The popularity of dog parks has been a boon to urban dog owners who love to let their dogs run off-leash and play with each other. But any group of dogs seek to establish a pecking order, or dominance rank. This is when problems can occur. Two dogs who are trying to be dominant (because they are at home) often fight. Sometimes one of them will give up quickly, but other times, the fight can be more serious. Owners often don’t know the signs of a dominance confrontation about to happen:
- Mounting – many people think this is funny or cute, but if you tolerate it, you give your approval. When your dog is the one being mounted, he may feel that you’re not going to protect him, which can affect the trust he has in you.
- Eye contact
- Standing tall, erect or moving in a stiff-legged way
- Putting the head over the back of another dog
- Taking a ball or stick away from another dog
These signs can tell you which dog in a group is vying for dominance. If the other dogs have no problem with him/her taking dominance, there can be peaceful play. If another dog wants dominance, however, there can be conflict. It usually starts with growling and snapping. It may escalate from there to full-on fighting if the owners do not intervene.
Fearful dogs who are being chased can trigger a predator instinct in a dominant dog, especially if they vocalize. If your dog has gone still, is turning his head away from the other dog, and is showing the whites of his eyes (i.e., looking around by turning his eyes rather than his head), he is very stressed and may be about to bite. Don’t be shy about stepping in and giving a sharp, “No!” to a dog who’s being aggressive, even if it isn’t your own dog. Dogs often respond to authoritative commands from anyone, and if the owner is not going to control her dog, you are in your rights to step in.
Other signs that a dog is fearful or stressed
- Lip licking
- Tail tucking
- Shaking off, like they do when they’re wet
- Standing with one foreleg off the ground
- Looking away
- Whale eye (showing whites of the eyes)
What should you do if you notice a situation developing but it isn’t fighting yet? Remove your dog. Call her to you and play elsewhere, or leave the park and come back another time. If she won’t come to you, go get her with calm confidence and quietly take her away. If your voice becomes anxious, she may begin to protect you from the other dogs, which may escalate the situation.
One effective way to split up dogs who are fighting is for one person to grab each fighter by the back legs, like you would in a wheelbarrow race. If it’s not your dog, don’t let go of those legs until the dog’s owner comes to put a leash on the dog. You can do this if your dog is attacked by an off-leash dog around the neighborhood, too. If there’s no one else around, just grab the offender; the victim will likely move away once the aggressor is disabled.