Let me preface this post by saying: I love dog parks. Love them. A good dog park presents great opportunities for dog-dog socialization, training in a distracting environment, and getting some off-leash exercise in an area that may not have many other options. It's also a nice place to meet other dog people.
Not all dog parks are safe, though, and not all dogs are suited for them. I feel like there is often a great reluctance on the part of some owners to recognize when their dogs are not enjoying the park, or are behaving in troublesome ways, even when recognizing potential problems and intervening appropriately could keep everyone playing together happily. And sometimes other owners are reluctant to speak up because, well, criticizing someone's dog is like criticizing their child: it feels rude and presumptuous.
But children don't have knives for teeth, and their body language is a little easier for most people to read, and generally we know when they need us to intervene well in advance of a fight breaking out. With dogs it's not always so obvious, and the potential damage is a lot worse.
So with that in mind, here are a few clips I recorded at our local dog park over the course of three days (last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday). Ours is a relatively safe park with a supportive, dog-savvy community of regular users -- it's certainly much safer than a couple of other nearby dog parks -- and yet scuffles and more serious fights break out frequently enough that I was able to capture several of them within a total of about three hours' time.
The first step to spotting potential trouble in the making is to familiarize yourself with canine communication. Brenda Aloff's book Canine Body Language and Sarah Kalnajs's DVD set The Language of Dogs are both excellent resources on this topic.
The next step is to observe canine interactions so that you can predict which scenarios are likely to erupt into fights and which can and should be left for the dogs to resolve between themselves. Not every exchange of stares and snarks needs a hovering human to step in; a certain amount of correction should be permitted so that dogs (especially young and under-socialized ones) develop their own understanding of canine etiquette. Knowing when to interrupt and when to leave things be is a skill developed with practice. The more time you spend watching dogs carefully, the quicker you'll be able to spot potential red flags.
Entrances and greetings are fraught moments for most dogs in the park. Getting mobbed by a bunch of strange mutts (often strange mutts who are very! excited!! to meet a new dog) right at the gate can be extremely intimidating, and many dogs will react with barks, growls, or exaggerated appeasement signals in an attempt to get space or defuse the tension. Always watch greetings closely, and try to keep your own dogs from overwhelming newcomers at the gate.
The black dog in the middle here is clearly uncomfortable at being mobbed. His posture is stiff, his mouth tightly closed with some tension wrinkles along the muzzle; his tail veers toward a vertical position and makes short sharp wags at a couple of points in the clip. His hackles are raised both on the shoulders and along the rump. He acts to increase social space: at 0:06 he chases one of the sniffing dogs away and at 0:11 he rebuffs their attempts to engage him in play by stiffening up again.
All the other dogs in the park were pretty relaxed and willing to respect this dog's social cues, however, so the tension didn't escalate. About a minute after I stopped filming, he relaxed enough to play.
In this clip, things didn't go so well.
The brown pit at the center of the dog mob in this clip was an intact (un-neutered) young adult male who presented a problem immediately: not only was the guy swimming in his own crazy hormones, but many dogs will harass and/or challenge an intact male (and, indeed, that's why this dog mob formed and swarmed him; these dogs were wandering around all over the park, ignoring each other, before he came in). Because of this, many dog parks specifically prohibit intact males. It's just not worth the risk of fights.
Additionally, this particular dog was tense and visibly wound up even before he came through the gates. He charged into the park with no apparent awareness of any other dogs' personal space, much less respect for their social cues. As soon as I saw him, I knew something was going to happen with this dog, so I got out the camera, and voila: within twenty seconds, something did.
All the other dogs swarming around him are curious, not threatening, but there are a lot of them and this dog isn't handling the stress well. Throughout this clip, his body language expresses a high degree of anxiety and agitation. He's pretty much frozen throughout, except for his upright tail making short, stiff vertical waves. His ears are pinned back in worry. He tongue-flicks at 0:01, 0:07, and 0:12. At the end, after breaking free from the ring, he provokes a fight by chasing another dog in a circle and putting his chin over its back.
My read on that scenario is that an unstable, stressed dog came into the park, was bombarded with more social tension than he could handle, and vented that stress by starting a fight. This dog probably should not have been in the park at all (at least on that particular day), and certainly his owner should have been keeping much closer watch on him. (In fact, the owner did not intervene even after the fight started, nor did he remove his dog or do anything else afterward.)
Many dogs bark or growl as part of their play. Many other dogs bark or growl because they feel insecure and are trying to warn other dogs away. The former can be harmless fun but can also prompt some dogs to respond as if the barking or growling were a threat; the latter may indicate that your dog needs to take a breather and, perhaps, return on another day at a less crowded time.
In this clip, the dogs are playing together nicely. Both have loose wiggly body language, bouncy strides, and the larger dog's mouth remains open in a relaxed smile for most of the interaction (this is important because, as the recipient of the barking, that dog's responses determine whether this interaction could become problematic). They pause frequently in mutually respected mini-breaks (0:03, 0:08, 0:19) and resume the game after a play-bow invitation. Halfway through, they reverse roles: the chaser becomes the chased. These are all good signs that both dogs are having a great time.
This clip, too, shows good play with an excitement barker. The black-and-tan dog includes a fair amount of growling with her barks, repeatedly leaps and play bites at the other dog's forequarters and ankles (a more physical play style than that exhibited by the two dogs in the previous clip), and does not reverse roles despite the other dog's invitation to do so at 0:15, but her play partner tolerates this well and is still having fun (loose, bouncy gait, floppy tail wags, relaxed smile, repeatedly re-engaging with play bows). With a less confident or more aggressive dog, this could have turned into a problematic interaction. As is, however, both dogs are having fun.
...and that's a lot of blatheration for today, so I'll pick up with more clips later.