Navigating the waters of off leash dog play can range from being easy breezy to socially awkward or embarrassing depending on your relationship with your dog.
Relationship with your dog, wha?
Yep, your relationship with your dog can in many cases influence their behavior off leash. Do you set any boundaries? Do you have clear communication or consequences (times outs or leaving the park)? How do they enter a place like a dog park- like a freight train or tail tucked having to be coaxed inside the holding area?
Dog parks have often sparked controversy. They are mostly great for very tolerant dogs, afterall, it's a never ending cocktail party, sometimes with very limited space. If the drinks aren't great, and the dogs at the party aren't your dog's cup of tea, that's fine, hit the road.
If you find yourself with a wall flower or a dog that appears to prefer the human social scene, that's okay. Scan the dog to see if the DOG is having fun or if they appear stressed. Common stress signals include: more than normal panting, pacing, sniffing the ground or body language that appears "shut down"- tail tucked, ears plastered, body hunched. No number of Cosmos is going to work with this dog, perhaps find some size appropriate play mates and an meet up at off peak times at the park.
If on the other hand, you find you have the rowdy rover at the park, that's tenderizing Bichons or "he's just trying to play", the crux of the problem is that if it doens't look relaxed- it ain't. Or, if your dog doesn't read cut off signals from other dogs (head turning, sniffing, avoidance) and still is coming at them to "play", that's when human intervention IS needed.
Really, is his just trying to play? Don't think so. Mom? Dad? Where are you?
In an ideal canine-human relationship, dogs will look to their owners to determine how to react. If you feel like you have "no signal", connection or little control with your dog, I'd take a step back and look at what you can to do cultivate a connection.
If you abide by the "let them work it out" mentality, that can work, but it depends on the other owner's idea about what's play and what's "aggressive". Trust me, it can get very sticky before your dog is even IN the park!
And sometimes, you have ultra sensitive dog owners that expect that your 80 lb dog should be able to play football or dance ballet with their very small dog. It's not that we don't like our small dogs folks, but just as the big boys need size appropriate play mates, so do the little guys. And not everybody at the party always picks on someone their own size! It's just as important for small dog owners to be aware that their dog could look like running prey and therefore larger dogs are practicing prey sequences- stalk, chase, muzzle tap. Just be aware and protect your own dog as well.
So back to navigating this dog eat dog world. Here are my words of advice: Be proactive; be sensitive and watch the body language of other dogs (and their owners); cut your losses and leave before you outstay your welcome; don't be afraid to have rules and boundaries. After all, clear communication can be the key to cultivating a connection.