Dogs ganging up on small dog at 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. I’ve heard about "predatory drift" where dogs exhibit predatory behavior. How do I protect my small pet from this at the dog park?

A. The vast majority of dogs do not display predatory behavior toward other dogs. But under the right circumstances, this behavior can be sparked in dogs who've never shown signs of it.

For example, during playtime at the dog park, certain prey-like behavior from another dog can cause this play to morph into predatory behavior.  This behavior is what people mean when they refer to predatory drift. In the context of the dog park, predatory drift most often occurs when two dogs of distinctly different sizes are interacting, or when two or more dogs gang up on a single dog.

While the risk of widespread predatory drift at the dog park is rare, pet parents with smaller dogs should be cautious and should supervise their dogs' interactions with larger dogs very carefully. 

What Starts As Play Can Turn Dangerous

Although the domesticated dog who shares our living spaces and affection may seem like a far cry from a predator, our dogs originated from wolves thousands of years ago and still have some of the predatory instincts that allowed their ancestors to hunt for meals. In domesticated dogs, predatory behavior manifests in play, such as engaging in a game of fetch, tug or chase. However, there are dogs whose instinctive predatory behavior has resulted in attacks on smaller animals.

In the case of a larger dog interacting with a smaller dog, a playful interaction can turn dangerous if the smaller dog starts to act like prey, such as yelping, struggling or attempting to flee. The yelping can result from something as simple as being accidently stepped on by the larger dog — or it could be a genuine fear response. In either case, this prey-like behavior can trigger a response in the larger dog that can be dangerous for the smaller pup.

The greater the size difference between two dogs, the greater the risk of devastating consequences from predatory drift. A large dog may treat a smaller dog like a toy, which can be incredibly dangerous to the small dog. The grab-and-shake that most pet parents have seen their dogs do when grabbing a toy or a chew can also occur in a predatory situation, with the grab-and-shake having the potential to break a small dog’s neck.

The predatory response can also be triggered when a small dog begins to run away from a larger dog. A large dog may run after a smaller dog in play-like fashion, but if the small dog continues to run away, the chasing can shift into predatory mode. The large dog’s chase behavior becomes more serious and intense in response, and can even result in a take-down of the small dog. The predatory chase may not result in injury, as many dogs will only complete the chasing sequence of the hunt and stop as soon as they catch up to the prey. But there are certain situations where the full take-down and kill will occur, even if the dog has never shown that particular behavior before.

Finally, predatory drift can be sparked by multiple dogs ganging up on a single dog. This can occur when two dogs chase after a single dog, or when two or more dogs gang up on a dog that is panicking, yelping or struggling during an altercation or what started out as play.

Keep Your Dog Safe at the Dog Park

Although many dogs of vastly different sizes can get along perfectly, there is a risk involved in letting your small dog play with larger dogs at the dog park. Not only may a smaller dog be more likely to be viewed as prey by a larger dog, but the physical ability of a larger dog to seriously injure or kill a small dog is a factor. The best dog parks have separate play areas for big dogs and small dogs for this exact reason, though small dogs can often be seen frolicking in the large dog area. Even though countless small canines have successfully played in a large dog area without incident, pet parents should be aware that they are putting their smaller pup at risk if they let him play with the big dogs. Sticking to the size-recommended areas of a dog park is one way to safeguard against predatory drift, and to prevent possible injury to a small dog.

Supervision is critical at the dog park, especially when smaller dogs are playing with their larger peers. It's your job to keep your dog from getting overstimulated in play with multiple dogs. Interrupt chase sequences of two or more dogs after a single canine if any of the dogs seem to be getting overly aroused or the dog being chased is panicking. Dogs should also be interrupted in play if there is not some back-and-forth role reversal. Although certain dogs are more likely to be the chaser than the chasee, there should be mutual play between dogs and some reversals of roles. There also should be play bows, bouncy and inefficient movements, and relaxed and soft-looking body posture from all of the dogs involved, to signal that the interactions are all being done in play.

While the risk of predatory drift occurring at the dog park is extremely rare, sticking to the size-recommended play area is a simple way to help protect your pooch from incident. In the situation of multiple dog gang-ups, it’s equally important that all pet parents stay focused on supervising their dogs' interactions the entire time they are at the dog park. Scan for mutual play among all dogs and be ready to interrupt, redirect or possibly leave if play gets too aroused or if multiple dogs gang up on a single dog. And of course, dogs who exhibit predatory behavior toward other dogs do not make good candidates for the dog park, since predatory behavior often has very few warning signs and can have devastating consequences.