really only safe when it's two dogs, not a group.
Wrestling between two dogs can be good fun, but safe wrestling involves turn-taking — if one dog pins the other for five seconds or more, it's time to break it up.
A dog rolling all the way over is usually a sign of over-aroused play, whether it's caused by impact from another dog or running out of control.
"If owners see any of those things, that is a cue to go in there and interrupt — physically get close to the dog and touch and reconnect," Sternberg says.
Even when things are going well, it's a good idea to regularly check in and let your dog know you're still there, she says. "There's no harm in interrupting, as long as it's not punitive," Sternberg says.
Recognize signs of distress. If a dog yelps, don't assume it's an accident — it indicates your dog is in trouble, as does a tucked tail. "A dog that tucks its tail, even if it's momentary, feels vulnerable," Sternberg says.
Sometimes dogs are asking for help and owners don't realize it. "There's a kind of jumping up that's, 'Hello, can you not see I'm freaking out here? Take me home!' " says Robin Bennett, co-author of Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun. "Owners tend to ignore that, thinking the dog is being annoying, but the dog is asking for help."
And if your dog is hiding, take the hint. "So often owners yank their dog out from under the picnic table and go, 'Really, it's fun! Go play,' " Bennett says. "That dog is hiding for a reason."