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Characters at the dog park

Credit: Sue Sternberg

These are descriptions from the book Out and About with your dog – Dog to dog interactions on the street, on the trails, and in the dog park by Sue Sternberg. Sue is a highly respected trainer and assessor from the USA, who works with shelter dogs. It’s a small, readable book and I highly recommend it. It’s extremely interesting and valuable for learning!


1. The Puppy

2. The Small Dogs

3. The Play Police Officer

4. The Pest

5. The Misfit

6. The Hunter-Seeker.

7. The Grouch

8. The Bully

9. The Chaser

10. The Humper

11. The Kick-me dog

12. The Smoosher

13. The Pummeler

1.The Puppy

For puppies 6 months and less, special care is needed to build healthy play skills and develop a buffer for bad experiences. Puppies with few positive experiences are likely to remember a bad experience and be permanently affected.While puppies are born with some temperament qualities, socialisation can greatly increase the odds of raising a pup that matures into a dog with good dog skills.

However, there are pups that despite many good experiences grow up not getting on well with others and some even become aggressive.This isn’t the worst behavior or temperament problem to have. A dog can skip going to the dog park and be exercised differently. All a good dog has to be able to do is ignore others on leash. It never has to stop and greet them. This can be avoided.

Compatible playmates: a mix of other pups of the same age that play in a similar way, or experienced adult dogs that give clear signals for when it’s time to start or stop playing and can communicate effectively and instantly when the pup is intrusive, invasive, inappropriate or too bold.

A pup shouldn’t just play with other pups; it needs experience with benevolent adults that set clear limits.

Risky playmates: bullies, physically pushy or invasive players that ignore signals to stop. Protect pups from intimidation whether it is physical or emotional from subtly aggressive play partners. Also risky are very compatible pups, and owners who don’t frequently interrupt play to reward attention to humans.

Too much play is as risky as inappropriate play for pups. Pups that enjoy play and see the sight of another dog as a signal to play, grow into adolescents who are out of control at the sight of another dog. This can lead to frustration and on leash aggression.

 2. The Small Dogs

Any dog weighing 20 pounds or less, excluding most terriers.Small dogs are at greater risk of harm from larger dogs. Since healthy play relies on respect for air space and physical boundaries, size differences can make play at best defensive for small dogs and at worst predatory where the dog’s life is at stake.

Compatible playmates: similar sized dogs. Some large dogs will lie down and modify their play, toning down their size and intensity for a small dog. They are excellent playmates. Always supervise play between small and large dogs. Do NOT get complacent.Often a fearful, sensitive, agile dog can be a good playmate for a playful toy dog since the fearful dog skirts away from physical contact and having a small confident companion to feel comfortable around can benefit both dogs.

Risky playmates: any dogs that are physically capable of harming the small dog. This includes muscular, athletic dogs even a few pounds larger. Small terriers with predatory instincts are risky for toy dogs. Care and proactive supervision is needed when toy dogs play with anything other than toy dogs.


3. The Play Police Officer

In almost any play group there is a dog that patrols, cutting in and cutting off play he/she deems illegal. Play police officers may respond to different types of play. Often stops rough play or play quickly rising in intensity. PPO is often an opinionated, older dog, intolerant of fast moving play. Sometimes can be a party pooper and may not be the most suitable dog for a group.

Compatible playmates: seldom actually wants to play, so compatible dogs are probably dogs which aren’t playing.

Risky playmates: dogs doing anything that set off the PPO. Some dogs may not appreciate being interrupted and may fight.If there are no humans supervising, the PPO is better than no supervision at all.

 4. The Pest

Often gregarious and persistent. Mingles and relentlessly tries to engage others. Pest doesn’t necessarily want to play and may seem quite unperturbed if he/she annoys other dogs so they growl, snarl or chase. Thrives on any interaction. Pest is sometimes out of control around other dogs and may get more and more wound up the closer he/ she gets to the dog park.

Owners of pests don’t usually realise they have one.Pests need to be controlled and closely watched. No unsupervised play with any dog. At its worst, uninterrupted play can cause the pest to become aggressive because there is a fine line between high intensity play and fighting.

Compatible playmates: insensitive, rowdy players. Tolerant dogs just encourage the pest to persist more. Doesn’t usually develop into true monster, but not the type of behaviour that should be encouraged.

Risky playmates: those likely to respond aggressively or those that are very tolerant or cannot defend themselves.


5. The Misfit

Not a dog that is skilled at or enjoys playing with other dogs. May be undersocialised or just uncomfortable around other dogs. May be ignored by other dogs or ignore them. Rarely plays at the dog park. Is often an older dog that wanders about sniffing, peeing , posturing when he meets other dogs , shows hackles, has his ears forward most of the time.

Compatible playmates: doesn’t play or exercise, so best to exercise elsewhere where this dog can sniff and mark territory, but doesn’t have to meet or mix with others.

Risky playmates: may not pose much danger to other dogs, but could be at risk him/ herself, if postures at the wrong dog. Sometimes provokes tension with tense posture and lack of play signals and may not back down from fights.


