My Dog is Very Vocal When She Plays. Should This Be Allowed?

Dog playing 11


Dear Don,

I wanted to ask a quick question about my dogs and their training/behavior. I allow my three dogs (all females) to romp and wrestle in a field when the weather is nice. They play really rough and grab each other’s necks, but they’re very careful and have never hurt one other or another dog.

My question is this: My one Lab (my older female, Harley) plays pretty vocally sometimes and it kind of scares other dog owners that are in the same park at the time. Harley isn’t mean in any way. She just makes lots of noises when she plays. So, should this type of play be allowed?



Let me start by saying I’ve never allowed my dogs to get excessively vocal when playing, even if the vocalizations are not accompanied by any aggressive signs whatsoever (that’s what you want to look out for in particular). Essentially, the vocal part is not a problem as long as the behavior is completely in line with what’s acceptable (as per my DVD instruction), but I realized early on that it could be a public problem. People with non-vocal dogs can easily become concerned that you’re allowing your dogs to treat one another harshly. Even if you try to explain the reality of the situation, many people remain skeptical. Especially since I’m a dog trainer, I have always wanted to make sure my dogs are a good all-round example.

Another important issue I noticed early on in my career was regarding certain people. Some clients of mine lacked an ability to accurately discern and assess various vocalizations and actions. (Perhaps they just didn’t work hard enough at listening to and applying my instruction – which was probably more so the case.) Often, what a client assumed was not a problem (e.g. just being a bit loud during playtime) was actually the opposite. The dog’s vocal outbursts were accompanied by unacceptable behaviors that the owner wasn’t recognizing. Given this, I decided it’s best to teach everyone to subdue anything that could potentially escalate or evolve into a problem, or anything that could be potentially misinterpreted.

As already mentioned, the biggest thing to look out for during playtime – and regarding vocalizations (at any time) – is aggressiveness. Aggression can range from a very short, low growl on one end of the spectrum, to an outright attack on the other end. All dog owners (no matter how emotionally stable they may consider themselves to be) need to be mindful of their own feelings getting in the way of logical assessment. Some may be tempted to dismiss something that is a sign of aggression for the sake of simply not wanting to call it aggression. Burying your head in the sand so to speak is the worst thing you can do – for your dog, your own self, your family, and all the other people your dog may interact with throughout its lifetime. Be courageous to label aggression for what it is when you see it and you’ll be much better equipped to deal with it effectively.

Also beware of any skulky, jealous kind of behavior during playtime with groups of dogs. This also needs to be immediately corrected as soon as it emerges. If not, it can quickly escalate into aggression. When groups of dogs play together (versus one-on-one with their owners), the pack dynamics become more complicated, increasing the kinds of potential problems you need to watch out for. Not that I would want this to discourage people from maximizing their dogs’ social time and play rewards for these are key aspects of my Nature-Based Discipline, Praise & Play Method. Rather, you just need to err on the side of caution and never let your guard down. After all, that’s what a good leader always does.

– Don Sullivan, “The DogFather”

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