Dog Park

As part of an ongoing series, dog trainer Mikkel Becker teaches you how to address common behavior problems at the dog park.

Q. My dog loves to play at the dog park, but he can be pushy and his interactions occasionally end with the other dog escalating to aggression in order to get him to back off. Is there a way to help him calm down? 

A. I call canines who exhibit this kind of behavior “Tarzan dogs.” If you’ve been to the dog park, chances are you’ve seen this type of dog: He often lacks understanding of the other dogs’ body language and will initiate play with full-on play bows, racing, rearing, rolling, pawing the air and mouthing, even if the other dog signals that he’s not interested by walking off or turning his head away. If the Tarzan dog doesn’t get the message, playtime can quickly turn into an aggressive encounter. The annoyed dog might resort to growling, snapping or even biting to get the obnoxious canine to back off, resulting in a stressful situation for both dogs.

Even when the Tarzan dog does get another canine to reciprocate play, he will often take very few breaks in play and will continue to be pushy during the interaction. This can cause both dogs to become overstimulated and puts them at risk for an altercation.

Distinguishing Aggression From Play

Tarzan dogs are a fairly common occurrence at dog parks. Often these canines are adolescent or young adult dogs with an abundance of energy caused (or at least exacerbated) by a lack of exercise, mental stimulation and interaction with people and other pets. These dogs are starved for interaction by the time they get to the park and will have little ability to restrain themselves once they’re set free to play.

There is a fine line between aggressive behavior or posturing and Tarzan-like play at the dog park. A relaxed face, relaxed body movement, play bows, bouncing movements and at least some attempts at back-and-forth role reversals signal that the behavior is an attempt at play rather than aggression. But for the average dog owner, the line between the two is extremely hard to perceive.

Mutuality in play is essential. Both dogs should have a common desire to play. When a dog’s outward indications of a lack of desire to play go unheeded by the Tarzan dog, that dog often becomes stressed and will try to hide or run away; he may even resort to aggression.

Commands to Help Control a Tarzan Dog

Since Tarzan-type play is non-aggressive but lacking in normal back-off cues and breaks, reward-based training can teach better manners. Until he is able to follow these basic commands, hold off on trips to the dog park.

Start by teaching your dog to respond immediately to a "come when called" command. Once he comes when called, reward immediately and release him soon after, which helps a Tarzan dog to come more readily. He needs to realize that play and freedom don’t end when he returns to his person. This needs to be practiced so that no matter what distractions are present, the dog will immediately return to his person without hesitation.

Once your dog has mastered a basic "come when called" command, invite another dog who is laid-back and confident — and ideally is familiar with the Tarzan dog — for a play date. Practice "come when called" with the Tarzan dog on a collar or head halter and a drag line (a long, lightweight line of cord designed for dog training) while the dogs play together. Depending on the excitement level and your dog’s ability to come back immediately when called, practice either while holding the drag line and keeping both pets restrained or with your dog dragging the line and both pets moving freely off-leash. As soon as your dog comes back, send him out again. This allows him to continue engaging in the ultimate reward: dog interaction. If he doesn’t respond to the call back, he can easily be redirected away from the other dog by the use of the drag line. The call backs should be frequent and should be done before either dog gets overly aroused.

Clicker training can be used to mark any type of disengagement from the other dog: a head turn, a ground sniff or a look away, for example. The clicker should pinpoint exactly when the correct behavior occurred; give a reward immediately after. Teach your dog to combine healthy body language and breaks in play when he interacts with another dog. This type of interaction with other dogs should be practiced repeatedly with a variety of dogs in a contained area like your yard. Your dog should be gradually weaned off the drag line before attempting to practice the training in the much more distracting arena of a dog park.

Prepare for the Dog Park

A consistent training schedule, being fed from food puzzles and having regular interaction outside the home will all help channel your dog’s energy and make it more likely that he will be able to play nicely at the dog park. It’s also a good idea to engage in some vigorous exercise (based on your dog’s overall health) to help "tire" your dog right before you head for the dog park. This makes it more likely that he will be calmer when interacting with other dogs.

Until you are able to do some extensive training to decrease the intensity of the Tarzan dog’s play interaction, the dog park is simply not a good idea for you and your pet. His rambunctious behavior causes undue stress to other dogs at the dog park and further teaches your Tarzan dog that it’s OK to ignore warnings from other dogs, which can intensify the behavior. For some Tarzan dogs, the dog park may never be a viable solution, and other forms of enrichment should be used, such as increased walks, interactive play or dog sports.