6. The Hunter-Seeker

Chooses one dog to pursue. Selects one dog to follow around consistently. May not follow through and ‘do anything’ but will stare at, follow and chase the chosen dog. May occasionally poke at, jab with the nose, mount or place chin over chosen target.Even though no serious incident has ever occurred, this can develop into something dangerous. It has all the elements of a high risk interaction; relentless, obsessive, predatory, hard to interrupt.Whether your dog is the hunter or the target, this behaviour needs to be interrupted. Remove the targeted dog if the other dog isn’t taken away.

Compatible playmates: any dog the hunter – seeker doesn’t pursue in this way. This may be a dog the hunter-seeker lives with. A placid, low key, much larger dog may be suitable as there is little risk of injury to either dog if the hunter-seeker does behave aggressively.

Risky playmates: Almost all dogs. This behaviour is NOT play. Even with no history of harm, the behaviour should not be permitted.


7. The Grouch

Walks slowly, exercising little. Tail is up, forehead furrowed, grumping, growling and posturing. Often minds own business, but if approached is snarky. Rarely plays. Might start a fight, especially with another grouch. Spend their time sniffing, urinating, walking, standing, bristling. May wait near the entrance and grump at dogs entering.

Compatible playmates: none really because the grouch doesn’t want to play. At best grouches are benign, at worst they intimidate and start fights. The grouches Ms Sternberg sees at parks are ‘getting by’, not enjoying themselves, not exercising usefully and not adding to any other dog’s fun. They would be best taken on solo neighbourhood walks.

Risky playmates: ‘playmate’ is an unsuitable word because these dogs don’t want to play. Most other dogs are at risk. Least risky are dogs who ignore others.

 8. The Bully (meaning bullying behaviour, not Bully breeds).

Bullies usually love to ‘play’; but their ‘playmates’ are having less fun. Bully play is relentless and very physical. Uses size, strength and persistence to overcome playmates. One sided play. Because they look like they’re playing and having fun (which they are), owners tend not to acknowledge how unpleasant their dog’s behaviour can be.Owners of bullies should call their dog to break off play regularly. See if the other dog wants to come back to play. If not, game over.

Compatible playmates: strong dog who enjoys playing defensively, is agile and can move out of the way.

Risky playmates: almost all other dogs.


9. The Chaser

Loves to chase other dogs or be chased. Quite common play style. Some dogs try to get other dogs to chase them, while others only want to do the chasing. Some will do both.Best played with only a couple of dogs. Other dogs often want to join in and this can ignite into a mob attack. Chase can go over the top quickly, into a group of wild uncontrollable beasts and all the yelling in the world won’t be heard.

Compatible playmates: dogs who like to be chased, and are similar in size, weight, and how much they invade each other’s space.

Risky playmates: dogs who don’t like to be chased. Look for a tucked tail and being unable to take breaks because of the other dog’s behaviour e.g shoving , leaping on etc.


10. The Humper

May be either gender, neutered or not. The humper just loves to mount other dogs.

Compatible playmates: Dogs that don’t mind being ridden. However the owner should interrupt the humping as it seems to increase in frequency and intensity, the more the dog is allowed to practise it. Dogs which discipline the humper are also suitable as long as the humper accepts this and doesn’t retaliate.

Risky playmates: Dogs which get anxious, upset or aggressive when humped. The riskiest playmates may not be aggressive, but are miserable when relentlessly humped.


11. The Kick-me dog

This is the dog that others harass even though it doesn’t seem to do anything to invite harassment. Sue guesses these dogs give mixed or antagonising signals without necessarily being aware of them.

Compatible playmates: Most of these dogs will be picked on at the start of a session, so any dog that is already playing nicely with the Kick-me dog is compatible. If the dog is usually attacked in the middle of a session, avoid play with unknown dogs. Let him play with safe, familiar friends. Avoid dog parks, so the dog knows he is safe with you.

Risky playmates: any much larger, stronger dog and any dog that targets the Kick-me dog immediately. Any dog that sometimes doesn’t like other dogs will probably not like the Kick-me dog.

 12. The Smoosher

Usually a larger dog that plays with his front end. Often mashes his/her chest into another or swats with front paws, pushing into other dog’s space. Often rolls on to another dog when wrestling.

Compatible playmates: hardy small or medium lithe, athletic dogs who can get out of the way and enjoy the challenges of staying out of the way. Other smooshers, or physically strong dogs that move slowly and don’t mind hard physical contact.

Risky playmates: fragile or toy dogs. Any dogs that are sensitive to body contact and might react defensively.

 13. The Pummeler

Physically invasive, relentless player. Keeps playmates on the defensive. Often uses front paws to swipe or lead the rest of body to rear up and go at others. Needs close supervision and frequent interruption to rest, pay attention to humans and lower arousal. . Should not play at all unless owners can call him/her off and retain his/her attention for at least 30 seconds.

Compatible playmates: the pummeler rides the line between play and aggression. Needs hardy, experienced partners; confident dogs with physical substance and athleticism to match; dogs which enjoy being chased or being on the defensive; other pummelers.

Risky playmates: dogs which arouse, frighten or freak out easily. If the pummeler starts a game of chase call him off quickly. Fragile dogs are at risk. Dogs with protruding eyes can be at risk of scratches to the eyes.


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